By Melissa Agar
World War Z (Paramount, 2013) – Director: Marc Forster. Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, & Damon Lindelof. Story: Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski. Based on the novel by Max Brooks. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mirelle Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Ruth Negga, & Elyes Gabel. Color, 116 minutes.
I am a pop culture junkie. I admit it. I study pop culture the way some people study actually important things like science or law. I am constantly amazed by the heights that our culture can reach and equally amazed by the depths we often hit. Because of this study, though, I often find myself growing weary of certain obsessions that develop in our culture. I’m willing to take a hit here and admit that I don’t get the whole Game of Thrones thing. I refuse to spend money supporting the torture porn genre popularized by Saw and its offspring. And I am really, really tired of our fascination with the zombie apocalypse. This last one made the prospect of seeing World War Z a little exhausting, but I had heard good things about the Max Brooks book upon which it is based and the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead made me hope that it was more than just another variation on the doomsday scenario that has grown so tiresome.
By the end of the opening credits, I began to think I was in trouble. What starts out as seemingly innocuous clips of the news and Wendy Williams turns into increasingly disturbing scenes of animal-on-animal violence. The film then introduces us to our hero, Gerry Lane (Pitt). As Gerry prepares breakfast for his two daughters and wife Karin (Enos), he watches coverage of some horror in another country and we learn that Gerry once had a job that involved him going into global hotspots like that but that he has left that job to become a househusband, a life he assures his daughters he much prefers.
When the family packs into the family Volvo and becomes stuck in traffic in downtown Philadelphia, though, Gerry’s experience becomes handy as a simple traffic jam turns horrific as crazed, rabid people emerge and begin attacking. Those attacked quickly become infected and join the attacking horde. Gerry, Karin, and his daughters are able to snag an abandoned RV and hit the road, ultimately finding rescue from a former U.N. colleague of Gerry’s and landing on an aircraft carrier miles off coast. Gerry is pulled back into duty and joins a team to begin the process of investigating the source of (and hopefully cure for) the undead outbreak. It is a journey that takes him to South Korea, Israel, and Europe as we see the true power of this deadly horde.
While there were elements of the film that were interesting, there was a certain emotional engagement that I felt from the film. Gerry is driven to join the investigation by his love for and need to protect his family, but that need never felt particularly pressing to me. The use of jumpy camera work throughout the film adds to the sense of emotional disconnect. We barely have time to process that a character we met a couple scenes before had been infected before we’ve cut away. We barely get to know some characters before they are removed from the picture. Pitt himself lacks the heart that would allow us to feel a stronger connection to and investment in Gerry.
While I wasn’t actively rooting for him to die, I didn’t find myself particularly worried either. Pitt’s sort of aloof detachment on film can be an asset – that cool swagger is a delight in the Ocean’s Eleven films and his work in Inglourious Basterds was fantastic. That sort of hipster vibe he tends to give off, though, can become more of a liability in a film when there should be some sort of rooting interest in the protagonist. He never seems to really embrace the vulnerabilities of his character and reveal the fear Gerry must be feeling which makes it hard for the audience to relate to him the way we should.
The true heart of the film, for me, became Segen (Kertesz), a young Israeli soldier Gerry rescues in Jerusalem. Kertesz has a vulnerability in her face that pulls the audience in much more powerfully than Pitt. We feel her fear and horror as well as the overwhelming sense of shock and awe that the zombies instill in those witnessing their attacks. She is the most interesting character in the film although we learn next to nothing about her. I would have liked to have had learned more about her and how she ended up where she did, but this is Pitt’s movie after all. Who cares about backstory when we could watch his greasy locks fly as he flees zombies?
It doesn’t help that it seems as if other films have pulled off some of this viral apocalypse stuff a bit more successfully. I found myself thinking often of Will Smith’s superior I Am Legend as well as Steven Soderbergh’s more reality-grounded but incredibly chilling Contagion. While I’ve never seen it, friends rave about the power of AMC’s Walking Dead. Even Ruben Fleischer’s hilarious Zombieland packed more of an emotional wallop. World War Z has some chilling imagery but never gives us any semblance of solid footing narratively. We never get a real sense of what exactly is going on here to turn humankind into crazed zombies, and the idea Gerry lands on as a possible solution seems a bit shortsighted and confusing.
The problem with World War Z is that it left me largely ambivalent. I didn’t hate the film, but I also didn’t particularly like it. There were times when I felt intellectually engaged, most during a scene between Gerry and a young Harvard scientist (Gabel) on the team to investigate the origin of the zombie virus. The young man gets closest to the theme of the film when he comments that Mother Nature is the world’s worst serial killer. It was the one time when I found myself intrigued and which made me think, and that one moment is the one that will likely stick with me and keep me from disliking this film. We’ve all witnessed the awesome destructive force of nature in recent years, and likening that sort of destruction to the work of a serial killer was a moment that resonated with me.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film did not equal the power of that moment. It is a film with fabulous production values, solid but not particularly spectacular acting, and a plot that could have used a little more substance. I’ve seen better; I’ve seen worse.
Let’s call it a C.