Review: World War Z (2013)


Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
Director: Marc Forster
Country: USA | Malta
Genre: Action | Drama | Horror | Sci-Fi | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here

Editor’s Notes: World War Z opens wide today, June 21st. For an additional perspective on the film, see Larry’s review.

World War Z is neither a zombie origin nor apocalypse story. Like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, it focuses on the procedural aftermath of shit—or corpses—hitting the fan. But unlike in Soderbergh’s deliberate, systematic procedural, Marc Forster’s cacophonic plague is cataclysmic—at one point we see an early digital tally quickly surpassing three billion without slowing—and World War Z is the more frantic for it. It is “The Great Panic”, and there is little end in sight.

The opening sequence explodes from the gate and we get details on the fly. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a newly minted stay-at-home father. He’s a bit of a bleeding heart. He dismantles panic, and is resourceful. One of his daughters has asthma. Character and plot details come at us rapidly in the first act. There’s so much we must ingest. We need to know these characters. We need a scenario debriefing. On the latter, throughout the film Forster integrates different devices to provide us information: television and radio reports; omniscient wonderings among a makeshift military communication base. We may question their cinematic merit, but the information provided is absolutely necessary.

Mark Forster’s cacophonic plague is cataclysmic—at one point we see an early digital tally quickly surpassing three billion without slowing—and World War Z is the more frantic for it. It is “The Great Panic”, and there is little end in sight.

world_war_z_2013_3During the film’s first five minutes, as Gerry sits in traffic with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters, a garbage truck directed uncontrollably by a now-infected driver mows a clear path through the Philly street. Gerry follows it, but another car hits them and they have to ditch their vehicle as infected begin to swarm over the inundated street. The Lanes haul up in a stranger’s apartment, and Thierry (Fana Mokoena), Gerry’s former UN colleague, arranges to send a helicopter to retrieve them. While there, Gerry tries to convince the family to come with them. “Movement is life,” Gerry tells them. A hoard of zombies breaks into the building as the Lanes leave, which Forster films with a canted camera, riddling us with the sensation that, like all the world, the building is ever ready to collapse.

The film is intelligent, taking care to cram into its speedy storytelling as much procedural credibility as possible. When Gerry fears he might have been infected as they fled to the roof, he runs to the edge, and counts to twelve. He’s not infected. Everyone is to some extent prepared. An infection of this scale could not possibly sneak up on contemporary society, and the film is often concerned with the way in which these immense dangers can hide in finite details.

In fact, that’s the very nature of Gerry’s reluctant yet ensuing investigation into “Patient Zero”. Someone must piecemeal the story together in order for a proper strategy to be formulated. No one’s better at this than Gerry. During the second act, the film invokes the novel’s investigative ethnography. Gerry listens to a Harvard doctor ill-suited for frontline duty deliciously describe Mother Nature as a serial killer; an American captain (James Badge Dale) monologues about an early medical outbreak on his base; a rogue CIA agent reimagines the ominous mystery surrounding North Korea in the novel—all of which builds a variously detailed but spookily vague account similar to Brooks’. The only thing Gerry is missing through all of it is a voice recorder. For me, this was the most compelling portion of the film. The first and third acts are so invariably helter-skelter that the tension can wane in the imbalance. A better film might’ve stuck to the investigative reporting. But how do you sell “All the President’s Men with zombies”? (Wait. Damn. Like that.) Nonetheless, there are worse things than probably being the best popcorn flick yet this summer.

The film is intelligent, taking care to cram into its speedy storytelling as much procedural credibility as possible.

world_war_z_2013_4Gerry’s investigation leads him to Jerusalem, which winds up being one extended set piece. The only nation to take seriously the early incidents of the zombie plague, Israel enclosed Jerusalem with a towering barricade they dubbed The Wall. They’re also permitting entry to any uninfected people, even Palestinians. Initially the mercy seems a rare dabble into humanism for a film and novel—the latter much more thoroughly—cynical of modern civilization and government. However, Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken)—spy in the novel, de facto leader of Israel here—ascribes the lenience to pragmatism: everyone they save represents one less flesh eating zeke whose brains will need shredding. Fans of the novel know Jerusalem’s fate. The body count proceeds to enumerate.

A PG-13 zombie film can pose a tough task. These are inherently grotesque and barbaric creatures. Forster employs a kinetic style to avoid the gore. We’re either jumping around a scene or the camera quivers so that some gruesome moments play out just out of frame. The strategy’s effective. The film maintains satisfying fear when it needs to and makes use of an unsettling score that recalls John Carpenter’s Halloween. I can live with that. The fundamental question of the whole project, though: How do you make a film out of a mock-ethnographic novel? Forster and his slew of writers—whose specific credits have grown convoluted with the numerous rewrites—consolidate the novel’s timelines, Gerry instead experiencing firsthand some of the horrors retold to him in the novel by interviewees. The solution, in hindsight, seems relatively simple, but it is nonetheless clever.

Pitt’s charisma as Gerry comes and goes, but despite the fact she can barely find screen time, Israeli actress Enos crafts an authentic turn as wife Karin Lane. The finale, which had been so problematic during production—hence script M.D. Damon Lindelof—stumbles over the film’s foundation. We get a bit more zombie convention than we do captivating investigative procedural—and an odd messianic moment may cause pause—but the film as a whole capitalizes on the sliver of material it pulls from Brooks’ novel. The film’s resolution, which harkens to a wickedly critical moment in the novel, also makes for an incredibly savvy segue for a second film, the desire for which Pitt and Forster have in shades acknowledged, as long as moviegoers show up for this one. We wouldn’t mind a World War Z: Total War, would we?

72/100 ~ GOOD. World War Z is probably the best popcorn flick yet this summer.

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I recently graduated with honors from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies and English. I wrote and edited video for Syndicate Mizzou, I've blogged for The Missouri Review (one of the most reputable literary journals here in the states) and currently work there, and I presented a paper on zombie folklore and 28 Days Later and the 2012 Missouri Folklore Society conference.

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  • Bryan Murray

    I never read the book so I may have enjoyed this film much more than those who read it

  • Chris D. Misch

    I’m in the same boat. Haven’t read the book, but I’ll be watching the film tonight.

  • Chris D. Misch

    This review alone is getting me into the movie theatres tonight!

  • Kyle Burton

    I read segments of the book for a zombie film class. It’s good, but the structure is unfilmable. Easily enough material left for on more global zombie extravaganza.

  • Kyle Burton

    Thanks! Yeah, the logic held up until the third act, where the characters aren’t quite as thorough, but I trust it’s better than what it must have been.

  • Sharon Ballon

    I didn’t read the book & I enjoyed it for what it was.. entertainment. Thanks Kyle for the review. It helped make up my mind.

  • Kyle Burton

    Glad I could help keep your internal dialogue going. Good to hear.