Just to put it out there right now, I’ve never read Max Brooks’ World War Z book. From what little I understand about it, it deliberately lacks a core protagonist and is more focused on the broader implications involving the breakdown of civilization in the face of a zombie pandemic. The book is riddled with political subtext and social commentary about human short-sightedness, greed, bureaucracy, historic grudge-bearing, and fear in the face of the uncertain. However, those who have read the book should understand right from the start that World War Z the film has barely anything to do with the book. In fact, it’s almost anathema to its premise.
To start, Gerry Lane is enjoying his new duties as a middle class homemaker dad after early retirement from his former career as the U.N.’s coolest person and is driving his wife and kids to school when all hell breaks loose in Philadelphia and he’s forced to get his family out of the city. After narrowly escaping the attack, he and his family are given shelter on an aircraft carrier where the U.N.’s undersecretary then commissions him to resume his old job and investigate the source of this outbreak and find a cure. So begins Gerry’s excellent adventure that takes him to South Korea, Israel, and other places.
This is the movie’s first problem. Gerry isn’t much of a character and there are very few scriptural moments in the film that attempt to make him one. He’s likable, thanks to Brad Pitt, but he has very little backstory and we’re not even really sure how he’s seemingly so equipped for such a task. His specialty when working for the U.N. (that’s another problem – are we really to believe that the U.N. is capable of containing and/or fixing a global virus of such epic proportions? I doubt Max Brooks would…) was crisis management but that’s all we really are made to understand. This isn’t a crippling problem in this film per-se, but the mission he undertakes at the beginning of Act 2, is rather clumsily structured to give Gerry the spotlight – the would-be more appropriate scientist that might be able to find a cure is given a paragraph of dialogue and then hilariously killed before the mission even starts.
Further in line with that clumsy structuring of Gerry’s assignment is the mystifying inclusion of a renegade CIA agent for two minutes of dialogue about how North Korea is handling its own crisis just fine because that agent gave them the weapons, which is why the guy is in a cell. If I had to guess, it was an allusion to something in the book but the film could easily lose it.
On that note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that World War Z had its own version of development hell. After not securing the leads the producers wanted due to scheduling conflicts, Brad Pitt ostensibly opted to just take it upon himself to play Gerry – something Max Brooks was supportive of. The film was shot, reshot, and the entire 3rd act which takes place at a World Health Organization clinic was rewritten by Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof with a new ending that needed additional shooting time. The script as a whole, written mostly by State of Play writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, was drastically different from the original, by J. Michael Straczynski, which Max Brooks had really liked. The cinematographer’s hands were also changed. With all the shootings, extras, and special effects, the budget for the film became somewhere around $200 million, which is probably breaking a record somewhere in the genre.
I’m not going to say that every nickel was on the screen but if there’s one thing World War Z did very right, it was to create a high-intensity first and second act with three really big action setpieces that were a lot of fun. The animating depictions of mindless zombies flinging themselves at people and piling on each other in attempts to get over a wall without a single regard to their own well-being was great, particularly given the sheer number of them which gave a great sense of overwhelm. Put it this way – if Helms Deep was attacked by these zombies instead of the Uruk-Hai, nobody in that fortress would have lasted an hour.
The other thing the movie does right is in the narrowing of its own scope in the third act. As previously mentioned, it’s an entirely different rewrite and so new characters are brought in to serve their respective roles and establish one final plot point to end the story on. The only reason I think it works is because the first two acts did a great job in showing us just how big and sweeping the outbreak was, so making the story smaller and more personal was a good next step.
With that in mind, it would have been better if Gerry Lane was a more compelling and interesting character – using his backstory to give him and the film a greater sense of depth and complexity not only to Gerry himself but to the overall craze of even the idea of a zombie apocalypse, compared to the presumably minuscule crises by comparison that he handled before. Think of it as giving him the Ted Stryker treatment – a guy who flew only single-engine jets in Vietnam tasked with not only flying but landing a 4-engine jumbo jet with an ailing crew. That said, as a character, Gerry is neither the hook of the film nor a straw that bends its back, so I’d chalk this up merely as an example of how the movie could have been better, but not something that inherently lessens it.
The other problem is that it’s not bloody. Yeah, I’m kind of one of those guys. The zombies startle more than they scare and their demeanor is more bemusing than horrifying, but it’s very much the PG-13 movie you’re expecting. It might be worth mentioning that they seem to be driven more by a desire to simply spread the virus than a desire to actually cannibalize like The Walking Dead zombies do, but even then – a generous (but not overly artsy) display of blood is arguably necessary for a movie like this to work anyway simply because it conveys the gucky unpleasantness of it all. When a character comes face to face with a zombie that has him target locked, we’re worried for his safety, but what we should be MORE worried of is the possibility that we might actually see something truly terrible happen to him. Blood gives us that extra bite to a zombie film and taking it out for the sake of broader appeal is, in my opinion, a mistake. This isn’t to say the film lacks an identity or anything. It’s definitely fun and has its share of memorable moments, but don’t go in expecting to see a movie that’ll change your perspective on apocalyptic horror the way the book probably did.
All in all, the movie makes for an entertaining thriller that, best of all, seems to know its place in the genre as well as what you’re there to see. Want to see a bloody zombie classic? Go watch Dawn of the Dead. Want to see a zombie movie with some humor? Go watch Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Redneck Zombies, and Dead Snow. Want to see a movie about how a zombie apocalypse actually begins? Go watch 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Want to see a human drama of the day-to-day struggles of a survivalist group that underscores the tragedy of the zombie apocalypse? Go watch The Walking Dead. Better yet – read the book. Still better – play the Telltale game; or play The Last of Us. Want to see an erotica with zombies? Go watch Zombie Strippers. And then take a shower. Want to see a movie about a super-aerobic warrior woman slaughtering scores of zombies with her guns and fists? Go watch the Resident Evil movies. Want to have some brainless fun killing zombies? Play Left 4 Dead 2 and Dead Rising 2.
Zombie fans won’t be surprised or thrown off their rocker by anything they see in World War Z. Me, I’ve always liked the genre because there’s just so much to do with it and so many angles to tell a cool story from. Where the big-budgeted spectacle of this film shines is in showing the utter loony neurosis of it all and how much fun there is to be had witnessing a single zombie transmitting its virus in a chain reaction that destroys an aircraft full of passengers (if you saw the trailer, you see it coming but it’s still awesome) or seeing the plague of rampaging undead scaling the walls of a city and sacking it like Troy. I’m not going to use the phrase “must-see” to describe this movie but if this is something you might enjoy, and if you want to see Brad Pitt in another perfectly serviceable film, definitely check this one out. If nothing else, it’d help the poor bastards making this film get closer to achieving the nigh impossible task of breaking even on the money spent and I’d hate for it not to. But you can skip the 3D.
The Good: Great introduction to the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of an innocent family, thrilling first act, inherent likability of Brad Pitt, reasonably creative solution to the zombie problem, and lots of chaotic fun.
The Bad: Brad Pitt’s character isn’t much of a character; the film is more of a stylistic approach to the end of the world than a substantial one; the film has a few extra beats that it could afford to lose, and there’s some temporary confusion regarding what happens to Gerry’s family that was unnecessary. It also needed more blood.
The Ugly: It’s not the book, but do you really care?