Film Review: ‘World War Z’

For all its negative pre-release publicity, this is a surprisingly smart, gripping and imaginative addition to the zombie-movie canon.

Rising from an early grave of negative pre-release publicity, director Marc Forster and producer-star Brad Pitt’s much-maligned “World War Z” emerges as a surprisingly smart, gripping and imaginative addition to the zombie-movie canon, owing as much to scientific disaster movies like “The China Syndrome” and “Contagion” as it does to undead ur-texts like the collected works of George Romero. Showing few visible signs of the massive rewrites, reshoots and other post-production patchwork that delayed its release from December 2012, this sleekly crafted, often nail-biting tale of global zombiepocalypse clicks on both visceral and emotional levels, resulting in an unusually serious-minded summer entertainment whose ideal audience might be described as comicbook fanboys who also listen to “Democracy Now.” Opening a week apart from the more four-quadrant-friendly “Man of Steel” in most markets, “World War Z” should post solid enough numbers at home and abroad, but with a rumored final cost well north of $200 million, it’ll need more than a bit of kryptonite up its sleeve to push far into profitability.

A flexible metaphor for all manner of social, cultural and political maladies, the zombie genre has, over the decades, been employed as an analogue for everything from the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1932’s Bela Lugosi starrer “White Zombie”) to the upheaval of the Vietnam/civil rights era (“Night of the Living Dead”) and the bio-panics of the late 20th century (“28 Days Later,” “Resident Evil”). Significantly expanding the claustrophobic geography of most zombie pics, the aptly titled “World War Z” doesn’t have a particular polemical axe to grind so much as it seeks to imagine how the world’s ideologically disparate peoples and governments would respond if great masses of the populi did suddenly turn into rabid, flesh-eating beasties. In what may be taken as an affront by the America First crowd, the old U.S. of A. descends into chaos pretty early on, while the two nations best equipped for the coming onslaught turn out to be Israel and North Korea — the former by building an enormous wall, the latter by extracting the teeth of its entire population. No biting, no zombies, see?

Not that any makeshift solution lasts for long in “World War Z,” whose undead prove terrifyingly hardy and lightning-quick, sprinting into spastic action when they sense fresh meat is near and turning their victims into fellow travelers in a matter of seconds. We first seem them wreaking havoc on a downtown Philly traffic jam — a genuinely spectacular and unsettling orgy of mob panic from which world-weary ex-United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt) barely emerges with his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), two young daughters and own body fully intact. Fleeing in a stolen camper, they hightail it to Newark, where they await extraction from Gerry’s former U.N. boss, Thierry (the excellent South African actor Fana Mokoena), but not before waiting out the night in a rundown apartment building transformed by Forster into a skin-crawling succession of winding, shadowy corridors and flickering fluorescent bulbs. (The generally arresting cinematography is credited solely to Michael Bay collaborator Ben Seresin, though the pic was begun by Oscar winner Robert Richardson.)

Adapted by a small army of screenwriters from the bestselling novel by Max (son of Mel) Brooks, the pic abandons its source material’s choral “oral history” structure to hone in on the Lanes, who, after once again negotiating a narrow escape, find themselves ensconced in the relative safety of an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Atlantic. At this de facto command center for what remains of the U.S. military, Thierry wastes no time in giving Gerry an ultimatum: Go back into the war zone on the U.N.’s behalf, or else be sent right back to zombie-infested Philly with his family in tow. And from there, “World War Z” hopscotches the globe, as Gerry (in the company of various military escorts) searches for the proverbial “patient zero” and the possibility of a cure.

PHOTOS: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Attend ‘World War Z’ Premiere

Something the writers and Forster have cribbed well from the Romero playbook: They waste little time with scene-setting niceties, plunging us straight into the thick of zombie mayhem, and, Pitt notwithstanding, they don’t afford anyone star treatment. Characters who initially seem poised to become significant supporting players — among them Army Rangers James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox and rogue CIA operative David Morse — prove expendable, either by becoming food for the encroaching zombie horde, or simply by virtue of the pic moving on to another locale: first a ghostly military base in South Korea that might be the source of the outbreak; then to Israel, where a senior Mossad agent (well played by Dutch filmmaker Ludi Boeken) may hold some additional clues; and finally a WHO research lab in Wales, where — in the pic’s most elegantly crafted setpiece — Gerry and a handful of uninfected scientists enter into a careful cat-and-mouse game with the otherwise zombified staff.

Considering the incoherent shambles he made out of his James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace,” Forster handles the large-scale action here with considerable aplomb and much striking imagery, enhanced by the seamless mix of choreography, prosthetics and CG that bring the herking, jerking zombies to “life.” That these zombies have particularly sensitive hearing allows Forster and his sound designers a field day with creaking doors, broken glass crunching underfoot, and in one especially tense moment, a soda can rolling across a cafeteria floor. Moreover, the director always keeps the movie rooted in a compelling dramatic situation, with Pitt giving a very appealing turn as the seen-it-all veteran of the world’s worst places whose desire to protect his family trumps his desire to save the world. By today’s standards, he’s a refreshingly human-scaled movie hero, with no outsized strength, agility or superpowers to help him win the day.

Despite having little screen time and even less dialogue, the marvelous Enos manages to suggest a full range of wifely and motherly emotions through the subtlest of glances and smiles that mask her pain. Israeli-born newcomer Daniella Kertesz also makes a strong impression as the soldier who accompanies Gerry on the last leg of his journey, including a harrowing Jerusalem-Cardiff flight with some most unfriendly passengers in coach.

Film Review: 'World War Z'

Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, June 3, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release presented with Skydance Prods. in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films of a Plan B Entertainment/2Dux2 production. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ian Bryce. Executive producers, Marc Forster, Brad Simpson, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake, Graham King, Tim Headington.  

Crew

Directed by Marc Forster. Screenplay, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof; story, Carnahan, J. Michael Starczynski, based on the novel by Max Brooks. Camera (Deluxe color, Arri Alexa digital, widescreen), Ben Seresin; editors, Roger Barton, Matt Chesse; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Nigel Phelps; supervising art director, Jon Billington; senior art directors, Alan Gilmore, Julian Ashby; art directors, Ben Collins, Matthew Gray, James Foster; set decorator, Jennifer Williams; costume designer, Mayes C. Rubio; sound (Datasat/Dolby Surround 7.1), Stuart Wilson; supervising sound editors, Nigel Stone, Ethan Van Der Ryn; re-recording mixers, Anna Behlmer, Lora Hirschberg; visual effects producer, Robin Saxen; visual effects, MPC, Cinesite, Industrial Light & Magic, Lola VFX; assistant director, Toby Hefferman; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Simon Crane; second unit camera, Igor Meglic; casting, Kate Dowd.

With

Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, James Badge Dale, Daniella Kertesz, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Abigail Hargrove, Sterling Jerins, Ludi Boeken.

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  1. GarryP says:

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  2. Jacobus says:

    A fine example of how the culture of fear has penetrated deep into our society. WWZ has given viewers a chance to justify mass slaughter on a global holocaust level. Be aware you are watching and giving your money to a piece of propaganda. When a set of people can be identified as less than human then it becomes easier to justify their mass genocide. Yes zombies are nasty, but also fictional. When the camouflage is developed zombies become able to be tolerated in society. Giving the world represented by a very American UN agent and a silhouetted duck hunter a chance to find a cure. However “others”in the worl find other solutions, ie visions of mass burning pyres of human bodies at a time in, the chronology of the film, a stasis has been reached. Now America can rise to the protection of the persecuted zombie population and justify war in the future. Sounds like a lot of mind wiping for today’s bored movie goers. If you like Doomsday Prepers this is the film for you. “Be ready for anything.”

  3. Denise says:

    I’m afraid to say that this is the worst film I have ever seen.
    More than half of the audience in the cinema I attended left after 15 minutes and the rest spent the remainder of the film in hysterics over the teeth banging, badly made up zombies.
    I thought being a Brad Pitt film, this would be something special, but sadly I was mistaken.
    I’d leave this one off of his resume if I were him.

  4. bloodyneptune says:

    Because the idea of an entire nation ripping out its peoples teeth in like 2 days is totally intelligent and believable. The book itself focuses on the socio-ecological hurdles that Israel faces with the Palestinians during the Great Denial.

    There’s also an entire chapter dedicated to the psychology of North Korea VS South, and the fact that all of North Korea’s population disappeared, thought maybe to have gone underground.

    It was far from “they built a wall, and they pulled everyones teeth out.” This is why so many people hate this movie.

  5. tf says:

    The glaring problem with Z is the cgi; the terrible “rat like scurry” atop of one another we see the human zombies do repeatedly throughout the trailer and feature. Really? Did the filmmakers watch a nature film about rats and decide to cookie-cutter it into every zombie scene? It’s terrible and a joke for a feature with a $200 mil budget. Pass.

  6. Tb says:

    I know a lot of zombie freaks, and none listen to Democracy Now. I guess that’s why you’re not into marketing

  7. RobThom says:

    “whose ideal audience might be described as comicbook fanboys who also listen to “Democracy Now.””

    Are you implying that this movie best appeals to people with the maturity of 13 year olds who are also lib zealots?

    Well if that aint smart, gripping and imaginative,
    then I must be reading variety.

  8. Dexie Varton says:

    i saw the trailers and it looks worth watching. i love the book also.

  9. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    Pulling all the teeth? We never thought of that before…

    • avietar says:

      Anybody who’s ever seen the 1948 Bob Hope comedy “The Paleface” knows where THAT came from (I hope the Koreans used laughing gas, like “Painless” Potter, but I doubt it).

  10. ‘World War Z’ Review: Brad Pitt Stars in a Surprisingly Smart, Gripping Zombie Thriller | Variety

  11. Dan Cordova says:

    Reviewer Dan Cordova of examiner.com anticipates a chance for a Chicago preview of World War Z

  12. The Kingslayer says:

    Huh this is the first positive review I’ve seen online.

  13. There is a “crowd psychology” that amounts to public opinion giving a film negative reviews before it has a chance to open; the opposite is also true in the case of MAN OF STEEL, revered well before the fact of its release. One might (ironically) imagine WORLD WAR Z as the one movie to give MOS a run for its money at the box office. All depends on that crowd psychology, of course.

    • bloodyneptune says:

      Its less “crowd psychology” and more “a ton of people who’ve read an amazing book and are watching a random zombie movie use its title.”

  14. Rick Blaine says:

    The blame for the incoherent shambles Forster made with Quantum of Solace can be laid squarely at the feet of the producers of the film. First they hire a guy with absolutely no big budget action movie experience then they give him free rein. With World War Z it looks like Pitt and the studio ran a much tighter ship. And just as well. If the film is good and a big success it will be an object lesson in how to keep a rookie on a tight leash.

  15. mroyan says:

    Home in on…is the correct expression in this case. Hone is to ‘sharpen, Home is to ‘move toward’.

  16. “Adapted by a small army of screenwriters from the bestselling novel by Max (son of Mel) Brooks, the pic abandons its source material’s choral “oral history” structure to hone in on the Lanes…”

    The expression is HOME in (like a homing pigeon), Scott.

    • Mister_Salty says:

      Check your dictionary, Sage. The expression “hone in on” is absolutely the correct one in this context.

      • No, it’s NOT (you do the checking).

        If home and hone were not near homophones, no one would EVER make the mistake of substituting the latter for the former, because the latter’s meaning simply doesn’t fit.

  17. LOL says:

    Yup, VARIETY ran the same review last year for “Men in Black III” saying the troubled shooting experience made for a surprisingly quality movie, which it didn’t.

    This movie had great script written by J. Michael Straczynski and then they (Plan B) decided to make it more of an action movie that appeals to redneck idiots…

    • mroyan says:

      Hone is incorrect as it means ‘to sharpen’ – as in the hone your skills. Home is to ‘move toward.

    • Dave Baxter says:

      “Great script written by J. Michael Straczynski” is a logical fallacy – the former cannot come from the latter.

      You may also have missed the point that WWZ struck the reviewer as taking a lot from “Contagion” and “China Syndrome”, neither of which are “action movies” and neither, likely, appealing to “redneck idiots” who definitely do not listen to “Democracy Now!” as the review pegs WWZ’s best bet for an audience. But thanks for not reading the article and sharing random pointless thoughts with the rest of us. It’s awesome when people do that.

      • LOL says:

        “Marc [Forster] wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces… If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?” J. Michael Straczynski in this month’s “Vanity Fair”.

        Take that, Dave Baxter!

      • katy says:

        Straczynski is getting credited so they have used some of his script :)

  18. LOL says:

    Yup, VARIETY ran the same review last year for “Men in Black III” saying the troubled shooting experience made for a surprisingly quality movie, which it didn’t.

    This movie had great script written by J. Michael Straczynski and then they (Plan B) decided to make it more of an action movie that appeals to redneck idiots.

  19. Rooksx says:

    Exactly why do you feel the need to litter your review with spoilers? Ridiculous.

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