Brad Pitt battles zombies AND annoyed fans of the original novel. How does the adaptation of Max Brooks' book stack up?
Directed by: Marc Forster Story by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski Screenplay by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof & Drew Goddard Based on the book by: Max Brooks
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Daniella Kertesz & Fana Mokoena
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images Running Time: 116 Minutes
Let’s just acknowledge this right off the bat – that this movie is called World War Z is kind of a joke. Ostensibly based on the Max Brooks novel of the same name, the movie bears little in common with the source material other than a couple character names and the basic idea of a worldwide zombie epidemic. I really don’t get it. I suppose maybe Brad Pitt (whose production company aggressively pursued the novel’s film rights) got a bug up his butt one day about wanting to make a zombie movie, and couldn’t resist the name recognition value of what is largely considered the best zombie book of all time. Or maybe it’s just as simple as he thought the title itself sounds really cool (to be fair, it does). Whatever the case, it is very safe to say that Pitt and his team threw away the majority of the novel and instead did their own thing with it. If you simply cannot accept this going in, then the movie will be a lost cause for you.
This version of World War Z concerns former U.N. employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who used to be some sort of crisis management expert, but is now happily adjusting to his new life as a stay-at-home husband and father. Since this is not a cozy family drama, however, things quickly take a terrible turn when what is at first believed to be an extremely severe strain of fast-spreading rabies begins sweeping the globe. Gerry, his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two young daughters are soon swept up into the chaos, when a traffic jam they are caught in, in downtown Philadelphia, is suddenly swarmed by a rapidly growing horde of 28 Days Later-esque fast zombies.
Gerry manages to get his family safely out of the chaos (while also wisely paying attention to how quickly the infection spreads), and after a perilous trek to Newark (including a a legitimately scary stop-over in a near-abandoned apartment building), they are rescued by the U.S. military and taken to a temporary sanctuary aboard an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean. Here, Gerry learns from his friend and former colleague, Thierry (Fana Mokoena) that nearly every major city across the world has already fallen to the zombies…and yes, they actually say “zombies.” This is one of the few modern zombie films that is refreshingly un-afraid of the z-word, and in fact addresses it, and all the implications that word brings.
Due to his crisis expertise, the military leaders want to recruit Gerry to go along with a young virologist to try to find where in world the plague started, in hopes of discovering “subject zero” and potentially creating a vaccine from their blood. Gerry isn’t interested, until he is given an ultimatum – help out, or his family will be kicked off the vessel. This dickhead move on the military’s part is kind of another far-cry from Brooks’ novel, where the armed forces were generally portrayed rather heroically, but it is in-line with scores of other zombie films. Let’s call it a wash.
Anyway, Lane can’t resist that “offer,” so after a sad goodbye to his family, he is off on the trek that constitutes the majority of the film’s running time – an adventure that takes him all over the globe (well, alright, pretty much just South Korea, Jerusalem, and Wales, but still…), and one fraught with constant danger and zombie attacks. Lots and lots of zombie attacks.
And here we come to my first big compliment. Eschewing the political and medical intrigue of Brooks’ novel, this movie version pretty much is just a big zombie-action blockbuster, which could have been a mistake if it didn’t adequately deliver on the necessary action. But, thankfully, the zombie attack sequences are consistently pretty awesome. Yes, there’s some shoddy CGI here and there (though fortunately the two worst images from the trailers – that of the “zombie pile” that climbs over a wall and the “zombie wave” that swarms down an alley – are the only two moments that are that aggravating), but overall the scenes are intense and exciting and – most importantly – epic on a scale that has simply never been seen in a zombie movie before now. Seriously, a few of the action scenes (including the initial Philadelphia attack and the zombie siege of the walled-off Jerusalem, which is probably the signature moment of the film) are full of the kind of large-scale, “holy shit, the world is screwed” visuals that I, as a zombie movie fan, have been waiting to see realized for a long time.
And whereas director Marc Forster’s shaky-cam action aesthetics were a detriment to a movie like Quantum of Solace, which seemed to call for a more traditional kind of action staging, it actually feels quite appropriate here. It conveys the confusion and mayhem of these chaotic attacks, while at the same time often masking the lack of blood and gore demanded by the movie’s PG-13 rating.
Oh, yeah…that. Well, I guess we have to address it, don’t we? Because, to be sure, the PG-13 rating – obviously put in place to allow for a larger box-office take – has been one of the most controversial aspects of this movie. I’d by lying if I said I myself haven’t questioned the stupidity of staging a zombie war movie without allowing for the resultant carnage to be shown in all its gory glory. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that I do still think it was a mistake, though it is nowhere near as crippling to the film as I once feared it would be. The lack of onscreen blood is at times even more distracting than traditional gore effects would have been, and there’s no doubt that it at times robs the movie of a more visceral intensity that it seems to demand. But the good news is the bulk of the film’s action gets by okay without it. There are only two sequences – one involving Pitt having to cut another character’s hand off, and one in which he struggles to remove an ax from the head of a dispatched zombie as another shambles toward him – that I think are really hurt by the PG-13 sanitizing. Other than that, it’s a clear missed opportunity (and I’d definitely love to hear they filmed gorier moments for an eventual unrated version), but overall the action plays so fast that you really aren’t given much time to bemoan the absence of gore.
Plus, while a PG-13 rating means you can’t deliver a lot of blood, it thankfully doesn’t mean the same for scares. And while I’m not saying this is the scariest zombie movie you will ever see, there are definitely a number of scenes that effectively deliver the goods. Two particular sequences – the Lane family’s trip through the aforementioned apartment building, and a later segment where Gerry and a couple other characters must quietly make their way through a series of hallways full of “dormant” zombies – are about as tension-filled as any in recent horror memory. Overall, the film supplies a pretty decent mix of small-scale scenes like these, and the more in-your-face apocalyptic chaos.
Much of the credit for the movie working as well as it does must also go to Brad Pitt. This probably goes without saying, considering he did pursue the project, but you can tell he doesn’t find the idea of appearing in a “zombie movie” to be beneath him in any way. It’s not one of his showier roles, to be sure, but he still takes it very seriously and brings a dignified presence to the role. In the moments with his family, he is quite good. No one will walk away from this declaring it to be one of their favorite Pitt performances, but it’s still nice to see the highest profile zombie movie of all time capably anchored by a committed performance from an A-list leading man.
Which is doubly good, since this is pretty much a one man show. Enos is fine as Gerry’s wife, and both David Morse and James Badge Dale do what they can with limited screen-time. But, really, the only other performance that leaves an impression is Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier who eventually becomes Gerry’s sidekick. True, this might be mostly because of the events that befall her, rather than the strength of the characterization itself, but still, Kertesz brings just enough charisma to the role that I did eventually find myself invested in her well-being. That's about as much as you can ask for in a film populated with such underwritten characters.
Another issue I would probably be remiss in not addressing is the film’s well-publicized third-act issues – namely that the original climax was deemed unsuccessful, leading to numerous re-writes and weeks of re-shoots in order to construct a new, more effective conclusion. This kind of stuff is often thought to be the kiss of death for a film. Not really knowing what the original third act consisted of, I can only say it's to the filmmaker’s credit that this final version doesn’t feel inconsistent, or like an obvious product of after-the-fact tinkering. It appears poor Matthew Fox probably got the worst of the cuts – once listed as a primary cast member, he is now literally reduced to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it delivery of one line (I expect, “wait…was that Matthew Fox,” to be repeated regularly throughout theaters this weekend). Meanwhile, a late-in-the-film subplot regarding Pitt’s family is resolved in such quick and underwhelming fashion that I am positive the rest of it must have also been part of the ditched material.
But, at the end of the day, the ending we are given - while somewhat abrupt- still works well enough. I’m guessing there will be some zombie fans who will scoff at the possible “solution” Pitt eventually discovers, but I thought it was a fairly interesting new twist (and after watching what feels like hundreds of zombies movies, I’m always up for new wrinkles in the mythology). And while the end is clear sequel-bait, and the filmmakers have said they see this as the first chapter of a potential trilogy, I actually feel this movie ends on a strong enough, satisfactory note. I can live without any follow-up.
World War Z might not be the movie the book’s fans dreamed of one day seeing, and it is a little disheartening to think that this probably means we’ll never get that version. Hell, the knowledge that I may never see a live-action realization of the Battle of Yonkers is almost enough to start making me angry at this movie all over again. But, still, I have to be honest – if taken on its own merits, this movie calling itself World War Z succeeds as big, dumb fun. Perhaps even more than being annoyed at the disregard for the book, I was really worried that the first ever true mainstream “zombie blockbuster” would be a total embarrassment to the zombie genre that I love. Instead, I walk away relieved, happy to have found a fairly well-made, thrilling and entertaining take on the genre. That’ll do, Pitt, that’ll do.
The 411: Essentially an "in name and general concept only" adaptation, the cinematic version of World War Z won't please any aficionados of the original novel looking for a straight translation. However, if one can get past the disservice to the source material and take the film on its own merits (as well as forgive the at-times frustrating limitations of the PG-13 rating), they will find a surprisingly effective and gripping action movie. Filled with epic scenes of zombie destruction - on a scale never before seen onscreen - and a solid performance from Brad Pitt, World War Z is one of the year's most pleasant surprises.