Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof
USA and United Kingdom, 2013
It seems anathema for any zombie movie worth its salt to not be rated R for an excess of gore, and yet, here we are with the long-awaited World War Z, a PG-13 film chock full of the undead, but not much blood in any way. Deafening rumors of script problems aside, the real issue with World War Z lies not specifically with the writing, but with the overly jittery, often obscuring direction from Marc Forster. Even with Brad Pitt as the ostensibly heroic leading man, this movie doesn’t leave much of a memorable mark on the audience, just a mild headache.
Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former investigator for the United Nations who’s pulled back in when, for no apparent reason, a real-life zombie apocalypse hits the entire globe, wiping out most of the human race. Once he, his wife, and his two daughters survive an initial attack in Philadelphia and gets them to temporary safety, Gerry is roped into traveling to South Korea in the hopes of finding the cause of the outbreak as well as an eventual antidote. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper movie if Gerry found all the answers on his first stop, so South Korea leads to Israel and on and on, with more fast-moving, ever-hungry zombies along the way.
World War Z is an imperfect movie, but at its core, it’s just poorly directed. Forster, coming off of Quantum of Solace a few years ago, has not yet mastered the art of staging and composing coherent action sequences. His overreliance on shaky-camera techniques plus the 3D upconversion combine, especially in the first half, for some truly incomprehensible setpieces. One, in which Pitt and his brood attempt to dash up a flight of stairs to the rooftop of an apartment building, lit only with emergency lighting, is the film’s nadir. In short, it’s difficult to get invested in tension-filled action when you can’t tell which person is the zombie and which person still doesn’t have a craving for brains. The third act slows down, to the film’s benefit, and also ditches the zombie pile-on for a tenser, face-to-face confrontation, and is the better for it.
The script, credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof (with the story by Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski), is messy when trying to build relatable or even one-dimensional characters. Gerry, onscreen for nearly the entire film, has one trait: he’s a good-hearted dad trying to get home to his family. Pitt is one of our preeminent movie stars, yes, but he’s best when he’s playing characters bursting at the seams with personality. His most memorable roles—outside of his work in the Ocean’s trilogy, where he dresses snappy and eats junk food in half his scenes—are those in movies like 12 Monkeys or even Burn After Reading, as he gleefully jumps as far over the top as he can, tapping into an innate flamboyance. Such outrageous behavior can’t be on display here; Gerry is a taciturn guy who doesn’t crack jokes, he just gets down to business. And though World War Z has a diverse, globe-trotting supporting cast—James Badge Dale, David Morse, and Matthew Fox all have blink-and-you’ll-miss-them parts, and are among the most recognizable faces—so few get anything meaty to do. Even Mireille Enos, as Gerry’s concerned and loving wife, is forced to spend most of her time on screen looking distressed as her various phone calls to her husband cut out due to bad service.
And considering that World War Z is based on a faux oral history by Max Brooks, there’s little expanse here in terms of presenting how the world deals (or fails to deal) with an inexplicable and violent pandemic. There are glimpses when Gerry visits a military base in South Korea and Jerusalem of how different governments try to staunch the outbreak, but for the most part, World War Z keeps things too close to the chest, never losing focus from Gerry, a cipher of a leading man. The zombie apocalypse is shown through his eyes, and only his. Condensing and focusing an oral history (fictional or not) to one person makes sense narratively, but Gerry doesn’t glean that much detail about the zombie outbreak’s worldwide impact, and so, neither do we.
World War Z is, at best, not nearly as garbled or messy as you may have presumed if you’ve paid attention to its lengthy production history. (This excludes the final five minutes, which do seem extremely cobbled together, mostly from stock footage.) Unfortunately, as a propulsive action movie centered around hordes of attacking zombies, it’s not particularly successful. The script rarely steps beyond being rote and predictable, but the direction—when it’s not deliberately obscuring any sight of blood—is jarring and unwelcome. Here is a movie so dead-set on evincing a you-are-there visual style that it forgets what an excessively shaky, jumpy movie looks like to even the keen-eyed observer. Immersing as many people as possible into a zombie apocalypse should work, but here, this stylistic choice fails to pay off on the bloody promises any zombie movie is expected to make.
— Josh Spiegel