(by Dustin Putman
A loose, mega-budgeted adaptation of Max Brooks' 2006 best-seller, "World War Z" has been subject to a mountain of production problems, from script issues and rewrites to an entire third-act reshoot. Filming dragged on for over a year (with a shut-down or two in the mix), the targeted release date was pushed back a half-year, and the price tag ballooned from an already-exorbitant $125-million to $200-million. Distributor Paramount Pictures has clearly grown cold feet, choosing to shield the fact from trailers, television spots and other advertising materials that the film is about zombies at all. Their job is to pull in the widest audience possible, and that is understood, but they have severely harmed the picture's dignity by insisting upon a PG-13 rating. Time and again, over and over and over, they defy the subject matter and realism of the plot's heightened, violent situations, choppily recoiling and cutting away from anything that would even suggest biting into a neck or severing a hand might cause a person to bleed. Mild to an almost offensive degree, "World War Z" has a whole host of issues, but the most irresponsible of all is in turning a grand-scaled, epic story of an undead pandemic into such a benign experience, entirely lacking the necessary weight and fearfulness that should be very much present. Article continues below
Former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) has travelled the world and faced any number of death-defying assignments in war-torn countries, but he's now put that all behind him to help raise daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins) with wife Karen (Mireille Enos). And then, one morning on the streets of Philadelphia, all hell—or, more specifically, a fast-acting virus that transforms the living into the blood-thirsty undead in a matter of seconds—breaks loose. Gerry and his family go on the run, eventually getting picked up by a helicopter sent by old boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena) and transported to military ship U.S.S. Argus based in the mid-Atlantic. He is not prepared to risk his life and return to his old job, but when his family is threatened to get kicked off the ship, he has no choice but to set out to try and locate where the outbreak started. As his travels take him from South Korea to Jerusalem to the W.H.O. Research Facility in Wales, Gerry sees first-hand the dismantling of the planet's infrastructure. There's no guarantee that he will be able to find a vaccine or cure, but it's a leap of faith he has little choice but to take.
It's strange; "World War Z" features a moody, synthesizer-heavy music score by Marco Beltrami (2013's much better, much smarter zombie pic "Warm Bodies") that sounds inspired by Romero, Carpenter and Argento all rolled into one, yet on every other level the film snubs its nose at the very genre it is a part of. The thought of a contagious worldwide epidemic taking the lives of billions of people is horrifying, but director Marc Forster (2008's "Quantum of Solace") and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (2009's "State of Play"), Drew Goddard (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods"), and David Lindelof (2012's "Prometheus") treat it with little grave immediacy. Censored to appease a PG-13 summer popcorn audience, the rampaging undead are rendered virtually toothless creations, alternating between extras decked out in alternative contact lenses and shots of hundreds of CG zombies—or, as they're nicknamed here, "zekes"—climbing overtop each other like human ant colonies. When they attack, it's off-camera or so curiously lacking in red stuff that one must wonder if the victims have already been embalmed. For a film that tries to present a relatively accurate depiction of an apocalypse, this creative shortcut instantly pulls the viewer out of the film and betrays its artistic integrity.
Brad Pitt (2011's "Moneyball") isn't just front-and-center as makeshift hero Gerry Lane; in a lot of ways, he is the movie, and it's a shame that he has clearly dedicated such effort and energy into a middling finished product. Gerry may be the planet's one chance for a savior, but the coincidences that happen to him—from being the person who first notices zombies are breaching the wall set up around Jerusalem, to being one of only two survivors in a horrific airplane crash, which just so happens to occur within walking distance of the W.H.O. facility–are blatantly contrived. Aforementioned airliner set-piece is tense and well-shot by director of photography Ben Seresin (2013's "Pain & Gain"), while the Israel sequence involving the wall break is technically impressive. By comparison, the climactic cat-and-mouse game at W.H.O., with Gerry and female soldier/sidekick Segen (Daniella Kertesz) sneaking around zombie-infested labs while trying to make it to a key vaccine, narrows the scope, relying on suspense rather than grandeur. The only trouble? It's not half as effective as director Marc Forster wants it to be. Meanwhile, Mireille Enos (2013's "Gangster Squad"), as wife Karen, is relegated to sitting around on bunks while watching her daughters sleep and anxiously waiting for Gerry's daily phone call.
"World War Z" was shot across at least four countries to mirror its international globe-trotting, but does it look like $200-million is up on the screen? Not a chance. The production was obviously a bloated one, given the greenlight before it was ready to go before the cameras, and it shows. Like a dumbed-down, corpsier version of Steven Soderbergh's 2011 viral thriller "Contagion," the picture loses sight of the source material's geo-politicism in favor of action-oriented disaster scenarios and undead baddies leaping out (there is, admittedly, one successful seat-jumping scare). It's a competent but messy film, leading to a lame concluding "this is only the beginning" voice-over narration setting up a sequel (and one that may never come if this one doesn't do huge worldwide numbers). Sadly, "World War Z" does not provide a good enough reason for one to care about a continuation.