World War Z, the best selling book by author Max Brooks, would appear at first glance to be very hard to adapt to the silver screen. The book is a series of interviews, taken in various points around the globe, speaking with survivors, scientists, and soldiers who fought in the war against a zombie outbreak that turned into a world-wide pandemic. There is no real main character, save the interviewer, to latch onto for audiences. It makes for great reading, coming off as a faux history book, but wouldn’t necessarily translate directly to film as it was written. So how did director Marc Forster (Machine Gun Preacher, Quantum of Solace), screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield), and Damon Lindelof (Star Trek: Into Darkness), and producer/star Brad Pitt (Seven, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Ocean’s trilogy) pull it off?
Quite simply- they made the film serve as a sort of prequel to the book.
And that turned out to be a good move on their part, since the book takes place after the event is over. The movie, however, takes place as it’s all getting started. It begins in Philadelphia, where former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt) is looking forward to being retired and spending more quality time with his family, wife Karin (The Killing’s Mireille Enos) and his two daughters. We meet the family over breakfast, but Forster doesn’t linger on this idyllic scene. He stays just long enough for us to get a sense of Lane’s relationship with his family, and sends them off on an outing. While trying to get through gridlocked traffic, a motorcycle flies by, tearing off the family car’s side-view mirror. Naturally Gerry gets out of the car.
And it begins.
An explosion rocks the street, panic ensues, and Lane drives his family through the growing chaos, following a dump truck that is plowing the way. And then a quick glimpse of an attack on another motorist, and Lane watches as the man is transformed in a matter of seconds into a feral creature hell bent on attacking anyone nearby. The action moves quickly, from Philadelphia to Newark, to an aircraft carrier where survivors are gathered and Lane is pressed into government service once again. Lane departs with a doctor to an Army base in South Korea, where it’s believed the outbreak initially began. Needless to say, all does not go as planned, shifting the action to Jerusalem and eventually to Wales, where a unique solution to the outbreak may have been found.
Forster keeps it al moving at a brisk pace, and imbues his zombies with a speed akin to those found in 28 Days/Weeks Later. The zombies move en mass, seemingly with a hive mind, and are relentless in pursuit, homing in on any noise that might signify prey. It makes for a lot of suspense, keeping you on the edge of your seat for a majority of the film’s 116 minute running time. There are a couple of set pieces thrown in- a mass of zombies storming a wall in Jerusalem and an outbreak aboard an airliner stand out- and it’s all relatively bloodless for a change of pace, eschewing the typical zombie movie trope of plenty of gore and more of it. And while most of the zombies are CGI, the up close make-up works well and looks realistic, making them quite believable and chilling. The solution to protecting the survivors from the hordes of ravenous undead is clever, even if it is somewhat implausible. But Pitt and the rest of the cast sell it, and its implausibility doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film. It all leads to a finale that’s open ended enough for a sequel, and yet offers a satisfying conclusion.
The acting is well done by all involved, but make no mistake, this is Pitt’s show. He comes across believable at all times, whether he be a doting father soothing his daughter while she suffers through an asthma attack, or a more daring hero as he infiltrates a lab infested by the undead. Enos does a fine job as the wife left behind to care for Lane’s girls, never getting overly distraught and playing it with just the right amount of emotion. David Morse makes a wonderful cameo as a nicely loony ex-CIA agent who lane encounters at the base in South Korea. Daniella Kertesz is very good as the Israeli soldier Segen, who ends up traveling with Lane as they escape Jerusalem and make their way to the WHO (World Health Organization) research facility in Cardiff, Wales. The dialogue is well written, without any sour notes. The film does have a couple of coincidences to spur on action that are less than inspired (a cell phone rings at an inopportune time, loud singing by the crowd attracts the swarm of zombies) but they’re minor quibbles in an otherwise solid movie.
All in all, World War Z succeeds where it could have failed. Those looking for a faithful adaptation of the book and plenty of blood and gore may be disappointed, but for those looking for an excellent, fast paced thriller that just happens to feature zombies should find a lot to like here. This is a zombie apocalypse well worth your time to experience.
World War Z is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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