World War Z is about as far removed from George Romero’s 1968 classic that started it all Night of the Living Dead as the iPhone is from Zach Morris’ cell phone. As in the latter example, this is not a bad thing. If the question was, “How many CG zombies does $190 million buy you?” the answer, it turns out, is “A lot.” Luckily, there’s a solid plot and some excellent character development to back it all up.
Based on the Max Brooks 2006 New York Times Bestseller by the same name, World War Z follows former UN field employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film) as he races to find a cure for a world being overtaken by zombies. Up until now, most zombie movies put a microscope on a zombie apocalypse, with a handful of characters trying to make sense of the chaos, hearing rumors from passing survivors that there’s a safe zone in California or Paris or Miami. This film gives us the full picture. Since Gerry’s former position in the UN makes him the perfect candidate to assist what remains of the world’s governments in trying to combat the zombie infestation, he and his family (his wife and his two young daughters, along with a boy who helped give them shelter early in their escape) are given refuge on a Naval ship hundreds of miles off the coast of the Eastern Seaboard. In exchange for their safety, Gerry must go on a mission to help find a way to end the invasion. While there, we see quite plainly that there is no safe zone in California or Paris or Miami or anywhere else on the planet.
Amidst the aforementioned deluge of CG zombies, there’s a ton of character development. Aside from an occasionally clunky expository piece of dialogue, the script gives us an incredible amount of information regarding Gerry, his past, his family, and what kind of a person he is. An example can be seen when, while attempting an escape on an apartment rooftop in Newark, he believes that he may have been bitten. He rushes to the ledge of the apartment and stands, counting to twelve (the number of seconds it takes to turn from human to zombie, as planted perfectly a few scenes prior), ready to die before he takes anyone else with him. Characters are what they are based on their actions, not unrealistic self-describing dialogue, as any Screenwriting 101 books will tell you, and the actions that Gerry takes throughout the film give us a protagonist worth watching.
Speaking of which, Brad Pitt just keeps getting better with age. Brad Pitt is arguably the biggest movie star in Hollywood today, in one of the biggest Hollywood couples in the past century, and it is hard to see him as anything other than Brad Pitt. That is, of course, until he steps out of the tabloids and onto a movie screen. He does a remarkable job (not just in this film, but as of late) of playing relatable, everyman characters that allow us to suspend disbelief for two hours and believe that Brad Pitt is, in fact, somebody other than Brad Pitt. He is grounded and approachable, and you never doubt for a second that he is being completely genuine in the skin of Gerry Lane. Granted, the characters that he’s been playing are usually of some societal importance (General Manager of the Oakland A’s in Moneyball, a Special Service Lieutenant in Inglourious Basterds, and now a former UN Employee), but I’d just as quickly believe him as a construction worker or a gym teacher. If he keeps picking roles as wisely as he has been, it will be a shock if he doesn’t pick up an Oscar in the next five years or so.
With all of this praise, there are still a few negative aspects of the film. While the zombies are truly a site to behold, there are some shots that make it pretty clear that they originated on a computer screen. This fact is not so distracting that it takes us completely out of the movie, but it did make me yearn, at least for a second, for the Zach Morris cell phone zombies of decades past. However, there are some incredible shots that would not have been possible without this, including one with what seems like thousands of zombies climbing each other up the side of a hundred foot wall in Israel, so it is easily forgivable. Along with this is an ending with some fantastic elements, but kind of just tapers out when all is said and done (as the stories have come out that the ending was reshot for $20 million, this is no real surprise). The movie still works, and the less-than-climactic finale is not the end of the world. Pun intended.
Even if the violence and subject matter might be too much for some, this is still near the very top of the blockbusters to come out this summer. There’s great action, Brad Pitt at the top of his game (not to mention a fantastic supporting cast), and a surprisingly nuanced script that keeps you guessing until the last few scenes. It has everything you’d expect from the trailer, and a whole lot more. If you want a fun summer action movie with the most ferocious zombies you’ve ever seen, then World War Z will do quite nicely.
Movie Review by Mike Danner