The Cool Catastrophes of 'World War Z'

What once seemed sure to be a noble failure plagued by production woes, World War Z turns out to be one of the more captivating summer entertainments this year, a sprawling film that maintains an alluring sense of intimacy. And you can thank Brad Pitt for that.

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Global annihilation is nearly always implicit in zombie tales — lonely England assumes the world lost in 28 Days Later, Rick and his Walking Dead friends lurch around Georgia and figure everything beyond it an abyss — but they rarely zoom out to actually show us the ravaged Earth entire. Enter World War Z, a travelogue of sorts that takes our hero, UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), hopping from ruined place to ruined place in search of a cure for the virus taking over the planet. The film's source material is Max Brooks's excellent, thorough, utterly engrossing novel, a faux oral history that has no central protagonist. While it would have been interesting to see a big blockbuster try and pull off something episodic like that, it admittedly would have been quite a gamble for all involved. So we get Gerry as our lead guy, though World War Z does still introduce us to a panoply of people and places. In doing so, it's a sprawling film that nonetheless maintains an alluring sense of intimacy.

Credit for that should largely go to Pitt, who, now on the precipice of 50, uses his leonine features and twang-inflected mumble in a far softer way than he used to. There's a slight aura of wise weariness fuzzing around his edges that draws us in close — he's a warm presence, and confident in a quiet, reassuring way. Gerry has been in some of the world's worst places, but he's not a super commando or anything. He's just a smart, resourceful, and efficient guy with a family at home (well, on an aircraft carrier, anyway) that he'd like very much to get back to. Pitt plays Gerry with a relaxed, rumpled ease, and we believe him when he tells his family and others that if they just stick by him, everything will be OK. When did Brad Pitt, smoldering sex symbol for the ages, become so comforting and, well, fatherly? (Oh, right.) It's an inviting performance, and grounds this big movie with a cozy sturdiness.

Director Marc Forster and the three credited screenwriters — Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof — should, of course, also gets kudos. This was, by most accounts, a pretty troubled production, mired by delays and reshoots and a complete overhauling of the film's third act, but they managed to wrestle a mostly compelling and credible (given the circumstances) picture out of all that chaos. Beginning the film in Philadelphia, where Gerry lives with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters and where we first glimpse the spastic undead, Forster and company then bring us to rainy and barren South Korea, to a fortified Israel, and to gray, desolate Wales. Each location is the setting for an elaborate set piece, each of which is rendered with a careful and particular sense of scope. We go from up-close mano a mano to epic urban destruction, from guns-blazing action to silent, unnerving suspense. This is a smart way for Forster to address the varied proportions of the book's chapters, presenting us with zombieland from macro to micro, with a few points in between. He also captures the shifting texture and tone of the book well, mixing dashes of morbid humor with flesh-chomping terror. The movie skips along nicely, pausing for moments of reflection here and there before whisking us along to the next pit-stop. Really, this is a road movie, only with planes. And, y'know, zombies.

Those zombies are, for this zombie purist anyway, perhaps the film's biggest problem. In his novel, and in his very handy Ultimate Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks's zombies are your classic shamblers, slow but deliberate ghouls who may not move fast but can overwhelm with their numbers. The undead of World War Z are also most effective in numbers, but they move quickly, they're animalistic and acrobatic, moving in seething, rushing herds that are more like floodwater than a stampede. Forster creates some stunning images with this strange hybrid of various zombie tropes — particularly in the Israel sequence, as the monsters overwhelm the city, spilling over walls, and bringing down helicopters — but there's something too fake-y about them. All herky-jerky and teeth clacking, they look comical and cartoonish a lot of the time, and thus quickly lose their ability to truly scare. It doesn't help that they only seem to bite, rather than devour. In the interest, I suspect, of holding on to the film's PG-13 rating, Forster never lingers on any of the gory details, which renders the zombies a bit, heh, toothless. They ultimately seem more like nuisances than unholy horrors.

Much of Brooks's political allegory and satire is missing from the film as well, though I'm not sure how of much that we realistically could have hoped to see in a mega-budget studio release. The film is bound by studio convention and thus operates much more simply, but intelligently, as a grim summer disaster flick. Though I wish they'd not chosen to deal in a few particularly hoary Hollywood clichés. At one point Pitt actually says "No time to explain," which I'm hoping was a little joke, but doesn't really play like one in the film. The epidemiological detective work is fairly rudimentary, and is explicated through corny flashbacks to moments earlier in the film. And, perhaps worst of all, if I see one more hero's imperiled kid stricken with an asthma attack at a crucial moment, I'm gonna hurl an inhaler at the screen. But, these are rare examples in a movie that otherwise, despite a possibly too-easy ending, hands us the shivery goods in cool, calm, and collected hands. What once seemed sure to be a noble failure plagued by production woes, World War Z turns out to be one of the more captivating summer entertainments this year. Talk about rising from the dead.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.