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WORLD WAR Z
(**)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Marc Forster
Written by:
Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard &
Damon Lindelof. Based on the novel by Max Brooks
Starring:
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
Length:   116 minutes
Released:   062113
Rating:
PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
“...just another run-of-the-mill zombie film without any of the social commentary of a Romero or a Boyle..." 

Essentially there are two iterations of movie zombie, the George A. Romero swaying, snail-paced automaton that doesn’t pose a threat to anyone in reasonable shape and the infected of 28 Days Later; savage, fast, psychotic – predators you can believe in.

World War Z showcases the second. There’s a global conflict to deliver and human kind isn’t going to buckle from a pandemic of slow moving brain connoisseurs. The problem is that Marc Forster’s film is a summer tent pole with a blockbuster price tag. It must snap to fit a teen friendly rating – an obnoxious (and now all too common) example of demographics informing content. Consequently this sanitized pandemic can’t hope to offer the kind of brutality that Danny Boyle achieved in his Zombie reinvention or even the kind of gooeyness being shown weekly on TV's The Walking Dead. This is a shame because these are the kind of demented undead a World War requires.

Here they’re toned down lest they fall foul of the censor. They’re permitted to head butt the odd window, like Hitchcock’s similarly out of control birds, they form unnatural ant-like towers, trying to breach walled defenses, and advance in bug-like swarms but they’re never the visceral, violent threat that Boyle inflicted on the British. Given these constraints it might have been better if Forster had adopted Romero’s living dead. You could work with them on a bloodless takeover and you’d even have the option of substituting threat for satire.

Instead of frequent notes in the margin about how our much hyped civilization, the envy of other planets, responds to being overwhelmed by ravenous monsters, we have UN troubleshooter Brad Pitt, never a hair out of place, circumnavigating the globe, looking for clues to a cure. The early portion of the film, set in Philadelphia but filmed in Glasgow to save on makeup and crowd control costs, annotates the slaughter with a few well-chosen asides; a beat cop more concerned for himself than arresting Pitt for murder, a hoodey who hands over asthma medication for Brad’s sick daughter. The message is clear enough; as Rome burns you find out what people are made of and the best of us aren’t the ones you might expect, but that’s as close as we get to any account of the war’s social impact. The rest is an inanimate, sometimes subdued Pitt on his travels, running from the diseased hoards. It’s a non-stimulating investigation that threatens to turn World War Z into World War Zzzzzzzzz.

Forster’s got a good eye and gives a sense of scale to proceedings, particularly in Jerusalem, where the crazed infected are photographed from above, bug-like, but he can’t deliver original thrills. We’ve seen this or something like it so many times before that any sense of shock immediately dissipates. Despite its $200m price tag, the very thing that might have made it distinctive – grand, set piece Zombie attacks – is lacking, particularly in a low-key and underwhelming third act set in, and I’m not making this up, a Welsh health clinic (an act reshot in its entirety, making the original more of a curiosity than the film itself). Consequently a film that cost about as much to produce as Man of Steel culminates in Brad Pitt walking along a corridor, having broken a vending machine. It’s a heart stopping denouement that’s words can’t adequately convey. 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."

Had Brad’s investigation being more labyrinthine, more complicated, perhaps this would have been a genuine fresh twist on a well-worn genre. Instead Pitt makes progress based upon a couple of conversations and some lucky observations. There’s no sense he’s had to work particularly hard to yield this information, nor that he required a special skill set to do it. In fact, our suspicions that Pitt’s knowledge is wanting are confirmed more than once – he gets drops of Zombie blood in his mouth, doesn’t turn but doesn’t think to report it in case it may be medically significant; he’s so desperate to kill Zombies that he throws a grenade on a aircraft, causing it to crash, but having survived that it doesn’t occur to him to kill the Zombie that also survived. Is this man truly our best hope or have the better UN investigators been killed? It’s a question neither asked nor answered.

As Pitt’s quest runs its course we’re reminded that disease flicks needn’t be derivative or uninspired. David Morse features as a toothless traitor in a South Korean holding cell. Once upon a time Morse and Pitt were suspects in another global pandemic, the viral genocide of 12 Monkeys. Visual imagination, intrigue, a surprising conclusion – we were doomed yet entertained. There was even a grab bag of jokes in that apocalypse. Those were the dying days.

What is most frustrating about "World War Z" is that it isn't completely terrible and has more standout elements on display than most summer 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. 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.
 

WORLD WAR Z © 2013 Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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