‘World War Z’ Review
The title is ‘World War Z,’ but I can think up two other letters: “O” and “K.”
‘World War Z’ is okay because it zips along with the fury of a computer-generated cascade of fast zombies. ‘World War Z’ is okay because Brad Pitt is a great leading man, even if his character has no depth. ‘World War Z’ is okay because there is always a fatalistic draw to see our social order tumble and great cities reduced to cinders.
It is also, unfortunately, merely okay because there’s nothing in this movie you haven’t seen before.
It opens well. Pitt is a full-time daddy making pancakes, but in his past he used to go to “bad places” on behalf of the UN. During a morning drive with the wife and kids through downtown Philadelphia (trip to the Liberty Bell?), the vague news reports of “outbreaks” reveal to be more serious. This is not rabies; this is a virally spread, undead chomp-fest that turns victims into predators in 10 seconds.
Chaos! But Pitt and company somehow get out of town (ah, the sweet sanctuary that is New Jersey), and that’s when we realize just how important he is. After a night in Newark, the family and a straggler they pick up are taken to an aircraft carrier where we learn the degree to which the excrement has hit the fan. (It’s an awfully big fan.)
It’s also the moment where the film raises its first major red flag. To this point everything is played very straight, and, by and large, the tone works. My existential dread at the breakdown in society had my heart beating like it hadn’t since ‘Contagion.’ But when an army general in uniform said the word “zombie” with the full force of daffy 1950s sci-fi, I got the impression that ‘World War Z’ was trying to do two things at once. Is this existential horror, or is this a romp?
This tone-split is a real problem. If taken at face value, the movie makes some boneheaded decisions. Pitt’s quixotic jaunt around the world to find facts is a tad ridiculous. Why is he the only one? Why is the home office never checking in with him? Pitt has a satellite phone, but the receiver on the other end is his wife. This is nice and all, but it should really be a hotline back to base, no?
After some big-action set pieces (none of which are bad, but none of which are awesome), Pitt and his new platonic gal pal (an Israeli soldier with cropped hair and adoring eyes) come to the big finish at a World Health Organization in Wales. Rather video game-like, Pitt and his comrades have to get a thing out of a room that is surrounded by zombies. They scamp around on the floor, not unlike Gilligan trying to steal something from Thurston Howell III without waking him up.
It’s fun, but it’s silly, and the lab doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as the ‘Resident Evil’ films.
The movie wraps up with some preposterous loose-end destroying voiceover, the only time you hear any. (Though earlier, when Pitt has his aha moment, we do hear replayed dialogue from some of the key players in the film – again somewhat reminiscent of a ‘Gilligan’s Island’ episode.) I loathed the last three minutes of the movie, exiting the theater spitting out bile. “‘World War Z’ stands for ‘World War Zucks!’” I said to anyone who would listen (meaning the people in line at the men’s room.) In time, though, I had to concede, there’s enough in the bulk of the film to mildly recommend it.
The zombies, particularly at the end in the medical lab, are pretty terrific. They make great noises and snap their jaws in frightening ways. Even the CGI swarm, like the ones that form giant undead pyramids to climb walls, are entertaining despite their ridiculous look. But ‘World War Z’ has no real villain, so it makes it hard to get worked up emotionally. It’s just generic dread that’s chasing us.
The film does its best to make you care about Pitt (he has a frightened daughter – hey, it worked for Tom Cruise in ‘War of the Worlds’!) but it is very basic stuff. Even the best scenes – like a moment of mayhem in a supermarket – follow well-worn beats. When you are comparing a moment to something in the Timothy Olyphant vehicle ‘The Crazies’ and it’s coming up about equal, that’s when you know your movie is … just okay.
‘World War Z’ is now playing in theaters.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.