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Waves of startling action counterbalance standard one-man-saves-the-day Hollywood heroics in World War Z, an immersive apocalyptic spectacle that tosses the viewer into the deep end of a global zombie uprising and doesn’t let up until close to the end. A bunch of impressive set pieces stitched together rather than a good story convincingly told, this gargantuan production should ride Brad Pitt‘s name, teeming action scenes and widespread interest in all things zombie to strong box office returns, particularly internationally. Whether it will be enough to compensate Paramount and the assorted producers for the $200 million-plus investment and all their production headaches is something they’ll have to sweat out.
While date-night thrill-seekers should be amply satisfied by this ramrod, pedal-to-the-metal confrontation with a zombie plague, fans of Max Brooks‘ 2006 best-seller will find much to be disappointed in. Subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” the savvy, engaging novel was written as a series of postwar interviews with people all over the world that provided a reasonably comprehensive and intriguingly political mosaic portrait of how and why the international calamity played out the way it did.
A faithful adaptation of the book would have structurally resembled Steven Soderbergh‘s 2011 global-reach thriller Contagion, just as it would have retained loads of political material that, as lead producer Pitt himself has bemoaned, is simply not compatible with the financial imperatives of a big-budget blockbuster. Exhibit A: Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) makes it clear that the zombie outbreak began in China; fearful that this little detail might prevent exhibition in the world’s most populous nation, the filmmakers decided that China should go unmentioned.
What could have been an artistically ambitious, multiperspective look at how modern ideological and religious disarray opened the door for catastrophe has, implausibly but understandably, been reduced to the story of a classic reluctant hero’s effort to do what the collective global governments and science geniuses cannot: get to the root of why there are suddenly so many drooling, groaning, jerking and amazingly fast-moving ghouls running around the world interested only in feasting on their former fellow human beings.
Having committed to making the film a wire-to-wire exercise in eluding extreme jeopardy, director Marc Forster and his battery of screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan of The Kingdom, Drew Goddard of Cloverfield and TV’s Lost, Damon Lindelof of Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus and Cowboys & Aliens, as well as Lost, and screen story scribe and original adapter J. Michael Straczynski of Changeling and Thor) have worked out a scenario that feels more like a travel itinerary. Faced with gridlock in downtown Philadelphia that represents the havoc the undead are causing all over the world, retired United Nations troubleshooter Gerry Lane (Pitt) gets his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), and two daughters as far as Newark before his former boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena) sends a chopper to rescue them from a rooftop and spirit them to the temporary haven of command central aboard an Atlantic Ocean-based vessel.
Although it’s not entirely clear how Gerry’s experience with terrorist actions in Chechnya and Africa make him the world’s No. 1 go-to guy to solve the zombie problem, the bearded, long-haired dude is instantly dispatched to rainy South Korea, where he is advised that the North Koreans have cleverly nipped zombieism in the bud through mandatory nationwide teeth extraction. A tense attack drives Gerry back on the plane to head for Israel, the only nation that, as of now, is winning the war against the living dead. From the cockpit, Gerry is startled by what appears to be a nuclear mushroom cloud down below, an arresting vision, to be sure, but one that oddly goes unmentioned thereafter.
The subsequent siege of Jerusalem is unquestionably the great set piece of the film, a spectacular display of the chaotic but comprehensible victory of a staggering number of flesh-eaters finally surmounting the formidable barriers imposed by well-prepared defenders. Covered from all perspectives, from the jammed immigrations lines of sanctuary-seekers to the aerial views revealing the city’s warren of ancient corridors and walls, the convulsive action climaxes with Gerry and a scared, wounded but capable female soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz), desperately climbing aboard the last plane out, a ride which itself becomes another visceral action interlude of a fairly high order.
Much has been made of how the final act, as originally shot, didn’t pan out and was rewritten and refilmed at considerable expense. In the event, the scale and focus of the film is greatly narrowed in the climactic 20 minutes. Set at a top-secret medical research facility in Wales, the sequence is a fairly simple, reasonably well-executed cat-and-mouse game in which Gerry, Segen and a scientist are forced to sneak through a zombie-occupied building to grab a substance that may, or may not, hold the key to stemming the war’s tide. The quiet, pared-down nature of the sequence contrasts strongly with everything that’s gone before, which is not a bad thing, although the very ending rather flatly wraps everything up in a jiffy.
There is certainly a tension running through the film between latent serious ambition and lowest-common-denominator-pleasing requirements, with the latter ruling the day most of the time without entirely erasing evidence of the former. Notwithstanding the expectation that the brave leading man and his adored family will somehow come out of it all unscathed, there are a few narrative surprises along the way and an absence of dumb, clunking dialogue that often infects such fare.
Aside from Pitt, who strides through it all capably and without leading-man airs, the cast is fleshed out with mostly little-known actors. Gerry’s wife,the U.N. boss and the Israeli soldier, for instance, could easily have been cast with names, but having relatively fresh, nondistracting faces in these roles plays well. Kertesz, in particular, gets a big chance with her part and makes the most of it.
On the craft side, it’s easy to see where the money went, as scene after scene overflows with hordes of people (many of them CGI-generated) and elaborate backgrounds. The film is a feast for the eyes (the 3D conversion is very good), while the zombie horror consists mostly of mild jolts rather than shocks. Ben Seresin receives sole cinematography credit, although Robert Richardson was the director of photography on the initial shoot. Marco Beltrami‘s score is almost always there to supply further adrenaline.
Opens: June 21 (Paramount)
Production: Skydance Prods., Plan B Entertainment/2Dux
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Ludi Boeken
Director: Marc Forster
Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan, J. Michael Straczynski, based on the novel by Max Brooks
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Marc Forster, Brad Simpson, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake, Graham King, Tim Headington
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Nigel Phelps
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editors: Roger Barton, Matt Chesse
Music: Marco Beltrami
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Farrar
PG-13 rating, 116 minutes
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