Z is for Zombie: It’s Brad Pitt vs. the World in ‘World War Z’

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Have you heard the one where the big fat movie star signs on to do a big fat summer blockbuster? Only there’s trouble at every turn and there are rewrites and reshoots and on set fights that lead to the movie star and the director giving each other the silent treatment? Turns out, this one doesn’t end how you think it will because World War Z is a pretty enjoyable movie on-screen, if you can ignore all the off-screen drama. Brad Pitt‘s big zombie movie may have looked like it was going to be a big stinker there for a minute, but you owe it to yourself to give the movie a clean slate if you plan on going to see it this weekend.

That’s not to say World War Z‘s numerous reshoots, as chronicled by the Huffington Post’s Mike Ryan (warning: spoilers), don’t cause some problems, because they do. Namely, the movie’s third act feels like an entirely different movie than its beginning and middle. They are, however, both good movies and the new scenes, particularly at the beginning, absolutely ground the film. For its problems, World War Z is ultimately a surprisingly good and undeniably enjoyable film.

Brad Pitt is perhaps not entirely suited for what is arguably his first straight-up action hero role. Tasked with saving the planet from almost certain decimation, he seems more agitated at the timing of the zombie outbreak which ruined a road trip with his family. (Yes, this movie is about zombies. Perhaps aware of zombie film fatigue, the movie’s marketing campaign has made a concerted effort to downplay the zombie element of this movie.) His wife played by Mireille Enos is, predictably, not given much to do except sit on an aircraft carrier and worry about her husband. In fact, no one is really given anything to do, the movie is a Brad Pitt star vehicle by the strictest definition of the phrase. Blink and you’ll miss Matthew Fox. David Morse‘s single scene as a rogue CIA agent feels ripped from a different, much darker movie entirely and he’s gone all too quickly. James Badge Dale shows up for a few minutes, as seems almost obligatory for a summer movie this year (he’s in Iron Man 3 and The Lone Ranger as well). But, ultimately, World War Z isn’t so much about the individual performances as it is about the danger and suspense.

Director Marc Forster has done a bang-up job here. For a film on such an immensely grandiose scale, it feels remarkably intimate. Forster’s choice to place the camera inside the car with Pitt and his family during the first zombie attack connects the audience to the story. It’s a testament to Forster’s diverse talents that the movie’s two best sequences are the thunderous and massive zombie attack on Jerusalem and the suspenseful, if almost lonesome, zombie confrontation in Scotland. In his hands, World War Z is a worldwide pandemic film with an unexpected sense of suspenseful claustrophobia.

Those who prefer their action movies with plenty of exposition will feel slighted; this movie wastes no time getting to the point. It’s not 10 minutes into the movie that Philadelphia has been ransacked by zombies. The film never explains how this pandemic managed to spread so quickly. At the film’s start, there are no reports of the rabies-like disease in the U.S., 10 minutes later every major city in the world has fallen. Like, president dead, very few survivors fallen. It’s one of several logical leaps the audience is asked to make with the movie.

Once the U.S. falls, Pitt racks up stamps in his passport, traveling to South Korea, then Israel, then Scotland, then Canada. It’s a suspenseful trip filled with more than a few scares and only the slightest glimmer of hope. Forster does a good job of milking this suspense without manipulating the audience. The score by Marco Beltrami is strong too, and the movie’s Exorcist-invoking repeated refrain will likely stick with you after the credits roll. The film’s 3D, too, works. Never gratuitous, it serves to make the audience feel closer to the action, but doesn’t pander with cheap tricks like zombies jumping out into the crowd.

The film does fall flat in parts where it tries to convey some deeper message. Israel builds a border wall. Sure! North Korea pulls the teeth of all its citizens. Why not! When we ignore the perils of the third world, they eventually come to affect us, the film nudges, careful not to say it too loudly, lest you forget this is a June release meant to make money and not to challenge or offend. The plot’s more symbolic elements are a nod to its source material, the highly political book of the same name by Max Brooks. This movie could have worked either as some deep allegory or pure entertainment, but straddling the line is not a good solution. When I interviewed the film’s cast and crew at the New York premiere, each person was quick to inform me that it was not a zombie movie. It is, however. Very much so. But it’s a good one!

Overall, World War Z is at its best when it’s an exciting, surging action movie. It mostly plays like the an exhilarating summer movie: fast paced, bracing and not too long (Z clocks in right at two hours). In a summer full of lazy blockbusters, World War Z never stops trying. And it’s a perfectly entertaining bit of air-conditioned fun for a sweaty June day.