World War Z: Post-Apocalyptic Thriller, Starring Brad Pitt

Disregard the protracted production process and negative pre-publicity of the eagerly-awaited post-apocalyptic thriller “World War Z”–it’s worth seeing for many different reasons. Among other merits, the film offers Brad Pitt one of his strongest parts, which he plays with skill, charisma and gravitas.

For months, we have been hearing about the escalating budget (rumored to be close to $200 million), artistic differences between director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt, whose production company Plan B made the picture, delays in release (it was supposed to come out in late 2012), rewrites (four scribes are credited), reshoots (cinematographer Robert Richardson began shooting but is not acknowledged in the credits, a whole new last reel) and so on.

Yet while ignoring the above extra-filmic elements, a different image emerges while judging “World War Z” on its merits, as a sleek, star-driven Hollywood blockbuster. Thus, it’s a pleasure to report that the movie is effective as an intelligent geopolitical thriller, an engaging apocalyptic saga, and, not to underestimate, an honorable contribution to Hollywood’s decades-old zombie genre.

The movie is by no means flawless (more about it later), but it has a lot to offer, both as mass-oriented entertainment and as ideological message picture, if you perceive the zombies as a symbol or metaphor for any rapidly spreading virus which causes lethal effects of global proportions.

World premiering in Europe (London, Paris), “World War Z” will be released by Paramount on June 21 (what a way to officially begin the summer season!), barely a week after Warner’s highly-anticipated Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” which opens June 14. Star Pitt has been campaigning really hard all over the world, including some unannounced fans screenings stateside.

In many ways, “World War Z” is the opposite of Steven Soderberg’s “Contagion,” which was intriguing but ultimately disappointing. “Contagion” was a timely thriller but too much of a procedural, with one-dimensional individuals contained in a globe-trotting plot. Despite an all-star cast, there were no real characters for the audience to relate to or identify with.

In contrast, “World War Z” is very much a Hollywood vehicle in the positive sense of the term, celebrating stardom and reaffirming heroic individualism to their extreme versions. Brad Pitt is extremely well cast as the protagonist, Gerry Lane, a former employee of the United Nations who is now a happy family man, devoted to his beautiful and adoring wife (Mireille Enos) and their two young daughters. However, when an epidemic spreads whereby the human race take on zombie form when bitten, Lane is called upon by his former employers to help find a cure for a gravely menacing ailment that threatens to destroy the whole planet.

But summing up the plot in one paragraph doesn’t do justice to the movie as a whole, which is rich in text and subtext, boasting some exciting set-pieces, and building towards a last reel and a finale that are nothing short of thrilling.

It’s impossible to make a zombie movie these days without contextualizing it vis-à-vis other works of the genre, brought back to life from the dead by George Romero, beginning with “Night of the Living Dead,” in 1968. Since then there have been dozens of zombie features, though none registers strongly—artistically or commercially. You may recall “28 Days Later” and its imitators, “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” and most recently, “Warm Bodies,” all of which tried to reinvigorate the genre with touches of irony and comedy, but they were too self-conscious and self-referential for their own good. One of their problems was that they were made for adolescents and teenagers.

In contrast, “World War Z” is targeted at a broader audience, which includes more mature and adult viewers than is the norm for mainstream pictures. The movie has a literary pedigree: It is based on the popular post-apocalyptic novel, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” penned in 2006 by Max Brooks (son of director Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft). Brooks’ book, which is written in first person and relies on subjective accounts by various individuals who experienced the catastrophe, treats the zombie ailment as a global pandemic spreading like other viruses, such as SARS. Brooks later published a companion field manual, “The Zombie Survival Guide.”

The script is credited to four writers, Matthew Michael Carnahan (“The Kingdom”), Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield,” TV’s “Lost”), Damon Lindelof (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” ”Prometheus”) and J. Michael Straczynski (“Changeling,” “Thor”), so it’s impossible to tell who did what. Director Marc Forster and his scribes faced considerable challenge in transferring page to screen, which they only partially meet. The scenario is functional but devoid of deep political insights—it feels like a product designed by a committee to meet the specification of a strong star and a big-budget picture.

On an ordinary day, driving in downtown Philadelphia, Gerry and his family are interrupted by a seemingly bad gridlock. An ex-United Nations investigator and troubleshooter, Lane immediately senses that this is no ordinary traffic jam: as police helicopters buzz the sky and motorcycle cops careen below, the city erupts into chaos.

It turns out that “something” is causing masses of people to viciously attack each other, a lethal virus that is spread through a single bite, turning healthy humans into unrecognizable, feral, and cruel creatures. You cannot trust anyone, as neighbor turns on neighbor; a helpful stranger suddenly becomes a dangerous enemy.

While the origins of the virus are unknown, the number of infected grows exponentially larger each day, quickly becoming a global pandemic. As the infected overwhelm the world’s armies and rapidly topple its governments, Lane is forced to return to his dangerous former life to insure the safety of his family, leading a desperate worldwide search for the source of the epidemic and a means to stop its relentless spread.

The Lanes get themselves to Newark, where Gerry’s former U.N. boss Thierry (South African actor Fana Mokoena) sends a chopper to rescue them to the command central aboard an Atlantic Ocean-based vessel. Lane is then dispatched to South Korea, where he is informed of the North Koreans’ strategy–nationwide teeth extraction. A ferocious attack gets Lane back on the plane to Israel, reportedly the only country that’s winning the war against the living dead.

The convulsive action climaxes with a siege of Jerusalem, a gorgeously staged and shot set-piece. Lane and a wounded but brave female soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz), barely survive by climbing aboard the last plane out, a ride which becomes yet another visceral piece due to the nature of the passengers.

Some compromises have been made in the transfer from page to screen. In the book, the zombie outbreak begins specifically in China, but in the movie, this country is not mentioned. Lacking the book’s intellectual ambitions and more overt politics, the movie is content in describing how ideologically disparate countries and governments would deal with a virus that turn their residents into rabid beasties.

While America descends into madness, panic, and chaos, two countries that could not have been more different in ideology and politics, deal with the virus in their own ways. Israel builds a gigantic wall (an intentional or unintentional reference to the wall between the country and the Palestinians?). In contrast, the Korean government, expected to take radical measures, decrees to extract the teeth of its entire population.

In the newly reshot climax, set in Wales at a clandestine medical research center, Segen and another scientist sneak through a zombie-occupied building to get a substance that might help resolve the problem.

It’s hard to tell whether the depiction of the zombie horrors is mild rather than scary or gory (by today’s standards) due to the PG-13 rating or a sincere reflection of the filmmakers’ aesthetics.

The crowd scenes, many of which are CGI-generated, and the elaborate landscapes of the story’s various locations, are satisfying.
Technically, the film is a feast for the ears and the eyes, boasting state of the art visual and sound designs, with a creditable conversion to 3D technology.

Emanuel Levy contributed to this essay.
A longer review will be published later today.