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'World War Z': The Zombie Apocalypse Gets Super-sized

Brad Pitt's $200 million zombie epic is exciting cinema, but its sloppy, lazy script rips off many better films.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

 
 
 
 

You’re a lot better off if you see  “World War Z” while putting all the Hollywood news and gossip surrounding the film out of your mind. If you don’t think about its tormented production history, its multiple rewrites and reshoots, or a budget that purportedly reached close to $200 million, what you get from Marc Forster’s movie is an expertly paced action thriller in a familiar apocalyptic vein, on a near-epic global scale and featuring some truly breathtaking set pieces. Yes, it seems severely underexplained and oddly curtailed; indeed, after two hours it pretty much just stops, rather than reaching any satisfying denouement. But “World War Z” is a genuinely exciting thrill ride that only occasionally feels bloated or painfully dumb; and overall it’s a good enough summer popcorn flick that Paramount Pictures execs can go to sleep tonight without an entire bottle of Ambien.

Now as to the supposed bigger questions, such as whether this movie has any reason for existing in the first place, whether it has anything to say and whether it adds anything remotely new to the swollen carcass of zombie cinema – I can’t help you there. No, wait, let’s back up: Actually, the first part of that is easy. One of the problems “World War Z” has faced all along is that it looks like a high-concept zombie-apocalypse movie (adapted from Max Brooks’ novel, told as a series of first-person accounts) but it’s really something we don’t see that often these days, an old-fashioned Hollywood star picture. Brad Pitt helped produce the movie, and considering its immense scale and enormous population (both live and undead), he appears on-screen a remarkable percentage of the time, playing one of those indestructible super-secret-agent guys customarily portrayed by Tom Cruise.

It’s not such a great fit. I’m not a Pitt hater by any means, but he lacks the loony edge and native intensity that makes Cruise so perfect for control-freak, OCD-type spook characters. Pitt always looks as if he’s preoccupied by something or drifting off into his private happy place, a quality that was used beautifully by Terrence Malick in “The Tree of Life” and Bennett Miller in “Moneyball,” but is somewhat less desirable when you’re trying to stop the human race from being devoured by zombies. It may also be that United Nations superspy Gerry Lane, Pitt’s character here, has had every possible smidgen of personality sanded away by the five credited screenwriters of “World War Z” (and God knows how many others behind the scenes) in the interests of “protecting the star,” as they say in the trade. So Pitt spends a lot of the movie seeming bored and irritated that zombies have interrupted his Sunday with the family.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed seeing the odd, feral-looking beauty Mireille Enos (of TV’s “The Killing”) as Pitt’s on-screen wife; I wish she had more to do in the film than hunker onboard an aircraft carrier with their kids, hoping the zombies won’t learn how to swim. Here’s what happens in the movie: Zombies attack, human civilization collapses, and Brad Pitt has to figure out what to do about it, pretty much single-handed. No, really, that’s it! The writing team, which includes the “Lost” duo of Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, along with Matthew Michael Carnahan (“State of Play”) and TV veteran J. Michael Straczynski, has essentially aggregated bits and pieces of almost every zombie movie and epidemic thriller of recent decades. At different points in the story, “World War Z” strongly resembles Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake and Steven Soderbergh’s  “Contagion,” and I suppose Danny Boyle and Alex Garland should be flattered by the Vulcan mind-meld level of rip-off perpetrated upon their 2002 near-masterwork  “28 Days Later.”

 
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