Brad Pitt’s zombie flick is a successful mixture of delight and fright, despite some flaws.
Based on the novel by Max Brooks, War World Z tells the tale of a global zombie (yes — the word isn’t avoided) outbreak and one man’s attempt to find a solution. That man is Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), an ex-UN investigator who is brought back into the fold by an old colleague Thierry (Fana Mokoena) after Lane and his family, including wife Karen (Mirielle Enos), escape Philadelphia. While the film is mostly presented as a summer blockbuster with its fair share of zombie carnage ala The Walking Dead, it has a subtle undercurrent of intimacy that is what ultimately elevates it above another bland entry into the new wave of films about the undead. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film does get off to a somewhat trite start as Lane and family wake up on what they expect will be a normal day, complete with drab family conversation about pancakes for breakfast and unsubtle hints at Lane quitting his old job traveling the world to become a house husband. What is fortunate is that this doesn’t last for long and once the family is on the road there’s rarely a moment of downtime. While the film could use some more moments of reflection, it does a good job of never letting the ball drop and keeping the story rolling. As Lane tells a family that shelter’s them in Newark, “movement is life.”
So it’s with hesitation, but mostly due to force from Thierry and what remains of the U.S. government, that Gerry sets out to try and discover where and how the “disease” started and, hopefully, find clues to stop it. From there it’s mostly a non-stop ride as Gerry travels the world with his first stop being at a base in South Korea where he comes into contact with Captain Speke (James Badge Dale) and some others including imprisoned CIA Agent Gunter Haffner (David Morse) who tips him off to Jerusalem with a promising lead. Since the film moves swiftly, characters like Speke and Haffner come in and out of the story quickly which can be jarring, especially when they are played by a recognizable face. It may have benefited the film to use less known actors if only to downplay expectations of characters’ purpose within the film. However, that’s a minor quibble. Instead, the quick moves of Gerry can ring hollow as places and characters are never really fully understood or known, even Gerry himself and especially his wife whose only purpose is to wait by a satellite phone in hopes that he calls.
If there’s any major flaw it’s that of Karen and the waste of Enos’s talent. While Gerry is realizing the rest of the world is as dire as America is, Karen only exists to create an emotional anchor for Gerry. Karen, herself, serves no purpose as a person and is instead a symbol of Gerry’s new life, the one after he resigned from the UN, and his link to home. It works at times, namely one scene where her late night call almost triggers disaster, but it’s mostly an underwritten subplot and one that could have given the film a greater emotional boost if done better. But the film still mostly works as Gerry begins to slowly understand the nature of the zombies and the suspected disease that they carry. Pitt, the reluctant hero, does embody Gerry well and is the antithesis to the usual action hero that’s all muscles, or guns, and no brain.
Similarly, the zombies are effective yet even they are somewhat underused. Perhaps due to it’s PG-13 rating there really is a general lack of gore and the zombies are mostly seen as a herd of undead animals slowly taking over cities. To the film’s credit, however, the focus of the story isn’t about the zombies and the destruction they’re causing. It’s about Gerry’s journey to find a cure. In that sense, the film stays on track and doesn’t veer from the path it sets out. It also doesn’t hurt that the film has great visuals, both in its sets and its cinematography, that create a sublime sense of dread. Overall, it’s an odd combination of light-zombie action and light-storytelling but somehow it still comes together to create a film that works. It may not be the film some were hoping for but it’s surely one of the better recent entries into the overflowing canon.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5