Film Review: World War Z

This ambitious but confused rendering of Max Brooks’ sprawling novel about a worldwide zombie pandemic has good ideas but never melds them into a narrative with guts or heart.

Zombies are people, too. That’s one truth understood by the better stories in the genre, from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. At no moment in Marc Forster’s churning and unfocused World War Z are the rampaging CGI hordes of the undead made to appear like anything more than swarming bits of computer code. Many of the human actors don’t fare much better.

Problems start almost right away, when we’re introduced to Gerry (Brad Pitt) and Karin Lane (Mireille Enos), living the suburban dream outside Philadelphia with their two young girls. The Lanes have barely registered when, with no warning, their morning commute turns into a panicked escape from a zombie outbreak. The nearly instantaneous dissolving of civilization is evoked in a rushed manner that saps it of impact. Gerry’s past as a resourceful United Nations war-zone investigator helps them survive in an undead-swarmed Newark public-housing tower until a helicopter rescue can be arranged. They are whisked off to safety on an aircraft carrier where Gerry’s old UN buddy Thierry (Fana Mokoena) presents a a devil’s bargain: Go back out and investigate the reason behind the zombie infection, or we’ll force your family back to the mainland.

It’s clear that Forster and his platoon of screenwriters want to dump us into the action quickly. Gerry’s investigation takes him (somewhat unbelievably) to redoubts of embattled humanity from South Korea to Israel. At each stop, savage combat with the impossibly fast and flesh-ripping zombies follows, with frequently bad results for the uninfected. But as fascinating and subtext-redolent as some of these scenarios are initially, the filmmakers’ headlong plunge into the apocalypse is so dramatically bungled from the start that it’s hard to imagine audiences being invested in what’s happening.

Part of the issue here is Forster himself, who made such a hash of Quantum of Solace. In World War Z, action scenes are uniformly shot too close and cut too fast; its striving for immediacy just turns everything into mush. Even more of a problem, though, is the story itself. Crafting any recognizable narrative out of Brooks’ book would have been a challenge, given that it was a fictionalized oral history in the vein of Studs Terkel with no central character. That’s a hard structure to craft a $200 million 3D summer tentpole monster movie out of. So Pitt is forced to carry an Atlas-sized weight on his quite capable shoulders after being separated from Enos, who spends most of the film sitting by her satellite phone.

There are some bright spots in the stuttering story, with a casually cool James Badge Dale and superbly hammy David Morse (as, respectively, a soldier who takes pride in taking out the zombies they call “Zeke,” and a suspicious CIA operative) standing out like flares in the night during their too-brief scenes.

But there’s little any of the performers can do here against a written-by-committee screenplay that feels like it’s had a dozen or more sets of hands rummaging around in it even before the reported lengthy and expensive reshoots. It seems that nobody could decide whether to make this a popcorn thriller or something more serious, and ended up making neither. In forgoing the book’s fascinating study of geopolitics and how different societies react to the crisis, but not substituting a strong alternative story, Forster’s film ends up in anti-dramatic no-man’s-land. The almost comically pat conclusion is barely worthy of a 1950s B-movie. World War Z wraps up in a way that is both open-ended and rushed, as though the studio wanted to leave room for a sequel without promising there would be one. Like the zombies in the film, they’re just not sure this one is quite dead yet.