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Review: ‘World War Z’ Wins a Few Battles But Loses the War

By  · Published on June 20th, 2013

Zombie movies come preloaded with some fairly clear-cut expectations. Unless they’re going the comedic route, a la Zombieland or Return of the Living Dead, a zombie flick should be scary, feature folks shambling running rising from the dead, and show lots of gory flesh-munching and grievous bodily harm.

Or, you know, they can just make it up as they go along.

World War Z chooses that latter route, and the result is a PG-13 zombie film that offers very little to chew on, but while it fails as an entry into the zombie sub-genre it finds a little bit more success as an action/adventure with an unconventional leading man.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is new to the stay-at-home dad thing, but his past job as an elite problem-solver for the government used to being dropped into international hot zones comes in handy when a family drive through Philadelphia is interrupted by a zombie apocalypse. His old governmental cronies come calling, and after a terrifying night holed up in an infested apartment building Lane and company are airlifted to the safety of an aircraft carrier. The catch is that in exchange for his his wife (Mireille Enos) and children’s loosely guaranteed safety they expect Lane to head out into the big, undead world in search of patient zero and a cure.

“Mother nature is a serial killer.”

Lane flies off to a U.S. base in South Korea before moving on to Israel and elsewhere, and each stop on his world tour brings new challenges and action set-pieces. Those set-pieces come mostly in two flavors. Several are wide shots (similar to the image above) showing mass mayhem as hundreds of tiny, CGI zombies overrun the living along with any obstacles in their path as they riot in the streets. There’s a distinct I Am Legend feel to some of these scenes, but they work due to their scale and implied ferocity.

Far less effective and actually damaging to the film as a whole are the smaller scenes of chaos that see Lane under direct attack alongside his family or fellow would-be heroes. Director Marc Forster caught a lot of flack for his supposed inability to shoot and edit action scenes in Quantum of Solace (a charge which I still refute as none of the action there falls flat for me), but he goes out of his way to confirm that label here. A stairwell fight early in the film may as well have unfolded via post-attack exposition thanks to Forster’s decision to present it tightly cropped and severely under lit. (The automatic dimming resulting from 3D glasses doesn’t help matters any either.) A runway-set scene later on is equally underwhelming even as zombies and soldiers are reportedly brawling before our eyes. Scenes like these lose any semblance of suspense or excitement because we’re too often literally in the dark as they unfold.

Production woes and rumors don’t really belong in a film review, but World War Z is an interesting case where known changes have had a distinct and very clear effect on the finished film. Foster saw his highest budgeted feature (slightly edging out Quantum of Solace) undergo some late in the game re-shoots that added a few smaller scenes throughout in addition to an entirely new third act. What makes this relevant is that the movie is at its best, by a wide margin, during its final forty or so minutes.

Where most big summer movies ramp up the action and spectacle in their final minutes this new finale succeeds by slowing things down even as the stakes reach new heights. For the first time in the film real drama and suspense are woven together with strong character work and a heightened level of tension and climactic weight. Of course the good comes with some bad too as the preceding acts feel like a mess of aborted story lines and abandoned characters.

There are smaller, unsung moments that work too including Lane’s close call with infected blood on a rooftop and his well presented smarts that see him escape criticism as yet another dumb character in the summer of big screen idiocy. The supporting cast adds to these more minor moments with recognizable faces like Enos, Peter Capaldi, James Badge Dale and David Morse each earning viewers’ attention.

World War Z is a terribly lackluster zombie movie, and from what I understand it’s also a major misfire as an adaptation of Max Brooks’ bestselling oral history (that probably deserved more of an HBO series than a feature). Those of us who haven’t read the book and can look past the lack of bloodletting though will find a flawed, mixed-bag of an adventure that saves the best for last.

The Upside: Third act nails small-scale thrills, suspense and drama; some small, smart moments; fun seeing Brad Pitt in an action-oriented role; familiar faces in the supporting cast; Daniella Kertesz

The Downside: Movie feels disjointed; several action sequences are shot/edited terribly; plot threads are discarded; bloodless zombie action is not zombie action; 3D is pointless here

On the Side: Matthew Fox receives sixth billing in the credits but is onscreen for less than three seconds

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.