"World War Z" plays as if somebody watched the similar "28 Days Later" and thought, "That was a good movie, but it would be even better if it cost $200 million, there were millions of zombies, and the hero were perfect and played by Brad Pitt." Which is another way of saying that if you need proof that sometimes more can be less, here you go. Directed by Marc Forster and written by everyone in Hollywood, if rumors are to be believed (though three got credit), this adaptation of Max Brooks' oral history of a zombie apocalypse is...
Hold on. I'm sorry, before taking this thoroughly professional but mostly uninspired movie apart, let's back up for a second and look at that last phrase: "oral history of a zombie apocalypse." Those six words tell you everything this film gave up by going in a conventional direction. I've never read Brooks' book and don't have any immediate plans to, but the idea of telling this tale in a roundabout way, by having survivors of the conflagration sit there and talk to an unseen cameraperson -- perhaps against a plain black background, with or without cutaways to still photographs or "news video" -- is electrifying to consider. Such an approach might have yielded the first fresh contribution to this amazingly varied and vital horror genre, which I've obsessed over in numerous written pieces and in a video essay, since the first "Rec". The latter viewed an undead attack through the eye of a home video camera and treated the result as "found footage" -- a great post-"Blair Witch" embellishment, considering how much of horror is about what you don't see. A faithful transcription of "World War Z" might have taken fright-film minimalism even further. What better way to amplify the night-sweat-inducing hideousness of the dead attacking the living than by fixing a camera's unblinking eye on the survivors and having them talk about what happened to them -- the people and property and perhaps limbs that they lost in the struggle to survive? A friend who's heard the audiobook version of "World War Z" said it reminded her of old time radio drama: "Theater of the mind," she said.
"World War Z," in contrast, is just bloody eye and ear candy. I realize it's problematic to review a film on the basis of what it might have been, but when that same film substitutes a vision that's vastly less intriguing and original than the one offered by its source, it's a fair tactic. What's onscreen here is just another zombie picture, only gigantic, and it's not too scary until you get to the end. Ironically, what makes the movie's final sequence unnerving is its embrace of time-tested low-budget zombie film values: intimacy, silence, suggestion, and the strategic deployment of boredom to lull viewers into complacency and set them up for the next scare. Instead of the David Lean-on-caffeine panoramas of thousand of computer-generated zombies swarming ant-like up walls and over barricades and taking down computer-generated choppers while panicked generals watch on monitors from thousand of miles away and Forster's close-up camera wobbles and wiggles and swings all over the place to generate unearned "excitement", the drawn-out final setpiece follows three people sneaking into a building that's overrun by a few dozen sleepy and distracted flesh-snackers. And what do you know? It's pretty scary, and unintended proof that when you try to re-invent the wheel, the result doesn't carry you as far as you would have liked.
Brad Pitt plays the movie's protagonist, Gerry Lane, a former United Nations field agent who retired to spend time with his wife Karin (Mirelle Enos) and his two charming daughters. He's every other character played by Robert Redford in the 1970s and '80s: noble, brave, calm in a crisis, endlessly resourceful, kind to his spouse and children, respectful of authority but not slavishly so, independent-minded by not arrogant; a snooze.
Forster and his collaborators deserve a bit of credit for plunging us into the thick of things: the Lanes learn that society is collapsing when a seemingly ordinary urban traffic jam is jolted into surreality by an explosion, a stampede of terrified civilians and their vehicles, and a furious attack by people who've been infected by a virus that turns them into ravenous ghouls. (The film's details are fuzzy, but I think they actually are ghouls here, not just rabid and homicidal mortals, as in the "Days" pictures.) The rest of the picture is a globetrotting medical mystery that just happens to feature zombies, with Lane and various helpers, some military and others scientific, trying to figure out what sparked the disease and counter it before the undead overrun everything. It's "Contagion" or "The Andromeda Strain," but with zombies, and without a whole lot of panache.
Although Mirielle Enos' talents are wasted -- she anchors a police procedural on television, but this Hollywood movie is content to cast her as a standard-issue Dutiful Wife -- there are some dandy cameos and supporting turns. I like David Morse's one scene as a twitchy, traumatized CIA agent who knows something about the origin of the disease, and James Badge Dale as a U.S. Special Forces captain whose gung-ho competence is no match for the zombie hordes, and Daniella Kertesz as Segan, an Israeli soldier whose indefatigable spirit helps the hero save the day even after she's suffered unimaginable trauma.
But aside from Segan, a rare action film character you haven't seen a zillion times, none of the characters rise above the level of purely functional placeholder-types, and there are too many scenes that merely replicate the usual zombie film tropes without adding any new wrinkles. When a supporting character is infected and instantly "turns," I was reminded of that incredible sequence in "28 Days Later" in which Brendan Gleeson's jovial dad catches a drop of contaminated blood in his eye and wrestles with the virus while his daughter looks on. The sheer terror of losing one's soul has rarely been communicated on film so economically. Nothing in "World War Z" comes anywhere near its power.
Forster deserves credit, I suppose, for finding a way to make a usually R-rated genre PG-13 without totally softening its force. Horrendous acts of violence occur off-camera or just below the frame-line, and they don't lack for impact. And there are some shiveringly good moments near the end, particularly when the hero gets too close to a walker with snicker-snack yellowish rat-teeth. But there and elsewhere you still feel as though a genre's essence has been somehow betrayed. This is a zombie movie for people who don't normally like zombie movies. That's an accomplishment, I guess, but it strikes me as the sort one shouldn't brag about.
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