In the recent adaptation of World War Z, Brad Pitt faces the most bloodless apocalypse ever seen on film. Violence is certainly depicted. Planes fall from the sky and entire cities are wiped off the map; yet we see little in the way of real human carnage. Even humanity’s undead adversaries, who move with frenzied, CGI-enhanced speed (except, you know, when they aren’t CGI’d), seem a little toothless in this new, bloated zombie extravaganza.
Amazingly, World War Z isn’t the complete train wreck some thought it was destined to become. It is however definitely mediocre; it’s an impersonal, summer blockbuster that plays it decidedly safe. Completely jettisoned for the adaptation was the novel’s formula, which aped Studs Terkel’s The Good War by presenting oral accounts of zombie war survivors from a variety of different nations. We solely follow Gerry Lane, a former UN “investigator” who at the film’s beginning has left his globe-trotting, investigatory antics behind him. Gone are the war-torn lands! To hell with the exposure of vile war crimes! This is a man who must make pancakes for his family!
And what a family it is, perhaps the most laughably angelic family in recent cinematic history. Mireille Enos (the lead from AMC’s The Killing) plays Gerry’s devoted wife, Karin, a woman who seems remarkably capable in her own right, able to hold a flare like nobody’s business. His children are played by Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove, who both do a good job projecting simple emotions like fear and happiness.
At the beginning of the outbreak, the Lane family is stuck in (pick your idiom) asses-to-elbows or bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s an explosion and a wave of panic, which quickly descends into an almost indecipherable fray, echoing 9/11 and the editing from director Marc Forster’s odious Bond entry, Quantum of Solace.
From that point we’re off on a story whose arcs (and eventual outcome) you can probably already surmise. Pitt, with stringy hair and a surprisingly haggard face, holds the screen well in a role starkly contrasted to his output for the past decade. In order for his family to get preferential treatment, Pitt’s Lane must resign himself to getting back in the game, acquiescing to a request by his old UN buddies to help find the source of the zombie outbreak.
The scenes focusing on the unified Lane clan fighting for survival contain a real and palpable sense of tension, particularly an atmospheric looting sequence at a Newark grocery store. However, once Gerry is separated from his family the film’s scope broadens but our emotional involvement wanes.
The problem is that World War Z is enslaved to the tenants of modern-day, blockbuster filmmaking, which is defined by a number of different attributes: bloodless violence, bloating running times, and perpetually increasing set-pieces and general spectacle. What’s missing is the audience being given a stake in the action or a depiction of the true costs of zombie/human violence. Without these the film is incapable of building much in the way of suspense. Another problem which rears its head continually is Forster’s sense of pacing. The dialogue scenes often possess the feel of filler, expository stuff which exists solely to string the action scenes together. In fact, most of the film doesn’t feel very cohesive. It’s more of a travelogue than a story, a series of events in different parts of the globe only united because they all concern the undead.
But the film’s greatest failing is its lack of personal vision. Forster has always been somewhat inconsistent – but he is not incompetent. At best, he can even be distinctive. This is not present here. The action scenes push no boundaries. There is a nice sequence in a medical laboratory which utilizes sound to create a sense of dread, but we still have seen all this before.
What this story needed was surer hand, a guiding force to add brutality or suspense to the action and a more legitimate sense of thematic weight to a generally slight picture. Gone is the social commentary and the critique of governments from Brooks’ book. Instead, Forster bizarrely attempts to offer some sort of misguided morality tale. The opening credits sequence is composed of real news-clips, which encapsulate our well-known trait for being ignorant and apathetic towards our world. This preachiness rings immediately false, hypocritical even, especially from a film culpable as being part of the “new-normal” in Hollywood, where only a few films suck up almost all of an industry’s resources.
Essentially, we don’t want to be condescended to by a Hollywood blockbuster; we want these films to give us an emotional stake in the action and maybe even a little food for thought. And World War Z is a competent blockbuster, but one devoid of much aside from the surface-level pyrotechnics. Of course, not everyone is capable of connecting spectacle with satire, pathos with pounding feet. But how about an undead force that doesn’t so obviously prescribe to the constraints of the PG-13 formula? Hell, these zombies barely bite.