Disclosure: I read Max Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z many years prior to watching the film adaptation directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction). I was not immediately thrilled at the prospect of the book being adapted into a full-length feature film. In the literal sense, given the way the book was written I would argue it is essentially unfilmable; I think this even more so after having seen what the numerous credited screenwriters came up with (see venn diagram below, if you care).
There isn’t necessarily a “main character” so why would the film need to star Brad Pitt (Moneyball) as a world-weary expert investigator? Yes, I know Pitt’s production company owns the film rights.
There are numerous storylines in the book that don’t necessarily intertwine, so how could the film’s narrative possibly work in any meaningful way– either being true to the book or not falling into a generic zombie-fest? Yes, I know zombies are trendy and still hot right now, so the answer should be that it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. Just show zombies attack fleeing, frightened people, and lots of paying moviegoers will flock to see it.
I acknowledge that I rightfully fall into the category of literary fan whose opinion is dividedly skewed and biased, but if you read the novel you wouldd totally understand the initial resentment of the film that really couldn’t work from the get-go.
Gripes aside, let me actually review the movie; and yes, much of the criticism is valid. Matt Zoller Seitz was quite spot on when he wrote that the film is “just bloody eye and ear candy.” While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (just ask Michael Bay), a movie about zombies of this magnitude better be something more, especially given that any zombie flick must live up to the expectations set by zombie horror king George A. Romero.
Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations field agent, who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. After the initial zombie onslaught (zombies run fast and jump high in this one), Lane’s family plus one orphaned boy are rescued and transferred to a safe and secure aircraft carrier (a very logical fallback spot). However, not all is sweet and dandy. Lane’s former colleague Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) did the rescuing, and, in exchange for helping them, requests Lane’s assistance in finding the source of the outbreak, which will hopefully lead to a cure for the infected.
Lane travels to South Korea, Israel and Wales. Many characters come and go throughout this journey, but none more interesting than Segen (Daniella Kertesz), a female Israeli solder whom Lane saved from a zombie bite. Somehow Kertesz is able to give her character emotional depth amid the many stilted characters (some could say justifiably shocked, as the world does seem to be ending) in the film.
Zombies also come and go throughout this journey, including throughout a surprisingly unsuspenceful Jurassic Park-like scene where Lane and a few survivors have to avoid many momentarily inactive zombies.
Eventually, Lane develops a theory about zombies throughout his investigation, and there comes a point when he needs to test it. Whether his theory proved valid or not valid doesn’t matter, nor should it. Most good zombie stories center on the survivors and how they try to stay alive. We don’t really get to know Lane’s family, whom we’re supposed to care about. So what if he has a wife and two daughters, a lot of survivors have and have lost loved ones in this disaster.
When I first saw the aircraft carriers, I knew the story wouldn’t work. It disrupts the human scale of surviving a zombie apocalypse. There’s no real tension, especially if you know you’re not the only ones left in the world (we know this because Lane is crisscrossing the world interviewing survivors). As an aside, there’s no real direness to survive if you’re being accompanied by the military. Being heroic would seem optional at this point, and these zombies easily tear through heroes.
So what’s left? Ah yes. Fast zombies really aren’t that terrifying if they’re digital creations, and citywide outbreaks don’t really seem that terrifying as you’re escaping the city on a helicopter. Everyone really does look like ants from thousands of feet in the air. The better scenes feature characters in human scale environments: a hopefully safe apartment building, a lone dark military barracks, or the inside of an airplane. Otherwise, survival gets bogged down from the enormity of the global epidemic because once we see the extent of the problem (i.e., zombies building walls of themselves to overrun Jerusalem), it’s hard to imagine any success or any survival.
Think about superior stories like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or AMC’s The Walking Dead. They each tell the story about a group of survivors in a world ravaged by zombies. Cliché? Maybe. But they work well because these stories give hope that the survivors can possibly stay alive because they have each other. Lane basically had to be manipulated into saving the human race. Ask yourself, is this the person I want as my savior? Or humanity’s?