Not the Heaven’s Gate for the zombie age that many were expecting prior to release, Brad Pitt’s pet project (star, producer, rights-owner and Herculean PR machine) was met by decent critical responses and ultimately a very respectable commercial taking. World War Z isn’t a great film by any measure, but it’s well-made, at times exciting and occasionally thoughtful, and its story I feel deserves continuation (which is now a reality thanks to the revival of production for the sequel).
Unexpectedly for a huge blockbuster that became even huger after budget-ballooning reshoots, World War Z is a straightforward and tightly structured movie, if suffering from a considerable lack of originality. The opening is a case in point: having been rendered derivative by genre pioneer 28 Days Later and particularly by the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, with the overlapping news broadcasts reporting of inexplicable outbreak of epidemic violence and the gradual building of panic in the streets as people try to flee the impending chaos, it’s the loudest as well as the least interesting part of the film. Brad Pitt’s character, a former UN investigator named Gerry Lane, spends these first 20 minutes or so fighting and narrowly escaping both the very athletic zombie horde and some hoary genre cliches with his family. Lifted out of Philadelphia by an old colleague and ensconced on an aircraft carrier, Gerry is ordered to fly around the world finding ‘bread crumbs’ that will lead to the cause of the undead plague and hopefully a cure.
World War Z is nothing like its source (and rather overrated, if I may add) novel, but it captures the same sense of global crisis and large-scale escalation. Gerry goes first to South Korea and then Israel, and the situation is unique in each region, as are the responses by the survivors. Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s multi-faceted and ensemble-led Contagion, another film dealing with a lethal worldwide epidemic, the focus is fixed very much on Gerry, give or take some highly perfunctory cutaways to his beleaguered family. This streamlines the proceedings so that most of the time the pace is fast and the action scenes don’t overstay their welcome. The Jerusalem scenes provide some standout moments, with arrestingly spacious shots of the ancient city under assault from vast crowds of the snarling undead. If the movie deserves any credit, it should be that the zombie apocalypse is finally afforded the scale often hinted at, but never really shown in full on screen. At points, however, the narrative is rushed, and a number of intriguing characters and backstories are left unexplored. David Morse, as meaty a character actor as you will find, appears for about a nanosecond as a shady CIA operative in Korea, and you feel that he probably has a tale or two to tell. Similarly, there’s a brief mention of an intercepted communication describing India’s encounter with the zombies – again, it’s a juicy scenario for further exploration, but I suppose that would have been prohibitively expensive even for this film.
At less than two hours, World War Z doesn’t have the bloat of the usual summer blockbuster, and Pitt and director Marc Foster wisely don’t try to suddenly wrap things up and force an ending within the runtime. Its denouement, while admittedly sequel-friendly, is unusually low-key and restrained. The movie is often propelled by outlandish set-pieces – the plane scene being an example – but it’s not illogical, and despite typically distracting special effects, the way Gerry’s investigation progresses is handled coherently and without bombast. I’m not saying that World War Z is notably smart and original – far from it – but it has the virtue of not being stupid, and sometimes that’s enough.