[21 June 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You can almost tolerate the lack of characterization, the missing ancillary star power (apparently, with Brad Pitt in the lead, you don’t need another name actor on the marquee) or the hyperactive action sequence style of filmmaking mistake Marc Foster. But if you are World War Z, Paramount’s troubled Summer tentpole, do you really need to forget… the zombies!?!? That’s right, this overdone example of sloppy spectacle, measured out over continents without a commitment to science, logical, or legitimate storytelling, offers few examples of the walking dead. Oh sure, there are throngs of CG humanoid ‘things’ that swarm like excuses for more and more super computer processing capacity, but until the tacked on finale (reconfigured after audiences hated another last act all out Russian battle royale), there’s no real undead threat. It’s just smoke and minor macabre mirrors.
The incredibly simplistic story sees Pitt’s former UN something-or-other Gerry Lane being swept up in a worldwide zombie (?) pandemic. He is brought out of retirement by his former boss (Fana Mokoena), because, well, because he’s Brad Pitt. There’s also the promise that his family—wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and young daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins)—will be kept out of harm’s way. Lane is first paired with a Harvard educated scientist who believes a trip to Korea will help discover the source of the plague. When that fails, Lane is off to Israel. Another dead-end (and over the top action scene) leads to a plane ride, another stunt sequence, a plane crash, and a visit to a WHO center in Wales. There, Lane locates a possible answer to the growing issue of how to handle the outbreak. Sequels are then promised.
Patterned after the elephantine epics that run ramshackle over audiences ever Summer and having little or nothing in common with Max Brooks’ beloved book, World War Z is a fraud. It’s a film that can’t provide any of the elements it keeps promising while hiding its intent in Marc Foster’s flaccid cinematic style. You’d think that after the horrors of Quantum of Solace (easily one of the worst directed Bond films of the last ten years) studios would remove the man’s resume from their Roladex. Instead, the mediocrity behind The Kite Runner, Machine Gun Preacher, and Stay showcases his inability to shoot action with one shaky, poorly edited entry after another. Sure, the plane attack is interesting since the closed quarters add a nice bit of suspense-inducing claustrophobia (though the endgame is given away in the trailers), but then everything after that becomes an exercise in patience as we basically watch people whisper for 30 minutes.
Indeed, the new ending, replacing the former Soviet smackdown, involves walking quietly and trying out potential diseases (don’t ask). The illogic of what happens (you just finished contacting the US military to tell them what’s happening—how about asking for a little help?) is only equaled by what it means to the movie. We are told that when the “dead” no longer have viable hosts for their virus, they become dormant, and easier to kill. Apparently, the use of mass incineration devices or any other violent alternatives is just too rote for this monster mash-up. The battles here are handled so poorly, bereft of risk and the ebb and flow of same that it really just becomes wallpaper for future fanboy smartphones. Is it cool to see hordes of unidentifiable ‘its’ functioning via a hive mentality to scale a wall or topple a barricade. Um… maybe? Should it be the only thing a movie has to offer? No.
Indeed, when you go back and look at the evolution of the zombie film, World War Z‘s failures become even more apparent. George Romero’s take on the concept has always been underscored with some solid social commentary. None exists here. Even the most mediocre walking dead dynamic offers a clear critique of the whole “they are us” ideal. Don’t think Pitt and company even come close to covering that. When Zack Snyder introduced the idea of a the aggressive, sprinting undead in his Dawn remake, he took the idea of hope—always central to even the most routine horror film—and smashed it to smithereens. In its place he proposed an amplified sense of survival, one that World War Z avoids like a gallon of gore. Oh yes, this is a PG-13 piece of MPAA propaganda, a weak-willed work where the one thing that usually satisfies fans - blood - is left lingering on the cutting room floor.
So, where’s the fear? Where’s the sense of urgency and undeniable dread? Why is there no angst in what Lane is doing, just random “BOO!“s followed by more country hoping? World War Z could have been retitled ‘World War Why?’ with the amount of unanswered questions and insipid moves it makes and the alphabetical step backward is completely apropos considering how regressive this film is to the genre. This was supposed to be the zombie movie to end all zombie movies. Foster and company only got the last half of that sentence right. If Night of the Living Dead proved a new approach to the whole cannibal corpse dynamic, World War Z shows just how shopworn and redundant the premise has become (except for something like The Walking Dead, which is what this movie wants to be…and can’t).
Even worse, this is a global apocalypse, one which could signal the end of civilization as we know it, and yet nothing here feels that grave or grim. As the men in military garb wring their hands and make stern, concerned faces, everyone else just kind of sits around. Even the workers in the WHO facility, who apparently still come into the office every day (how is that portion of England dealing with such waves of walking bodies?) show little or no concern. Why didn’t they come up with Pitt’s plan? Why is it a layman who has to tell a scientist what to do and why did he have to show up personally to do so? None of it makes sense and frankly, it doesn’t need to. World War Z is hoping to get by on its subject matter and its style. It should be enough to earn a bountiful box office. The respect of the true horror fan? That won’t be happening any time soon.