The troubles that this Brad Pitt-starring adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel World War Z has faced getting to the screen are well documented. We’ve all read about the re-writes, the re-shoots, and the re-edits. In the event, the joins in the film’s edit are pretty much seamless. But those joins are not the film’s primary sticking points, because this feels like a project that never quite decided what kind of film it wanted to be.
Marc Forster’s World War Z is one of those films that, even as it’s playing, you wish could be dismantled and reshot, because clearly, at some point, there was an interesting film to be made out of this. The final result here is not a disaster, but it’s also quite far from a roaring success.
The basic premise concerns a sudden outbreak of mutations taking place across the globe, which turn crowds of normal humans into hordes of vicious predators. Are they zombies? The film isn’t afraid to use the word, so we’ll say that they are. Ex-UN field agent Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his family narrowly escape an outbreak of the zombie virus at the start of the film, and it’s then up to Gerry to travel around the world attempting to locate the source of the crisis in order to find a solution.
What sets the film apart from others in the same genre is its hordes of fast-moving, leaping zombies, who if you’ve seen the promo material you’ll know are capable of scaling massive walls simply by piling up against them in giant towers of bodies. The zombie hordes are an impressive visual creation and a genuinely unsettling sight, but the film doesn’t make as much use of them as you might expect. In fact, there’s only really one big set piece in which Forster allows the film to go into ‘war mode’ – the rest of the time it’s smaller in scale, with distinctively mixed results.
The plot has Gerry travelling around the world to a remarkable assortment of locales – including South Korea and Wales – but the globetrotting feels a little redundant. These set pieces could take place anywhere in the world, really, and it gives the film a waypoint sort of structure that reduces its supporting characters to tiny, insignificant roles. One minor exception to that rule comes in the form of an Israeli soldier (Danielle Kertesz), who is effective, but in general the film feels desperately short of personality. Gerry’s family is off screen for most of the runtime, and Mireille Enos (as Gerry’s wife) is thanklessly reduced to staring at a mostly blank mobile phone screen and weeping. It’s a shame, because Pitt and Enos have good chemistry in the early scenes, but really this is a film about Brad Pitt flying around the world.
Thank goodness an actor of Pitt’s quality is starring in this. He also produced the film and has been heavily involved in its development cycle, but it’s hard to imagine this is the film he envisioned coming out at the end of it. With a lesser central presence, the film would lack almost any personality at all, so it’s to his credit that he brings believability to the choppy narrative, even when the script flirts with risibility at times.
The film’s surprisingly low key, and pleasantly restrained, final act is a mixed bag. On the one side it gives Pitt some interesting moments, but it also suffers from a minor logic implosion (tension is created rather arbitrarily at one point) and, crucially, it uses the zombies up close, which is where they’re at their least effective. Flooding through streets and tearing cities apart, these zombies a fearsome force, but in close quarters they’re disappointing, and sadly lack a real threat. There are also a couple of (I assume) unintentionally funny moments in the final act that poke unwanted holes in the tension. Save from one or two brief moments, the film is almost entirely bloodless, so it could have done without structural and script issues dulling its impact.
The film closes with a clumsy voiceover that baits a sequel – whether we’ll ever see it looks questionable at this point. This film’s budget has soared beyond what was originally set down, and with marketing costs added on (thanks to delays, the promotional effort has been protracted), it will need to earn a hefty chunk at the international box office to give the studios serious sequel ambitions. World War Z is not without intrigue and features some effectively put together action sequences (the be st ones make less prodigious use of the film’s occasionally infuriating rapid editing), but it’s not a zombie movie for the canon, or one of Pitt’s most memorable performances.