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World War Z: Z Marks the Spot

by admin June 21, 2013 6:01 am
World War Z: Z Marks the Spot

For reasons mostly pertaining to budget, the majority of movies that depict the zombie apocalypse tend to skip over the actual "apocalypse" part and cut directly to the resulting post-apocalyptic wasteland where the walking dead roam the landscape, feasting on the small pockets of survivors that remain. If for no other reason, World War Z distinguishes itself from the zombie movie pack by depicting how society crumbles in the face of these flesh-eaters, transforming in the blink of an eye from a law-abiding world to an every-person-for-themselves feeding frenzy. It's not unlike the sudden slide into chaos depicted in Steven Soderbergh's terrific viral thriller Contagion, albeit with far less conversation and lots more flesh-biting.

World War Z, which was directed by Marc Forster and written by J. Michael Straczynski and Matthew Michael Carnahan (before being re-written in the editing room by Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard... but more on that later), opens on a seemingly ordinary morning in the home of a seemingly ordinary family, the Lanes, who consist of patriarch Gerry (Brad Pitt), matriarch Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. After downing a pancake breakfast while half-listening to news reports of a nasty virus that's affecting people overseas, the four pile into the car for their regular commute to work and school only to become ensnarled in a nasty traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia. The reason for the gridlock soon becomes terrifyingly clear: there's an army of diseased humans sweeping through the streets, sinking their jaws into anything that moves, creating more monsters in their wake. (Since it matters to fans of the genre, I'll specify that these are the lightning-fast zombies from Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake as opposed to the slower, shambling variety of the George A. Romero's original. Furthermore, they don't linger around to feast on brains, but rather quickly move on to infect the next host -- a process that takes about 12 seconds.)

A former crisis consultant for the United Nations who has been in his fair share of disaster areas, Gerry instantly leaps into action, stealing an abandoned RV and driving his family to the potentially safer confines of Newark, NJ. Turns out that things there are even worse in the Garden State, with violent raids on supermarkets and zombies running rampant throughout apartment blocks. With no other options, Gerry contacts his former employers at the UN and gets his family airlifted to an aircraft carrier off the East Coast where what remains of the American military and government is trying to manage the crisis unfolding on the mainland -- a crisis that has already claimed the life of the President and other high-ranking government officials. Since this refuge is only intended for essential personnel, Gerry is drafted into service in order to keep his and daughters in relative safety. His specific mission? Follow the trail of the plague back to its source, a journey that winds up taking him from a military bunker in South Korea to the walled-off city of Jerusalem to a WHO facility in rural Wales, outrunning certain death everywhere he goes.

The section of the movie that precedes Gerry's departure on his globe-hopping trip is probably the only thing World War Z has vaguely in common with its source material, Max Brooks' much-acclaimed "oral history" of a great zombie war. That book (which, full disclosure, I haven't read in its entirety) presents its narrative from multiple points-of-view and is resolutely focused on the societal implications of a global disaster. Given its status as a big-budget star vehicle, it's slightly disappointing -- but not at all surprising -- that the film version opts to focus on a single individual and, once the set-up is out of the way, mostly avoids social commentary in favor of big set-pieces. So yes, fans of the book will likely be horrified (and not in a good way) by the manner in which it has been brought to the screen. Taken purely as another piece of summer spectacle, though, I have to admit that I had a lot of fun with World War Z, which takes its cue from a key line of dialogue that Pitt delivers early in the movie: "Movement is life."

In the moment, Gerry means that staying barricaded in one place during a crisis all but guarantees death, but Forster also uses his lead character's advice in the way he paces the film. That opening traffic jam is really the only time that World War Z pauses to take a breath, otherwise racing from scene to scene at breakneck speed -- a welcome contrast to several of this summer's blockbusters (looking at you After Earth and Into Darkness) that exhaust themselves with dull exposition and/or bloated runtimes. (Granted, the hurried pace also conveniently distracts you from the logic gaps that form whenever you think too much about the manner in which Gerry makes some of his decisions and realizations.) The narrative provides just enough information at the outset to set the hero in motion and works in additional plot wrinkles through showing rather than telling. And while Gerry isn't an especially complex character, Pitt imbues him with one clear, goal that underlines all of his actions: get back home to his family. In that way, he's a throwback to the adventurers of the '70s and '80s -- hard-traveling heroes who approach their jobs with maximum efficiency and minimum emo-brooding. I'm also happy to see that Forster's imagination for big action set-pieces has increased since his disappointing Bond entry, Quantum of Solace. That shot of the zombie-ladder breaching the walls of Jerusalem that's been teased in all the trailers is a mere prelude to run-and-gun carnage that follows and it's followed by an equally thrilling scene aboard an airplane that's still high above the ground when a zombie attack breaks out. (On the other hand, the director's choreography of these specific sequences is still uneven, marred by a fair amount of shaky-cam and cutting-around-bloodletting in order to nab that all-important PG-13 rating.)

After spending much of the movie going big, the third act of World War Z surprises by marking a hard right turn into the small, stranding Gerry in that WHO facility where he has to navigate past a ward filled with dormant zombies in order to get his hands on a potential weapon humanity can use to fight the walking dead. If this entire sequence feels like a different movie, that's because it essentially is. Not to get too caught up in the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued the film (this article outlines it all quite nicely), but after shooting a climax that involved another enormous battle -- this time on the streets of Moscow -- the studio junked that ending and brought in Lindelof and Goddard to come up with a new finale that would keep Gerry front and center. The duo's solution was to head back into Romero territory, pitting a small band of humans against less animated zombies in a confined, claustrophobic setting. I'd be a harsher critic of this jarring record scratch of a tonal downshift if the resulting sequence weren't so much damn fun to watch, filled with the kind of tension and playfulness in staging that, for me at least, has been missing from destruction-minded spectacles like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3. (On the other hand, the brief coda that closes out the film and lamely strives to set up a sequel feels more like familiar Lindelof in the way it essentially goes: "What, you mean we actually have to end this thing now? Screw it, here's a clip reel.") World War Z may be a Frankenstein's monster of a movie -- stitched together out of parts that just barely fit together -- but it crackles with just enough electricity to keep the story moving forward and take the audience along for the ride.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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