Max Brooks’ World War Z is a critique of American Exceptionalism and a look at isolation, survivalism, and paranoia that also happened to reinvent the zombie genre with its compelling, oral history format. Perhaps one day someone will take on the novel’s episodic format and try to bring it to the screen, but that person is not Marc Forster. In fact, if not for the opening credits telling you that the film is based on Brooks’ novel, it would be entirely plausible to think that Forster’s World War Z is a zombie story that happens to have the same title and holds a few similarities. What little of Brooks’ novel that shows in Forster’s film can probably be dismissed as “coincidental”; so narrow is the film’s scope and so uninspired is its storytelling that it demands to be taken on its own terms, even if that doesn’t make it any better.
On the bright side, those who watch World War Z with no prior knowledge of its troubled production will go most of the film seeing little to tip them off, until suddenly a Pepsi commercial hilariously finds a way into the films end. At the same time, those who are well-aware ahead of time will wonder how a film can go through so much scrutiny and so many changes without the rhyming names of Gerry and Terry being changed. That same level of laziness is all over the film’s script, which largely alternates between 20 minutes of action with 20 minutes of pure exposition for its two-hour runtime, leaving room for only two or three scenes of genuine tension. When they aren’t shooting zombies or running from zombies, someone is explaining to Gerry (Brad Pitt) where to go next and why. No scene in World War Z is complete without a character dump of exposition.
The exception is the beginning of the film, which, despite all of the zombie-fighting/escaping action, does a pretty good job of relaying you basic information in a more natural way. Gerry used to work for the U.N., probably as a field-op or some form of air-troop, and worked closely with Terry (Fana Mokoena). At some point, he (cue cliché) left to start a family, but now, because the world is being overrun with zombies, he is (cue cliché #2) being sucked back into work, and, despite refusing, he (are you ready for this?) eventually has to accept because his family’s safety and the world depend on it.
You know where it goes from there. Fight zombies and gather leads and try to save the world and stuff. The film has two strong sequences, one early and one late, and a few smaller, serviceable ones. The first home run (or at least three-bagger) is an extended chase/hideout mission in New Jersey, where Gerry and his family flee a zombified city and see stores being ransacked before trying to get to the top of an apartment building so Terry can airlift them out of there. Along the way, they meet a family, and although the film could have done better with the inevitable “should we stay here or should we leave?” conflict, it does provide ample tension, thanks largely to the lack of electricity in the building that allows only for a flare to break the darkness. The next is on an airplane, where red herrings lurk in every camera shot and genuine uncertainty and aimlessness seem to finally set in. Finally, there’s time to contemplate the larger implications of a global epidemic and the isolationist themes that accompany it.
This scene is also too short though, and it quickly becomes apparent that there really isn’t much more to World War Z than meets the eye. A comparison to the Spanish Influenza of the early 20th century may provoke ideas about Malthusian catastrophes; newsreel footage at the beginning can be read to endorse an environmentalist viewpoint; a couple speeches about the authoritarianism and isolation of Korea and Israel may mirror some of the themes of the novel, but largely, each of these are just ideas thrown on a dartboard. Each remains undeveloped food-for-thought for a version of World War Z better than this one.
What World War Z does do well is contrast humanity with zombie-ness, through Gerry’s near-miss at the beginning, the importance of other diseases in the narrative (from asthma to more deadly things), and blunt mentions of circulatory systems. Unfortunately, the film’s characters are so lifeless that it’s easy to call them zombies. Nobody seems to have a life outside of their mission—the attempted phone calls between Gerry and his wife are largely meaningless—and even the enormous stakes are told to us more than they are shown. Only a charismatic performance by Brad Pitt and Forster’s cohesive, no-nonsense directorial style keep World War Z moving. Forster may sacrifice establishing tone and feeling in the process, but for a film that spends so much time talking at the audience it’s probably better that he seeks to delivers thrills rather than ideas. On the other hand, I won’t be the guy to argue that it’s better to aim low and succeed than to aim high and fail. If World War Z is anything to go by, there are plenty of others to do that.