WHILE BRAD PITT’S MOVIE ADAPTATION OF THE WILDLY POPULAR BOOK WORLD WAR Z IS PRETTY DISAPPOINTING AS A THRILLER, IT COULD DOUBLE AS A SOLID CURE FOR INSOMNIA
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos
Director: Marc Forster
Studio: Paramount Studios
Length: 1 HR 56 Min
You have to hand it to World War Z; it fully knows why you spent the price of admission to park your butt in that movie seat and it isn’t long before hyperactive cannibals are running across the screen, attacking anything that moves like a happy meal on legs. Adapted from the best-selling, fan favourite novel by Max Brooks (who also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide), World War Z is a big budget zombie movie told on a global scale as humanity desperately tries to survive a plague that turns people into killing machines addicted to the taste of human flesh. For many movie goers though, they may wind up trying to survive boredom, because as riveting as the premise sounds, the suspense falls flat and you might want to buy a pillow with your ticket. You could need it.
While driving his two young daughters to school in Philadelphia, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations investigator turned stay at home dad, finds himself caught in a traffic jam that seems to be choking half the city, and they’re moving nowhere fast. Then, with little warning, all hell breaks loose as Gerry, his family and everyone else held hostage by morning traffic become witnesses to (and eventually sitting ducks for) a swarm of homicidal commuters who have apparently developed a pair restless chompers. If bitten, a person turns into a zombie themselves in a matter of seconds, assuming they didn’t become the main course to begin with. And once turned into a zombie, the only thing that will slow them down is the taste of warm, living man-meat; the only thing that will stop them is a lethal shot to the head or being incinerated. Containment is impossible as the plague of undeath spreads through the population at the speed of light, turning the human race into a seething tidal wave of hungry, unstoppable lunacy. Cities are overwhelmed instantly, nations topple in a matter of hours and the entire world is plunged into a bloody dark age in a handful of days. Gerry reluctantly returns to active duty, co-operating with what remains of the powers that be for the sake of his family, searching the globe for the plague’s origin in hopes that they might discover a cure.
The audience never completely learns what Gerry did for the U.N. exactly, but it’s implied that he saw some really bad things in some really bad places, and his retirement was just as much about preserving his sanity as it was about spending time with his young family. But whatever’s on Gerry’s resume, it makes him valuable enough that the U.N. takes a personal interest in him as soon as the entrails hit the fan and he’s sort of like a post Zombie Apocalypse MacGuyver, improvising on the fly, surviving whatever’s thrown at him (which includes hungry, pissed off zombies) deducing the behaviour of the plague (which is lucky for the survivors because some of the few scientists who survive the cataclysm turn out to be fatally clumsy) and even proves capable of some pretty impressive field medicine under impossible conditions.
The zombies in World War Z aren’t like the ones you’re used to. These aren’t the plodding, shambling creatures that your grandma can outrun with her walker. And while they’re closer to the ones used in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, they’re a definite upgrade on that speedy bunch as well. This is a hyper-kinetic breed, prone to drop to all fours to help them run down their prey. They attack fortress walls and even airborne helicopters as a massive, collective organism made up of a million cells, moving at mach speed. And that’s just about the only thing World War Z has going for it.
The story unfolds fast, civilization breaks down chaos and anarchy within minutes and the main characters are off and running pretty soon. Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball, Quantum of Solace) tries to keep things moving fairly briskly, using a formula of frenetic action separated by brief intervals of story telling. When the outbreak first occurs, he uses first person, documentary style camera work to try to immerse the audience in the confused panic, but it comes off as more annoying than anything else. Fortunately, once the outbreak is established Forster abandons the hand-held camera and returns to more conventional camera work. But the plot is Z’s biggest weakness. While Forster tries to ratchet up the tension and the suspense in certain parts, you can easily count the moments of shock on one hand, as most of the movie’s Big Scare moments come off more as Big Meh moments. And the few that do come close to working resemble mild surprise more than genuine scares. Pitt is the only name of any weight in Z, as the movie spent most of it’s estimated 170 million dollar budget on special effects and stunts (although if you’re only going to have one big fish in your pond, you could do worse than Pitt). Although there are times that it looks like Pitt is wishing he was somewhere else, and you have to wonder that if in his few moments of introspection he’s actually asking himself “what am I doing in a zombie movie?” Which is kind of confusing since it was Pitt who secured the movie rights, winning a brief tug of war with another Hollywood superpower, Leonardo DiCaprio. Although kudos go out to relative newcomer Daniella Kertesz, who plays Israeli soldier Segen. In a summer where the few female leads in the big budget action flicks are restricted to subordinates and damsels in distress, Kertesz’s Segen is a tough as nails, battle hardened fighter. And while it’s true she may not survive without Gerry, Gerry sure doesn’t survive without her watching his back during the final act of the movie.
I haven’t read the book (it’s on my extensive literary to-do list), but there’s already been pushback from the novel’s fans, unhappy about the change in tone and approach to the story. Regardless, both movie and book fans alike will probably be disappointed in the film’s unsatisfying ending (there’s probably going to be about three or four different alternate endings with the Blu-Ray/DVD release). And while the visual effects are nothing to sneeze that, they’re only so much white noise, lost in a summer full of movies about super heroes, starships and giant fighting robots. The problem is, I was rarely moved to care about the characters in World War Z. Motives are never really explained (particularly with Thomas, who just reappears in the movie with little explanation) and empathy is never truly established. Even with some impressive effects and its rabid zombies on speed, World War Z comes off as tiresome. The movie could very well be a victim of it’s own mass marketing. Zombies are a staple of horror, but by keeping the content tame enough to warrant a rating beneath the dreaded “R” to reach the coveted summer audience of teenage movie goers, world War Z may very well have neutered itself. Without that restriction, it could very well have provided some genuine thrills and scary entertainment. Instead, it comes across as movie milquetoast with a hundred million dollars worth of special effects. You may want to buy a pillow with that movie ticket. You just may need it.