Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: "World War Z"

Director: Marc Forster
Runtime: 116 minutes

Despite the troubled production of World War Z, those involved can breathe a small sigh of relief. Though the final product is no great film, it doesn't have the feel of a film that went through hell and back on its way to the silver screen. On the flip side, the media frenzy surrounding the film might actually be the most interesting aspect. Remove the backstory, and World War Z becomes little more than a decent piece of entertainment with nothing that makes it a must-see event film. 

Loosely (by which I mean it only shares a name) based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name, the film's story follows many typical story arcs from the zombie genre. What this film tries to accomplish, however, is to show the effects of a zombie outbreak on a global scale (think Steven Soderbergh's Contagion meets 28 Days Later). Yet for all of its wide shots of the swarming undead, this strangely episodic journey is more action-thriller than horror scare-fest. Once Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane escapes the overrun streets of Philadelphia, he starts globe-hopping in an attempt to find where the outbreak began. His journey takes him to South Korea, Israel, and England, as he meets with survivors and does lots and lots of running (the zombies themselves are Usain Bolt-level athletes). 

And, like a very fragmented video game, the film jumps from location to location just in time for Gerry to run into some survivors, and then get chased around in a frantic attempt to escape. To the film's credit, the set pieces are varied, ensuring that the action never becomes numbing, and that the level of tension never flags. All the same, when the film takes a moment to slow down, it feels like a video game cut scene: lots of simple conversations with vague pieces of information about what happened. Human interactions, save for some small moments between Pitt and an injured Israeli soldier, are strictly functional components of the script meant to transition the film from one set piece to the next.

Suffice it to say that character development is not World War Z's strong suit. Brad Pitt delivers a capable, workmanlike tone from underneath a terrible hairdo, but his character's quest to reunite with his wife (Mireille Enos, majorly underused) lacks any real heft. The source of the film's dread comes from the broad strokes of the situations, rather than our attachment to the specific traits of the characters. 

However, this problem, while significant, doesn't truly become apparent until after the credits roll. The film's episodic structure is the closest thing the film has to a standout feature, and it at least provides a variety of settings to run from the undead. Marco Beltrami and MUSE frontman Matt Bellamy provide a suitably effective score that hums underneath the action, ensuring that even the film's quieter moments are kept on edge. Yet as much as  the film wants to be an epic, it can't escape the fact that zombies work best when they're being faced in small, claustrophobic settings. 

Thankfully, the film's ending takes this principle and devises a tight and gripping final sequence. Though millions were clearly poured into shots of zombies flooding over the walls of Jerusalem, the most harrowing moments come in scenes set on a plane and the corridors of an empty research facility. By contrast, the film's coda is little more than shrug-inducing, and comes off feeling like little more than a vague set up for a sequel (or a painfully drawn-out prologue to Brooks' novel).

Ultimately, the biggest "failing" of World War Z is simply that it's neither a jaw-dropping train wreck nor a mind-blowing triumph. Forster and Pitt have delivered a perfectly competent and entertaining film that delivers enough suspense, even as it caters to a PG-13 sensibility (you'll find no The Walking Dead-level gore). It is, for the most part, well-crafted entertainment, even though it proves less interesting than its own journey to get made. 

Grade: C+ 

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