Friday, June 21, 2013

"World War Z" (2013)

Starring Brad Pitt, Mirielle Enos and James Badge Dale
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard
Directed by Marc Forster
Rated PG-13 - Zombie violence, peril, language, frightening situations
Running Time: 116 Minutes

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a former investigator for the United Nations who left his job to spend more time with his wife Karen (Mirielle Enos) and children. One day, an outbreak of an unknown virus spreads quickly across the entire world and Gerry and his family are caught in a riot in Philadelphia. Gerry witnesses a man bitten by another person, and then sees that man reanimated as some sort of flesh-eating creature in under fifteen seconds.

Escaping Philly, Gerry is contacted by his old boss Thierry Warmbrunn (Ludi Boekin) who offers Gerry's family safe passage aboard a UN vessel in exchange for his help tracking down the source of the infection. Gerry and a team of United States Navy SEALs heads to South Korea to investigate a memo dated a week earlier that may be one of the earliest mentions of the outbreak. As the world's governments crumble and the population is being turned into ravenous, bloodthirsty zombies, Gerry and his dwindling group of allies must discover the source of the outbreak and, hopefully, find a cure before it's too late...

Let me get this right out of the way: I haven't read Max Brooks' "World War Z" novel, so I can't comment on this film as an adaptation of it. From what I understand, very little of Brooks' novel made it onto the screen. The book is, apparently, more a collection of articles, interviews and journal entries written after the titular "World War Z" about the history of the conflict. The film is very much an as-it-happens story, following one man in his globe-trotting quest for the truth.

So if you go into this movie expecting it to be like the book, forget about it. Don't even bother. Maybe there are some references or themes that were present, but again, I'm not in any position to comment on them, so I won't.

That said, how does the film version of "World War Z" fare? Not too bad, actually, even if it is a bit of a mess. It's major problem stems from the fact that, famously, the back third of the film had to be reconceived and reshot at great expense. I'm not sure what the original ending of this movie was like, but the filmmakers apparently felt it didn't work. What they did here does work, but the problem is that it feels almost like an entirely different movie.

One of the smarter decisions the film makes is in how it approaches the material. Let's face it, zombies have been around a long time and have been mined pretty well by TV and film all over the world. "World War Z" decides that instead of going for the straight horror that most zombie films take, it's going to approach the concept from the angle of a mystery/thriller. It's a great decision, and it helps "World War Z" stand apart... that is, until it gets to the third act and it falls back on familiar zombie film tropes that it had tried so hard to avoid in the first half.

And that first half is kind of a doozy. The film sets up Gerry as a rather believable everyman. He's not an action hero, but he is intelligent, and a quick-thinker. He makes decisions in a snap, and isn't afraid to quickly test a theory (especially in regards to exposure and gestation time of the virus). This allows him to do some interesting things, simple things that audiences watching zombie movies and shows have pondered for years. Pitt gives a solid performance, though it's nothing that's going to win him any awards. He has believable chemistry with those around him, and especially the actresses playing his family. There's a genuine sense of love and concern between them, even if their interaction grows limited over the course of the film.

Gerry is the character we follow all over the world in this film. What this means though is that there are few other characters who last long enough to make an impression. A team of soldiers sacrifices themselves to get him out of Korea, but since we barely knew their names, they feel like cannon fodder. An Israeli intelligence agent in Jerusalem also exists only to impart exposition on Gerry, and then is quickly disposed of as the film rockets into another blistering action sequence. This is part of why "World War Z" feels so fleeting, as Gerry continually moves on to new situations and characters to meet.

As a summer blockbuster, though, "World War Z" provides plenty of well-crafted action sequences and it is bolstered by a script that has some intriguing ideas behind it. All is not lost. The zombies here are essentially an unstoppable swarm, but the twist that Gerry uncovers later in the film is a good idea and again helps set the film apart. For most of the movie, the zombies are a computer-generated mass of raging bodies. We don't get a good look at one until well over an hour in, and the film's take on zombie behavior is a lot of fun.

Another part of the problem is the film's PG-13 rating. For a movie about flesh-eating hordes running roughshod over humanity... there's no blood in the movie. Gerry survives a plane crash with little more than a scratch on his cheek. A piece of shrapnel through the gut produces a slight red stain on the shirt. Zombie bites are totally bloodless. Even zombie kills are without red. In one scene, Gerry impales a crowbar through a zombie's head and then struggles to remove the crowbar, but we see none of it except the strain on Gerry's face as he's trying to pull it out. So the lack of gore does occasionally rob the movie of some of its intensity and the gritty realism it seems to be striving for. That said, much of the carnage in the film is still pretty impressive, even if it lacks gallons of blood spatter.

"World War Z" is an entertaining ride. It's got a good angle on the zombie apocalypse story, solid performances from its cast and some exciting action sequences. But that third act still feels wonky and like it belongs in a different film. It's not bad, it just doesn't feel... right. It doesn't quite feel like it belongs.