I think it is safe to say that zombies are the new vampires; while five years ago there were a barrage of films, television shows and books that portrayed tales about blood sucking creatures, the focus in the last year or show has shifted to the undead. The Walking Dead is now one of the most popular shows and more and more zombie themed events are popping up across the nation. Even in the world of supernatural beings, popularity ebbs and flows. The new film World War Z is the latest entry in the world of pop culture and while it may not be the definitive zombie film for our generation, it did exceed my admittedly lower expectations. World War Z suffers in comparison to the book and has some pacing issues, but was entertaining and thrilling in ways that I did not anticipate, given all the problems with the movie during filming. World War Z probably won’t blow you away, but it is a solid film that has outstanding moments.
Fans of the popular book on which the film is based should be warned that World War Z differs quite a bit from the book both in structure and focus. World War Z the book is written as an oral history of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse as they reflect on how events unfolded and what they had to do to survive. The book bounces around the globe and each chapter focuses on a different person and their experiences; that works well for a novel, but is not a method of storytelling that lends itself to a big screen adaption. Therefore the film World War Z portrays events as the global zombie epidemic is unfolding, rather than looking back at past events. The film also has one main character, Former UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), and portrays only his experiences rather than the series of interviews that comprise the book. Some vague elements from the book are present in the movie, but for the most part the story in the film bears very little resemblance to the text of the novel. In many ways, World War Z the book and the movie have very little in common other than their name and the zombie pandemic. This may be somewhat of a disappointment to fans of the book; this is an adaption in only the loosest form and many of the themes and social commentary from the book are not discussed in the movie. However, the book was so sweeping and so many stories that in many ways it would have been extremely difficult for it to be faithfully adapted for the big screen. By streamlining the story for the film, they were able to focus more on action rather than narrative. It wasn’t quite as fulfilling as the book – the movie’s focus on one lone hero eliminates the team building and global cooperation of the novel – but once I realized how little the two version had to do with each other I tried to judge the film on its own merits.
Despite its more narrow focus and limited cast, I still enjoyed World War Z as a whole. Staring at Brad Pitt for two hours is never going to be a chore and I thought he did an excellent job as the anchor of the movie. As a former member of UN envoys that were in some of the most dangerous and war-torn parts of the country, Jerry is enlisted by what remains of the U.S. government to try and determine what has caused this infection and how to stop it. This involves a whirlwind trip around the globe chasing leads and seeing how other nations are handling what has turned into a global pandemic. Jerry is reluctant to go back in the field, but it is the only way that he can guarantee safety for his family; they will be housed in a secure location only if he agrees to take on the assignment. Otherwise, they will be left to fend for themselves. This movie really hinges on Pitt as he is in almost every scene of the film; if he wasn’t a believable if weary hero, the story would completely fall apart. He is surrounded by a capable supporting cast, including Mireille Enos (best known from her starring role on AMC’s The Killing), but this is really Pitt’s vehicle. If you don’t like him or zombies, you might as well skip this film.
World War Z is a visually stunning film; though many of the action sequences have been featured in the various trailers, that doesn’t take away from the impressive scale of many of the scenes. I can’t recall a zombie film that is quite as sweeping as World War Z; there are thousands of zombies in many of the scenes and while some of the action is a bit on the chaotic side, it is what I imagine would be a fairly realistic depiction of what the epidemic would looks like. The zombies in World War Z are no joke – they are ridiculously fast and strong and a person turns almost instantaneously after they are bitten. A city can go from a normal thriving metropolis to a pit of despair in just a few terrifying moments.
The film is an economical 116 minutes, which means that the story has to move along fairly quickly; in less than two hours the zombie epidemic has to unfold, information must be gathered and some sort of resolution must be found. That is a lot to unpack and one of the weaknesses of World War Z is the breakneck pace in which the events unfold. The narrative suffers a bit from this; there isn’t a lot of character depth and solutions to problems are found within moments. I’m not saying that I would have preferred a three hour movie, but it would have been nice if some of the action sequences were trimmed a bit to give the story more time to breathe. The end result of covering so much territory is that Pitt’s character seems to be superhuman – he seems to know all and see all, despite the fact that this is a brand new crisis with a lot of uncertainty. It can be forgiven in a movie like this, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that the moments of the film that I thought were most engaging were those that were smaller in scale and where everything just slowed down a bit.
Some other thoughts:
- I am once again reminded that if something like the events depicted in this film goes down, I am a goner. I have no survival instinct and really, I’m not sure if I would want to be alive for the aftermath. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t any cable TV or movies once the zombies attack and that’s not a world I’m particularly interested in being a part of. The best I could hope for is that I would be a benevolent zombie who tried to leave most people alone.
- I have to say, it was a nice change of pace to see a city other than New York destroyed.
- The author of World War Z is Max Brooks, who just so happens to be the son of the legendary Mel Brooks. Even though it is very different than the movie, I do recommend reading the book; it’s not great literature, but it was compelling and a good read.
- About ten minutes into the zombie pandemic and two guys try to rape a woman. That is of course horrific, despicable and unconscionable, but that is also terrible time management – everyone else was looting the limited food and water from a supermarket. I’d think that should be the priority, not that I’m rooting for the survival of guys who assault women, obviously.
- IMDB indicates that Matthew Fox was in this movie, but I have absolutely no recollection of this.
- Pepsi obviously paid for some gratuitous product placement in the film.
- I didn’t see the film in 3-D, so I can’t comment on how the visuals translated. However, I’m willing to be it looked pretty amazing.
- I kind of wish this movie had been rated R; the PG-13 rating made a few scenes feel unrealistically sanitized as the camera cut away or didn’t show some of the violence.
- The ending felt a bit rushed and undercooked; it wasn’t enough to hurt the movie, but it was a little abrupt.
I think that people who haven’t read the novel will enjoy this movie slightly more than people who are going into the film with no preconceived notions; I had read enough buzz about the production of the movie to realize that this was not a faithful adaption of the source material. Though the film says “based on” the novel, I’d argue that better terminology would be “inspired by” as there isn’t a ton of the book’s DNA on this film. If you can forgive that and take World War Z at face value, it is a fun film. It’s definitely a more cerebral action film and I was surprised to find that there were a few moments when I was legitimately a little anxious as to what was going to happen, even though I was fairly certain of the outcome. Brad Pitt gives this film the necessary authenticity and restraint to keep the story and action somewhat grounded. Once the film gets going, it never really lets up; it is a globetrotting race against time with the future of humanity at stake. It may not have been the movie that some people think they are getting, but it is an entertaining film regardless.
World War Z opens nationwide today.