Let’s get this out of the way first: World War Z, directed by Marc Forster and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, is not the zombie apocalypse-level disaster that production stories like this have suggested it would be. What a relief.
That said, World War Z is far from a great movie. In fact, it falls into a perilous middle ground of adequacy and competency. On one hand, the movie’s action sequences, particularly in the second half, are appropriately tense and well-choreographed, and the story is surprisingly coherent for a movie with so many mid-production rewrites. On the other hand, the characters are so shoddily developed that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for anyone, and the zombies never achieve the level of menace that they ought to given the global nature of the onscreen disaster. The result is a consistently entertaining but empty blockbuster. Hardly earthshattering.
Keep reading for more of my spoiler-free review. (Spoiler alert: zombies ahoy!)
Maybe the problem is Brad Pitt. He’s a fine actor and does reasonably well with what he’s given, but he doesn’t elevate the material or inject any wit or new life into the proceedings. He plays Gerry, a United Nations employee who has devoted his life to taking care of his family, which includes docile wife Karin and two daughters, Constance and Rachel. The script commits too heavily to the idea of Gerry as a family man – we never get a sense that Gerry is anything other than a saint. He always remembers to call Karin as soon as he gets a chance, and he’s always willing to sacrifice his own immediate safety for the good of others. There’s nothing inherently wrong with likability, but unflappable decency is the enemy of drama. The conflicts in this movie are as black-and-white as newsprint: humans good, zombies bad.
A boring lead can often be redeemed by a colorful supporting cast, but World War Z doesn’t have one – or, more accurately, it doesn’t know how to use the one it has. Mireille Enos has demonstrated an impressive range on TV’s The Killing, but here she’s a stereotypically dutiful wife, and her character traits essentially end there. James Badge Dale, quickly becoming the MVP of Summer 2013, briefly threatens to inject the movie with some sparks as an American soldier in Korea, but his character disappears as quickly as he arrives. I was surprised and elated to see Peter Capaldi’s name in the opening credits, as I enjoyed him immensely as a veteran news producer on BBC’s The Hour, but he too is marginalized. And Lost star Matthew Fox shows up to pilot a helicopter for a few minutes, but I don’t think he has more than one line in the entire movie. (Fox reportedly had a much larger role in the canned version of the movie’s third act.)
Because I wasn’t invested in any of the characters beyond my inherent sympathy for the fate of humankind, I focused on the story details and action moments, many of which I quite liked. The scripts sends Gerry from the U.S. to Korea, Israel, Wales and beyond, and the worldwide scope provides different perspectives on the zombie outbreak. Some of the scares are pretty effective, and the unusually brisk mobility of the zombies makes for a refreshing break from the slow pace of zombies past. Any large-scale apocalypse story should have a few memorable images, and World War Z has them: a quickly assembled pyramid of zombies scaling an impressively constructed wall in Israel, a plane crash that bears striking similarities to Lost, and a cohort of walkers (to borrow terminology from AMC’s The Walking Dead) barreling towards a fallen soda can.
By far the movie’s best sequence, though, is the one that almost didn’t happen. As I mentioned above, the studio had major issues with the original final act, so Damon Lindelof (co-creator of Lost, screenwriter of the Star Trek reboots and Prometheus) came in to provide an entirely new climax. He does a bang-up job; the slow trek through the World Health Organization provides the movie with a visceral suspense that a larger, more chaotic climax would have lacked. Director Marc Forster capably handles this sequence, which has a certain inescapable video-game logic but nonetheless delivers the necessary thrill. This year’s big summer action movies have largely built toward enormous world-smashing climaxes, and World War Z could have easily gone down that road as well. Lindelof deserves points for taking the movie in a different direction.
My biggest problem with World War Z, I guess, is that it doesn’t distinguish itself from other action movies, zombie movies, male action hero movies or summer movies. The PG-13 rating prevents the movie from showing us the true impact of the zombie outbreak, and the zombies themselves are entertaining but hardly revolutionary in design. Maybe I’m just zombie-d out, but I have little enthusiasm for even the parts of this movie that I enjoyed. There are far worse ways to spend a few hours of your summer, but there are far better ones as well.
One more quality to this movie’s credit, though: characters utter the word zombie early and often, as they should. Other zombie movies and TV shows lately have tried to be cute with alternative names for the flesh-eating undead. No. They are zombies. Period.