[Ed. Note: This movie review contains spoilers.]
From the moment the movie opens, everything in Marc Forster’s “World War Z” happens at warp speed.
We barely have a chance to meet Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, and his family before the entire city of Philadelphia is ransacked (sorry Pat’s), just 10 minutes into the movie. The rest of the U.S. is overrun a short time later. Suddenly Lane — who we learn was a former United Nations Investigator, which took him to war-torn places like Liberia and Yugoslavia — is off with a team composed of some Navy SEALs and a Harvard scientist to South Korea to try to discover the origins of a virus that has much of the world turning into world-class sprinting zombies. And I don’t want to get into the fast versus slow zombie debate in this article, but, just so you know, I’m on the side of the slow zombies.
If that summation seemed fast, it’s because that’s how the material is presented to the movie viewer. Little back story is given on why Lane has retired from his position as a United Nations Investigator or what he did in the countries where he was sent. There’s simply no time. Lane quickly learns that there’s nothing for him in South Korea and is then off to Jerusalem, where they have managed to keep the zombies out. When Jerusalem is overrun minutes after Lane’s arrival, he’s off to a World Health Organization research facility in Wales, where the frantic pace mercifully subsides.
While the frantic pace keeps you on your toes, it doesn’t allow any time for character development. You don’t learn anything about Lane’s family, save for the fact that one daughter has asthma and his wife calls him on the phone at inopportune times. The Lanes rescue a young boy named Tommy during a brief stopover in Newark, but he serves little purpose in the narrative arc.
In fact, every character is equally flat throughout the movie. The Harvard scientist, Dr. Andrew Fassbach, initially gives the impression that he will play Lane’s sidekick as they travel to South Korea together. Instead, he only survives long enough to deliver a cryptic monologue on how Mother Nature is a “serial killer” but usually “hides her weaknesses as strengths,” before slipping at the first sight of a zombie and shooting himself in the face. An Israeli soldier named Sergen eventually proves to be Lane’s sidekick, joining him on his trip to Wales, but, like everyone else in the movie, you know nothing about her.
The flatness of the characters produced by the pace keeps the movie from being many things, but, most importantly for the zombie genre, it keeps it from ever really being scary. Sure, there are the expected jumping-out-from-behind-a-corner moments, but the speed never allows the viewer to feel any dread, a crucial component of any zombie flick. Rather, the zombies tackle the living like NFL linebackers sacking a quarterback and then the camera jerks away to follow Lane to wherever he’s running next. More importantly, though, because you are simply given flat, stand-in characters, you aren’t invested in them and don’t particularly care whether they survive or not.
Part of what makes a TV show like “The Walking Dead” or movies like George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” compelling and frightening is that you are invested in the characters. You want Ben to survive in “Night of the Living Dead” because over time you see the courage and strength that he shows in protecting a group of people he just met and has no responsibility toward. You cringe when Andrea is bitten at the end of the third season of “The Walking Dead” since you’ve seen the arc her character has been on throughout the show. There simply isn’t any of that in “World War Z.” The film doesn’t force you to pull for anyone.
Strangely, once Lane and Sergen reach the WHO center, everything slows down. It’s almost as if the creators remembered they were making a zombie move. The two major characters are forced to go into an area to retrieve an item (I won’t ruin the ending for you in case you still haven’t seen it) that might solve the entire zombie problem. Although you still don’t really care whether they make it out or not, the slower pace creates the suspense and dread that was missing from the rest of the film. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late.
Of course, there are probably explanations for why “World War Z” ended up like it did. The script was rewritten multiple times, went over its budget and had to be reshot by Forster. The novel off which it is based doesn’t have a central character and instead shifts settings and characters from section to section and is thus likely more appropriate for a TV series than a movie. Even so, it seems like the creators of the movie version of “World War Z” could have come up with a better product than this, or, at the very least, eliminated the numerous problems that plague the movie.
Still, with all of this said, there are plenty of people that enjoyed the movie, including some critics who have found it praiseworthy. For a zombie snob like myself though, it simply eschews too many of the conventions of the genre without adding anything new to it. If it were to add something to the genre while flouting so many of its hallmarks, as Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did, many of these decisions could be forgiven. Without doing so, its problems keep the movie from being anything other than a way to occupy a summer night.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
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♦ Viral Video of the Day: The Best Game You’ve Never Seen