It's really no wonder that mega-star Brad Pitt has been showing up at promotional screenings for World War Z all over the country. With a rumored production budget right around the $200 million mark, World War Z will most certainly not trash Pitt's career if it tanks but it sure will make it harder to take the actor more seriously as a producer. Pitt has claimed to have a vision for producing a more substantial blockbuster, and it was that vision that led him to outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for the rights to Max Brooks's 2006 novel upon which the film is very loosely based.
While World War Z is more entertaining than its B- grade and 2.5 star rating would indicate, the film is such a thrilling mess that it's simply impossible to rate it higher given all the wondrous potential of the film that gets left on the wayside as director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) has created a film with a few awe-inspiring scenes surrounded by scenes of almost mind-numbing predictability and painful familiarity.
A fellow critic familiar with Brooks's source material, Christopher Lloyd of The Film Yap, was quick to point out that Forster and his team of writers have essentially taken the basic theme from Brooks while leaving virtually everything that made the novel unique and awesome behind. The novel itself is less about a fully cohesive story and far more about a collective of scenarios painting a stark and serious portrait of the life that would be faced in the event of a true zombie apocalypse. In a cinematic world where zombie flicks have essentially devolved into graphic yet light-hearted cinema, Brooks returned the entire idea of zombies back to where it all started - serious, frightening and eerily possible.
That's all gone here, but that doesn't mean that what's left is an awful film. You'll be disappointed if you go into the film expecting to see a fully realized Brooks novel, but if you go in with an open mind you'll likely find yourself enjoying a thrilling, suspenseful and occasionally quite heartfelt zombie flick.
As well as being a producer on the film, Brad Pitt stars here as Gerry Lane, a former U.N. Investigator known for being one of the best in his field who is now content to spend time with his lovely wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove). We catch on fairly quickly in the opening scene that something is going on in the world, but the world of the Lane's seems unaffected and this opening scene does do a nice job of investing us just a bit in everything that's about to come.
An ordinary school day becomes anything but ordinary when all hell breaks loose during the family drive into downtown Philly. The savagery begins with almost unfathomable intensity, though it's of a less graphic variety given the film's PG-13 rating. Before Gerry can even get his family to safety and before the word "zombie" is even muttered, the invasion has begun to spread worldwide. The word zombie first surfaces in an e-mail out of South Korea, and once Gerry's able to get his family aboard a seemingly safe aircraft carrier in the Atlantic he's coerced into returning to the field and heading off to South Korea then Israel and eventually to a World Health Organization plant in Wales for information that could potentially lead to an answer as to what has triggered whatever is determined to be going on.
There are scenes that are almost breathtaking in their awesomeness and savage beauty, especially when Gerry lands in Israel having been informed that somehow the Israelis had some pre-knowledge of everything that has unfolded and has built an enormous wall around the city of Jerusalem designed to protect Israelis. It registers as this scene unfolds exactly what's going to happen based upon the scenes we've already seen unfold, though the way it registers is more subtle and emotionally powerful. The scene that unfolds, of course, proves us right yet Forster shoots this scene in a way that is both devastating and impossible to stop watching.
There are other great moments in the film, including a rather brilliant opening 20-25 minutes that has you hoping to no avail that the entire film will live up to these opening scenes. That said, there are other scenes that do live up to it all even if they aren't sustained. The book's strength, according to Lloyd, is that Brooks has the guts to suggest scenes about the zombie apocalypse that we've all thought about but never seen unfold. There are scenes here, mostly of a more fleeting nature, that suggest how truly brilliant this film could have been such as a rather astounding scene on an airplane and truly suspenseful moments that develop out of Gerry's maneuvering with an injured Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) around the World Health Organization in Wales.
Unfortunately, there are also a number of scenes that fall flat or just plain don't satisfy. This is especially true when World War Z ventures too far away from Brooks's source material and far too close to another film from the last year, Contagion. The film never completely collapses, but it also never becomes the truly substantial blockbuster that Pitt intended it to be.
Pitt himself is solid here, embodying Gerry not as some superhero but as a vulnerable and ordinary hero who wants to accomplish his task but also wants to get back to some semblance of normalcy with his wife and children. Mireille Enos does a terrific job as Pitt's wife, though once she's aboard the aircraft carrier she's given far less to do. The film's other real stand-out is Daniella Kertesz, who brings to mind the strength and vulnerability we'd expect from a Samantha Morton performance.
There are some remarkable grand-scale scenes here, though it's difficult to imagine that too many people will consider the film's 3-D imaging worthy of the extra expense. It's actually an odd choice for a director like Forster, a director who has always been more recognized for his attention to detail and the smaller moments than his ability to effectively capture "the big picture." Forster has always been one of my favorite directors despite the fact that he's wildly inconsistent as evidenced by his range of films from the terrific Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland to misfires like Machine Gun Preacher and massively uneven films The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace.
Anyone familiar with 3-D imagery knows that it doesn't really thrive with particularly dark shots as it tends to make murky shots murkier and blurry shots blurrier. There are some scenes in the film, particularly those shot in a Philly high-rise, that are frustratingly shadowy and far less effective than they should be.
World War Z isn't a bad film or an unsatisfying one. In fact, it's rather hard to not admire Pitt's efforts to bring the film to life even if it does seem incredibly misguided to leave so much of the source material out of the picture. This is clearly a passion project for Pitt and while it doesn't succeed on the level that everyone hoped it certainly qualifies as a decent enough popcorn flick that is, as Pitt had hoped, more substantial than a good majority of popcorn flicks coming out of Hollywood.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic