World War Z is impressively unimpressive. It's a big-budget mess that frequently plays like a cheap Chiller network quickie, right up to and including its sudden, unsatisfying, and comically open-ended conclusion. In its ambitions and themes, this globe-trotting action epic is far feebler than anyone familiar with its sweeping source material might have imagined.
Within five minutes, the film plunges from cozy domesticity into confusion, chaos, and violence. By doing so, it invites unfavorable comparisons to Steven Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds and Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake — two superior examples of horror films that also grappled with what Spielberg called "the American refugee experience." (In zombie films, subtext is all.) Brad Pitt plays a former UN operative whose family is on the ground for the beginning of the North American zombie apocalypse. With help from one of his high-level friends, Pitt's wife and daughters are eventually transported to a converted Naval destroyer. But there's a catch: Pitt's family will be safe and sound at sea as long as he agrees to fly to Korea, Israel, and Wales with what's left of the military in search of a cure for the undead epidemic.
Regrettably, World War Z has almost nothing to do with the Max Brooks novel of the same name. Brooks' "oral history of the zombie war" is not great literature; in fact, when compared to Colson Whitehead's Zone One, it's not even great zombie literature. But if more of the scope, scale, and style of Brooks' book had been brought to the screen, the movie would have had plenty of opportunities to create something special. Instead, director Marc Forster and a whole pit crew of screenwriters eschew the book's vox populi format and reframe the global zombie battle as a simple, straightforward story of one lone gunman/detective against the world. Based on his uninterested performance, co-producer Pitt seems nonplussed by these changes.
For zombie-movie connoisseurs, there are a few ingenious passages. The best set pieces have a satirical tartness to them, whether they involve a cocky scientist labeling Mother Nature a "serial killer," a cell phone ringing at precisely the wrong time, or a terrified peek behind the airplane curtain separating first-class passengers from those savages in coach.
The film's money shot, which shows zombies scaling walls by piling on top of each other like driver ants, is a provocative effect, especially since it's seldom on screen long enough to fully process. But it's an ineffectual catalyst for more sustained action or higher-stakes emotional involvement.
World War Z's many inadequacies may indicate that (for now, at least) the zombie film has finally plateaued. The novelty of speedy and ferocious ghouls has worn off. AMC's The Walking Dead is better at manufacturing rescue missions set in perilously abandoned urban areas. And Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland both found laughs at the end of the world. But that's highly unlikely; this rich, unkillable genre will rise again someday soon to take moviegoers' money and devour whatever brains we have left.
World War Z