With a world-sweeping plot reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s Contagion, an intense, kinetic pace tastefully interspersed with snappy dialogue, and a leading man, in Brad Pitt, up to the task of anchoring it all in the realm of suspended disbelief, World War Z may very well be the best modern zombie film yet to grace cinemas.
To say it was an arduous task to deliver the movie might be this year’s movie-related understatement, and there have been – and there still remain – many doubts as to whether or not it would all be worthwhile.
Based on the novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, penned by Max Brooks, the son of comedy filmmaking legend Mel Brooks and actress Ann Bancroft, the movie’s script went through several difficult and drastic alterations before filming wrapped in October of last year. Initially adapted in 2008 by sci-fi and comic book scribe J. Michael Straczynski, the screenplay went through a complete overhaul by Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose debut film, The Kingdom, delivered the kind of politically-infused action Paramount Studios and Pitt’s production company, Plan B, were looking for.
The studio hired Marc Forster, the helmsman behind the James Bond clunker, Quantum of Solace, the criminally under-watched Machine Gun Preacher and the powerful indie gem Monster’s Ball, to direct, and filming began. And then the budget kept growing. Production was halted an innumerable amount of times. There was that malignant business about the 85 feebly-disabled automatic weapons being seized in Hungary. The third act of the movie, a blistering action sequence that saw Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane (who, incredulously, wasn’t even a character in the source material), make an Evil Dead Ash-like transformation from everyman to world-saving action god, was deemed practically unwatchable by studio execs. Damon Lindelof, whose prior works include Lost, Prometheus and Star Trek: Into Darkness, was brought in to rework the ending.
Usually this level of productive convolution is the box office death knell of any movie, much less one with a budget purported to be around $250 million, but it is not the case with World War Z. Instead, although intended to be the springboard for a cinematic zombie franchise, it stands on its own as a smart, thrilling blockbuster filled with fantastic set pieces, intensely nerve-racking moments and a global stage that, although reined-in for the sake of maintaining a cohesive narrative, promises great future possibilities.
The zombies in the film are essentially the aggressive, frighteningly fast 28 Days Later ragers with army ant brains. Although it isn’t the first time we’ve seen zombies behave in a primitively organized fashion, nor is the first time we’ve seen them all suddenly take on the athletic ability of Usain Bolt, it is this precise combination that makes for a particularly effective twist on the – let’s face it – somewhat tired subgenre.
And speaking of the zombie genre, it’s rather refreshing when someone in World War Z finally says the comically avoided Z-word. I can’t be the only person who has sat through countless undead film fare and found it absolutely ridiculous that nobody says “zombie” when describing the rotting stumblers. When it’s said in the movie, it doesn’t just serve as a nod to the audience, a “we finally did it” kind of moment; it works as a plot point that drives the story forward.
Special effects can make or break a movie of this scale, and although there are admittedly a couple of instances where its seams show slightly, for the most part the movie succeeds in keeping things together in terms of not letting the audience see behind the curtain, so to speak. The sweeping sky shots of cities torn asunder by the outbreak are breathtaking. Among the reasons why this is the biggest movie of its kind to come along thus far is that it hasn’t been possible to do it believably yet until recently.
There is scant wasted movement in the film, and the supporting cast is superlative. Though serving primarily as emotional motivators for Pitt’s Lane, the fantastically talented and captivating Mireille Enos (whose work in AMC’s The Killing is must-watch material) and the two capable young actresses who play his daughters do well in their limited roles. The real scene-stealer, however, is Daniella Kertesz who delivers a pitch-perfect tough and complex performance as the Israeli soldier, Segen.
Great credit must be paid to Brad Pitt, who graces nearly every frame of the film’s nearly two hour running time. Though it would be very hard to argue that Gerry Lane is the most demanding role he’s ever assumed, his performance is practically flawless in grounding the movie in believable gravitas. His sense of urgency and intensity elevate what another actor (with a slightly diluted script) might have rendered schlocky bop-and-bang summer fare. Instead, we get something that progresses the genre and that is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Gorehounds fixing to satisfy their bloodlust may find themselves disappointed. Though crimson is certainly part of World War Z’s palette, it is far from a primary color, and frankly, there is enough torture porn and NSFL subreddits out there to fulfill those needs. The movie is more thriller than horror, but make no mistake about it – it’s a zombie movie through and through.
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