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6/20/2013

Review: 'World War Z', Starring Brad Pitt


It's movies like World War Z that will forever fuel the debate whether it's a good idea to read the book before catching the adaptation. Max Brooks' best-selling novel was about as far away from a typical zombie story as possible, chronicling the global effects of an undead outbreak that nearly wiped out the human population. It was a brilliant piece of work, one that explored geopolitical realities framed in a completely fictional zombie war. But as it was told mostly through first-hand accounts in a documentary style, it wasn't exactly summer blockbuster material. Such was the conundrum faced by Brad Pitt and Marc Forster in developing the book for the big screen, and so a decision was made to forget pretty much everything Brooks did, and just shoot for being the biggest zombie film ever.

And go big they certainly did, as reports of drastic script rewrites, reshoots, and massive budget spill-over (it cost north of $200M) had analysts proclaiming it a disaster months in advance. In reality, World War Z isn't a disaster at all. It works as a shockingly effective horror, has moments of genuine heart, and features Pitt in the rare role of dashing hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. It's also a solid bounce back for Marc Forster, the Quantum of Solace and Machine Gun Preacher director whose career has been marred by badly-staged action.

The film bears little resemblance to Brooks' novel, with the exception of a few minor threads tossed in for cosmetic measure. Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired U.N. investigator staying in Philadelphia with his wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. After an extremely brief intro, we're thrust right into the action as the family is trapped in city traffic as the outbreak begins. It's an incredibly tense, breathless sequence as the relentless and agile zombies begin to rip through the population. Cities begin to fall within hours, and it's only a matter of time until all of humanity is wiped out.

Gerry and his family are whisked away to a U.N. outpost on a helicarrier, where he is recruited to investigate the outbreak and find a cure. While he initially declines in order to stay close to his family, their ability to stay on board is continent on his helping out, and soon he's saying a few hasty good-byes and flying off towards Israel. It's there that we see hints of what the film could have looked like if adapted faithfully, as we learn of what Israel and other countries have done to survive the outbreak, and which ones may have been more prepared than others. But mostly this is a straight forward zombie film, and it isn't long before what looks to be millions of CGI brain-eaters are spilling over the massive walls and ravaging the country. Forster choreographs the action well, even if the swarms of undead begin to look messy and fake upon closer inspection. He also shows a knack for close-quarters survival horror, in particular during a frantic escape from an infested apartment building.

While a number of characters make small, pivotal appearances, this is Pitt's show to own. While we don't learn much about Gerry because there simply isn't time, Pitt informs us on the character through his actions. We see the resolution on his face when he's forced to come out of retirement; we see him as the caring father, the reasoning detective, and he can get physical when the situation demands it. As he hits middle age, Pitt's become a more interesting actor willing to take more chances. Other than Ocean's Eleven, blockbusters have been completely out of his realm, so it's nice to see him branch out and possibly score a big pay day for once. The rest of the cast are solid in filling out under-written characters. We're given little reason to care about anyone other than Gerry, but Daniella Kertesz does a pretty good job getting us to root for her as a brave Israeli soldier.

Despite its successes, one can easily see the impact of the troubled production on the final act, an edited-to-death totally unsatisfying conclusion set inside a W.H.O. facility. It's a complete tonal misfire, that feels like it was dropped in from another movie in lieu of crafting a sensible resolution. One wonders if the army of screenwriters (four are credited, but five worked on it) basically threw in the towel after penning themselves into a no-win scenario. There's no king zombie to kill, no evil to thwart, and the big revelations are presented without a hint of drama. Steven Soderbergh faced down a similar situation with Contagion, but that film was as much about human weaknesses and triumphs as viral outbreaks. If World War Z had followed a similar model, we'd be looking at a defining film in the stagnant zombie genre, rather than just another entry.