×

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.

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

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?

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • Oscar Contenders 1917 The Irishman Joker

    Will Oscar Voters Make History This Year or Reward Familiar Faces?

    Filmdom’s battle between the haves and have-nots moved off-screen when Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month: Four films scored 10 or more nominations, with Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” leading the pack with 11, and Sam Mendes’ World War I nail-biter “1917,” Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster tale “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s retro “Once Upon a [...]

  • BTS: Amy March (Florence Pugh) crew

    Hollywood Studios Target Sustainability as Big Production Goal

    Sony’s commitment to sustainability began as a pledge to plant a tree in the community where it shoots for each day of production. It’s a commitment to the environment that most Hollywood studios are taking very seriously, collaborating and sharing ideas on how to conduct the business of production in a sustainable way. Today, Sony [...]

  • axidermy Documentary Big Fur

    Slamdance Film Festival Continues to Elevate Emerging Talents

    For 26 years, debuting filmmakers have traversed the wintry landscape of Park City to screen their films at the Slamdance Film Festival, and this year’s crop of selections promises to showcase significant talent. Taking place January 24-30, this celebration of cinema continues to be, as co-founder and president Peter Baxter calls it, “the premiere film festival by [...]

  • Summer White

    'Summer White': Film Review

    “But the child must grow,” writes German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his seminal 1956 book “The Art of Loving,” discussing a necessary transition in the relationship between a mother and her progeny. “The very essence of motherly love is to care for the child’s growth, and that means to want the child’s separation from herself.” [...]

  • ICM Partners

    ICM Partners Promotes Six Agents to Partner Status

    ICM Partners has promoted six agents to partner status. ICM’s partner class of 2020 features four women and two men drawn from disciplines across the agency: Courtny Catzel (Non-Scripted), Di Glazer (Theater), Shade Grant (Non-Scripted), Andrea Johnson (Concerts), Craig Shapiro (Talent) and Howie Tanenbaum (TV). The promotions bring the number of partners at ICM to [...]

  • The Truffle Hunters

    'The Truffle Hunters': Film Review

    Here’s a challenge: Watch the opening moments of “The Truffle Hunters” and try not to fall hard for the immediate flavors of joy it spreads. With a breathtaking Northern Italy setting that teases the five senses like a Luca Guadagnino film (no surprise that the “Call Me by Your Name” director is an executive producer [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content