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World War Z
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Dead's Zed, Baby. Dead's Zed."
2 stars

After a well-publicized string of production complications, on-the-set rewrites, the wholesale junking of the original final act and a last-minute delay from its originally scheduled release date last December--all of which combined to inflate the budget to somewhere quite north of $200 million and all of which were chronicled in excruciating detail in the cover article of last month's "Vanity Fair," "World War Z" arrives in theaters with the kind of poisonously bad word of mouth that would kill most films dead in their tracks even before they had opened. Even more problematic than that, this is a film that is meant to be an apocalyptic action epic and yet it was directed by Marc Forster, a filmmaker who is adequate when working with a couple of people in a room but who proved with "Quantum of Solace" that he was much less surefooted when it came to staging spectacular action sequences. Of course, there is also the matter that this is a zombie movie--you know, the dead rising from the grave to chomp on the living to turn them into ghouls as well--that, because of its position as a summer tentpole epic and in a desire to somehow recoup its astronomical budget, is going into theaters with a PG-13 rating, a move designed to attract viewers who would never attend a zombie film under any circumstance and pretty much repel those who might want to see such a thing because of the presumed lack of gore.

Walking into the theater before the screening, I assumed that the end result would be one of two things--either it would somehow triumph against all the odds and become the wildly ambitious and entertaining screen spectacular that it is clearly aiming to be or it would be a folly of such spectacular proportions that one could still manage to derive some entertainment value out of it, albeit as a cautionary tale about the dangers of contemporary blockbuster-style filmmaking. As it turns out, "World War Z" is nether one of those options. Instead, it navigates an odd sort of middle ground before the two and while it never quite manages to become the game-changing epic that it is clearly striving to be, it never becomes the all-out disaster that one might have expected to see based on its history. Instead, it is a wobbly work that starts out strong and has a few good moments but soon turns into a lurching and ungainly beast not far removed from its central creatures before concluding with a finale so dull and uninspired that it seems impossible to believe that this was deemed to be an improvement over the original ending.

As the film opens, ex-U.N. investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is out for a day with wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and their two adorable daughters when the traffic jam that they are stuck in suddenly explodes into a deranged orgy of explosions, car crashes and what appears to be dead people swarming through the streets looking for living people to attack and transform with a single bite. As they are in the middle of Philadelphia when all of this happens, the chaos doesn't seem that strange at first but after getting a call from his former boss, Thierry (Fana McKoeng), Gerry begins to realize that something fundamentally wrong is going on everywhere. After spending a more harrowing-than-usual night in an apartment building in Newark that is soon overrun with the attackers, Gerry and his family are whisked away to an aircraft carrier and Gerry gets an idea of the bigger picture--virtually all the major cities are falling to the creatures, most of the government is dead or unaccounted for and things are not looking much better overseas. No one seems to have a firm grasp on what is going on but a missive from a military outpost in South Korea--one that was naturally ignored until it was too late--suggests that the creatures are, in fact, zombies. Gerry is ordered to go to South Korea along with a key scientist to see if they can get to the bottom of the outbreak in order to develop a vaccine--if he refuses, he and his family are on the first helicopter back to Philadelphia, a move that even W.C. Fields might advise against at this point.

From this point on, the film turns into a globe-trotting yarn in which Gerry turns up in a new international locale, discovers just enough information to keep his quest going before fleeing just as the zombies begin to run amok once again. While in South Korea, for example, we learn that the only two places that have not yet faced outbreaks are Israel and North Korea--the former because they heard the warning and built an enormous wall and the latter because they heard the warnings and pulled the teeth of the entire population of the country. Upon arriving in Israel, Gerry gets further intel from a high-ranking Mossad agent and when the streets are eventually overrun with zombies, he makes a discovery that just might help save the day. Escaping with the aid of an extremely resourceful Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz), Gerry heads to Wales for a WHO clinic where he might be able to test his theory. After one nasty detour, he arrives and with the help of the few remaining scientists, Gerry realizes that his theory just might work, though this is a case where the cure is almost as bad as the disease and the materials that he needs to put his hypothesis is, naturally, teeming with zombies. To make matters worse, on the mistake belief that Gerry is dead--and in the defense of those responsible, you can hardly blame them for making this particular leap--and his family, now considered non-essential, are booted off the ship and relocated to a refugee camp in Nova Scotia that is supposed to be safe--for now, at least.

"World War Z" is based on the best-selling novel by Max Brooks--a serious-minded followup to his more comedic tome "The Zombie Survival Guide that positioned itself as a oral history of the zombie outbreak as seen through the eyes of its survivors. Had the film retained that conceit and been done in a documentary style combining ersatz talking head interviews with footage of zombie attacks, both "real" and dramatic recreations, the end results might have been interesting and could have scored some satiric or dramatic points in using the plot as a way of examining the ways that we might really react to a sudden and catastrophic pandemic. At the very least, playing with the form to such a degree would have at least given viewers a zombie movie that didn't look and sound just like all the other undead-related entertainments that they have been watching over the last few years. Alas, not only does the film jettison the oral history framing device, it appears that they have gotten rid of virtually everything of significance in the book aside from the title, a few stray bits of business and the conceit of a global outbreak of zombieism--in other words, pretty much most of the stuff that made the book unique in the first place and allowed it to stand out in a field that was already getting a little too crowded for its own good.

I do understand why Forster and the small army of screenwriters--including Matthew Michael Carnahan, J. Michael Straczynski and "Lost" veterans Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (and probably more than that, I suspect)--would have wanted to junk that particular approach; while it might have made for a fascinating art-house take on the subject, it would not have easily lent itself to the kind of action spectacle that was clearly desired. Fine, but couldn't this group have come up with a narrative a little more inspired than the one presented here. After the electrifying opening, the film essentially turns into a video game in which each section kicks off with the equivalent of a cut scene explaining the objective to Gerry before sending him out to fight off or avoid endless swarming hordes before repeating the process all over again. After a while, this approach gets a little reductive--few of the characters other than Gerry are on the screen long enough for us to care about them--and by the end, there is so little evidence of actual humanity on the screen that its potential loss hardly registers because the human character are only slightly more alive than the zombies.

Speaking of the end, the final third of the film is a real disappointment--even if you had no idea about the films tortured production history, you might suspect that something was up by its perfunctory nature. The sequence--an extensive game of cat-and-mouse inside the WHO labs--is as well-produced as one could hope for under the circumstances but after all the promise of the early scenes, to end it on what looks like a sequence taken from the midway point of one of the lesser "Resident Evil" films can't help but come across as anemic by comparison (and don't get me started on the painfully blatant Pepsi plug stuck in the middle of it) and the final optimistic coda is about as realistic and consistent as the final two minutes of the original theatrical cut of "Blade Runner."

What is most frustrating about "World War Z" is that it isn't completely terrible and has more standout elements on display than most of this summer's big ticket items. Forster keeps things moving along at a relatively swift pace and it seems as if he has done his homework on how to stage an action scene, to judge by the genuinely impressive opening sequence and an even better bit in which a plane in mid-flight is sudden overwhelmed by zombies. An actor who is usually better when he plays against his movie star looks and charisma, Brad Pitt is good as the solid and stalwart hero and newcomer Daniella Kertesz makes a striking impression as the soldier who figures heavily in the final third. At a certain point, however, it squanders its premise and becomes just another run-of-the-mill zombie film without any of the social commentary that filmmakers like George Romero and Danny Boyle worked into their various takes on this particular sub-genre.

If you ever wondered what "28 Days Later" would have been like with an unlimited travel budget or what "Contagion" might have become if the dead came back to life after 12 seconds, "World War Z" is for you. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something smarter and cannier--something with more brains, one might say--or even just something with some inventive gore instead of artless edits to ensure a PG-13 rating, you should probably look elsewhere.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22870&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/20/13 15:33:51
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User Comments

7/16/18 morris campbell tense zombie flick not 4 gorehounds though 4 stars
12/26/13 KingNeutron The wife they cast for Pitt was HOMELY. What a distraction. Disappointed 3 stars
10/31/13 mr.mike Not the greatest zombie flick ever made. 3 stars
10/06/13 sweetgrrl1972 Formula movie. Pitt phones it in. He barely looks interested, which is how I felt too. 1 stars
9/27/13 Monday Morning The intro was very disturbing. The rest, unexpectedly good (& I'm not a sci-fi fan). 4 stars
8/01/13 Suzie Williams Zombie movie that was good without being overly gorey. Got slow at the end though. 4 stars
7/21/13 The Big D Boring, cheesy ripoff of Night of the Living Dead--pee-eee-yew, did it stink! 1 stars
7/16/13 G Better than I was expecting, fairly enthralling 3 stars
7/07/13 Mr Right Not one major scene from the book nor any of the zombie triad (gore/social critique/humor). 2 stars
6/27/13 Langano Decent attempt at formulaic plot. 3 stars
6/23/13 Man Out Six Bucks See Brad Pitt! Run, Brad! Run!! 1 stars
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  21-Jun-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Sep-2013

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  DVD: 17-Sep-2013

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