When a movie is made from a popular book, be it The Great Gatsby or Max Brooks's World War Z, the filmmakers must contend with the mixed blessings of a built-in audience. For those who know the book, comparisons with the film are inescapable, and the movie almost inevitably comes up short. That's certainly the case with World War Z. The Brad Pitt vehicle uses Max Brooks's best tropes, nods at others with winking asides, but fails to capture the novel's animating spirit, pun intended.
That's a problem, whether or not you care about the book: This is a zombie film that misses what's interesting about zombies.
The novel spans years, starting with the first outbreaks of the mysterious "human rabies" that creates zombie hordes and ending when the war on "Zeke" has been won. There's no such grand scope for the film, sadly. The movie, which stars Pitt and no one else you've heard of, unambitiously confines itself to just a few days of action.
Similarly, Brooks's novel has a global reach and political bent. It offers compelling scenarios showing how nations fight the zombie threat, each according to national character, with Ludlum-like levels of geopolitical detail. The film only teases the political perspective with Pitt's character - a UN investigator - visiting Korea and Jerusalem early in the film. Very quickly, though, as befitting a summer blockbuster with a $200-million budget, the movie turns to a fairly standard action-adventure flick, albeit one with an unconventional hero. The political and cultural texture is overwhelmed by the admittedly gorgeous chases, crashes, computer-generated hordes of undead, and by the need to have Pitt's mug on screen as much as possible. The moral texture also gets lost in the mix, and therein lies the film's biggest flaw.
Since George Romero created the template with Night of the Living Dead, zombie fiction has belonged to the realm of horror - even if it's the comic-metaphysical horror of Shawn of the Dead or Zombieland.
The core of the genre's appeal - and the appeal of post-apocalypse fiction in general- is the underlying message that we deserve what we get. Unlike most Hollywood monsters, the undead don't merely destroy people. The hordes attack civilization itself, and so act as a supernatural retribution for the collective sins of our cushy consumer society. In doing, they become great levelers, creating a post-apocalyptic world where the old rules no longer apply - one that serves as a physical and spiritual proving ground.
This film delivers a few good scares and some legitimate suspense. But it's not horror, because there's no moral perspective beyond the ad nauseum assurances that Pitt's character Gerry loves his family. We don't get to see much of society's breakdown, and so don't get to enjoy the delicious, survivalist's schadenfreude of watching, for instance, a pampered, snooty suburbanite flail when the power goes out and his credit card can no longer solve every problem.
Without the zombies to offer a moral perspective, it's up to Gerry. He tries to deliver, but in a weirdly self-conscious way. Gerry--or rather Pitt, who also served as the film's executive producer--seems more interested in moralizing about Hollywood heroes than human civilization. This is action hero as New Age Sensitive Guy. His Gerry is vegetarian and cooks for his kids. He refuses to use a gun. The climactic battle is deliberately anticlimactic.
There's something cloying about it all, something off the mark. Think what you will about gun control in this world. In a world where flesh-eating zombies rule, an action hero who refuses to use firearms just defies logic.
There are other issues in the film. Our hero's brilliant solution, frankly, doesn't seem all that brilliant, and the epilogue raises more questions than it answers. To be sure, despite what's missing, there's genuine fluffy fun to be found in World War Z. Just don't call it a "horror film."