World War Z
Welcome to the age of the cinematic mashup, where a committee of screenwriters jams together elements of past movies into a Frankenstein-like digital effects-laden extravaganza. In Mark Forster’s middling zombie flick, see if you can name-check the influences: Right off the bat there’s a credit sequence that plays like a slower, more somber version of Zack Snyder’s Johnny Cash-driven intro to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Then we’re in Contagion territory as a zombie infection sweeps across the globe and U.N. emergency agent Brad Pitt is recruited to help find the root cause of the plague. But this isn’t Grandpa George Romero’s shuffling take on the undead, but rather 28 Days Later’s fast-moving horror show, where a single bite turns you into a flesh-craving monster in 12 seconds flat.
It’s not that Max Brooks’ source novel, World War Z, didn’t have an ambitiously serviceable take on the zombie apocalypse. It’s that it might take some real narrative chops to pull it off. Why bother with a narrative tapestry that offers a Studs Terkel approach to a global undead infection when you can simply send your A-lister globetrotting, à la James Bond, from one CGI fest to the next? Ironically, the movie’s $200 million approach spins the entire reason low-budget zombie flicks exist on its head.
World War Z’s first 30 minutes are impressively frantic. The zombie epidemic spreads like wildfire through Philadelphia, then the world. Forster stages the chaos and carnage with mounting urgency and terror, putting the audience in the center of a horrifying catastrophe. Swarms of teeth-gnashing zombies overrun urban landscapes and descend like hungry ants upon their fleeing victims.
After its pedal-to-the-metal opening, however, WWZ settles into a narrative rut. Pitt crisscrosses the planet in search of the outbreak’s origins and a possible cure as his underdeveloped family waits aboard an aircraft carrier. South Korea, India, Israel and Cardiff set the stage for some tense action vignettes, but have little dramatic connection to one another. Each location becomes an opportunity to indulge in another archetypical zombie scenario before jetting off to the next – it’s like a masterfully recorded “best of” album that only plays the radio edits. A midair attack aboard an airliner could have been an instance of show-stopping terror, but is forced through its paces at such a breakneck pace that the full force of its horror never truly hits home.
Brad Pitt’s character is little more than a good-hearted tough guy. The story never tests his emotions or loyalties; instead he’s a blank action hero on a mission to save humanity. The same can be said about the rainbow coalition of supporting actors who assist him on his quest.
As Forster rounds the bend into his final act, the movie downshifts into a suspenseful quest to retrieve vials of pathogens from a zombie-infested laboratory. The focus is welcome. Pitt is part of a trio who must sneak past the inattentive undead. The sequence, staged like a heist, isn’t particularly standout in its execution, but at least it’s a change from the hysterical bombast of the movie’s first two-thirds. Once Pitt’s goals are achieved, the movie doesn’t so much conclude as lose power. A quickly sketched montage backed by an uninspired voice-over narration gives way to an incredibly awkward freeze frame. It’s here that WWZ’s reported story problems and reshoots are most evident. If this ending is the best writer Damon Lindelof and company could come up with, it’s hard to believe the movie will spawn any sequels. Then again, we are talking zombies here.
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