With Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Matthew Fox, David Morse. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof. Directed by Marc Forster. Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images. 116 minutes.
Whether you like WORLD WAR Z or not may well depend with how familiar you are with the novel by Max Brooks. Those deeply invested in the source material will likely be disappointed. Those coming in knowing nothing will find an exciting if largely unoriginal thriller in which UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) travels the world trying to find the source and possible cure for a zombie plague.
The writing credits indicate what the problem is: there were many hands involved including “Babylon 5’s” J. Michael Straczynski (and not to mention that filming of the movie commenced without a finished script). So we get sequences that echo other films from “Contagion” to “Snakes on a Plane” to just about every zombie movie you can name. That doesn’t make it boring, but it does make it a movie where–when it’s over–you may not remember having seen it.
The opening sequence is one of the best parts of the film. Gerry and his wife (Mireille Enos) and kids are enjoying a family breakfast and then driving into Philadelphia. There’s a traffic jam and, suddenly, we watch things spin wildly out of control. A communicable disease is spreading where, if one is bitten, one becomes a zombie whose only goal is to spread the disease. For zombie aficionados, we are in a world of fast zombies (think Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” or Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead”) who can leap off of buildings and then get up ready to spread the disease.
Gerry and his family manage to escape to safety but the price he has to pay is going on the mission to solve the mystery of the disease. It is a trip that will take him to South Korea, Israel, and Wales (played by locations that are primarily in Scotland and Malta). Each sequence is suspenseful, but one doesn’t get the sense of deep characterization or of anything beyond surviving the immediate peril. When Gerry and an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) are on a plane, one half-expects Samuel L. Jackson to come out and start shouting about all the motherf****** zombies on his motherf****** plane.
“World War Z” might have been a serious take on a man tackling the apocalypse, but instead it is more like an amusement park ride or video game. One gets the thrills built into each sequence before moving on to the next. (Gamers, please spare me the hate mail. I hereby acknowledge that there are some games that are better scripted than this.) Pitt is earnest enough as the hero, the various scenes of zombie attacks are effective, and if one is willing to play along, the film keeps moving.
However, given the anticipation by fans of the source material, this may have been an opportunity lost. The zombie subgenre is at its tail end, signified by the fact that it is now fodder for big screen comedies (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland”) and small screen series (“The Walking Dead”). “World War Z” might have been a game changer, injecting new life into the genre. Instead it plays it safe. It is an acceptable summer movie escape, but the implication at the end of the film that there will be a demand for a sequel may be wishful thinking.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.