World War Z: A Humanitarian Blockbuster

Despite the well known and documented backstage drama, World War Z surprises as a very human blockbuster that allows star Brad Pitt to live out wish fulfillment as UN savior.

More “We Are the World” than Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” World War Z is the Children of Men of zombie apocalypse films. Without fully answering to its chaos with a Resident Evil or Zombieland-like shoot ’em up, World War Z opts into venture the more nuanced and mature route. The thrills in this movie are not in watching zombies get re-mutilated, but in arguably more sophisticated pleasures; it is a story that takes compelling turns while presenting its own horrific reality. This movie is based on Max Brooks’ hot novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, but is apparently nothing like the book. Yes, this movie’s title promises a world at war and the letter “Z,” but this film ain’t entirely focused on the element of combat. It’s not hard to imagine a movie of this name featuring large battle sequences between the living and the living dead…You know, like how a war is supposed to play out. But no such concept is on the agenda for this movie, which follows a much more humanitarian aspect. Here is a film that goes the pacifist’s angle of its whole problem with star Brad Pitt shown more often running from these existential crises than loading up buckshot and goin’ huntin’. Our lead hero in this movie mostly wants to understand the problem, something that is striking considering so many recent zombie movies take an offensive angle. Whether it’s Woody Harrelson in Zombieland, or John Malkovich in last winter’s Warm Bodies, it’s re-kill first and ask “how the fudge did this happen” later. In that regard, the best attribute of this overall surprising experience is that it’s so refreshing. I didn’t think such could be the case, especially when the idea of a “zombie apocalypse” is usually the subject of an unfunny Facebook comedian’s joke. Or, even worse, it encompasses the central subject of weak geek chic merchandising. But a lot can certainly change when a talented actor believes in your fantasy and when a script challenges itself to constantly surprise its audience.
 Before we get into the zombies, let’s discuss the biggest life force of this movie, Brad Pitt. Pitt’s Gerry is really the only character who matters in this flick, as everyone moves in and out of the picture while he is saddled with figuring the whole epidemic out. Some people provide information (such as David Morse, sans chompers), but those scenes clearly prove to be the film’s most boring segments. While the globetrotting makes for good action scenes, we do not really care about the numerous pieces to this puzzle. All that matters is that we are eventually given a good solution for all the zombie craziness.  Taking a look at Pitt’s IMDb listing in the last five years or so, his screentime with guns, or causing violence, feels selective. He has not really done an “action” movie since Inglourious Basterds in 2009, and even then he wasn’t the one scalping the “Nat-zis.” Sure, in last year’s Killing Them Softly, Pitt is shown on the poster with a shotgun, but the violence he commits in the movie is much colder and methodical than a Mr. & Mrs. Smith shoot out in 2005. Point being, Pitt is not the type to gravitate towards the simple idea of violence, and that turns out to be a blessing for this movie’s appeal. Casting Pitt as a dad who formerly worked for the United Nations is not a big stretch for the actor, considering it likely plays into wish fulfillment. His worldliness off-screen reflects nicely with this character onscreen. At the very least, it makes for a more interesting way of presenting a zombie crisis. Contrary to other zombies in film that are used more for target practice, these zombies are indeed used to their scary potential. Much more like 28 Days Later than numerous other zed action movies, these zombies do have legitimate jump scare moments, such as when Gerry and his family first go up the apartment stairs. For some reason, I did not see that pop out coming and it ejected me fairly high out of my chair.
 Mostly, however, the zombies are not shown individually with clarity. Rather, they are often in groups or within crowds. This succeeds for a few reasons with World War Z, a horror-action movie that seems built on its captivating wide shots of thousands of people running from thousands of zombies. For example, in the Israel scene, the number of these zombies reaches a disturbing amount. The image of all of them piling on top of each other to make a zombie ladder is rather unsettling with its insect-like feature, but also with the amount of bodies in this scene. Or, even in the beginning of the film, in which the movie presents wide shots of a Philadelphia crowd running out of the city, it is not made totally clear until halfway through the scene that some people are actually eating other people in the crowd. These are spectacular shots in the sense that they fulfill the spectacle that is special to a film playing out its epidemic on an international scale. That these zombies hit like NFL: Blitz linebackers and screech like murderous chalk is all fulfilling an aesthetic element to these creatures. They may look goofy when they twitch on the ground during transformation time, but they still provide a strong synonymous antagonist, especially when in massive groups. It might be worth mentioning that while World War Z plays like an R-rated movie trimmed down to PG-13, the gorier aspects of zombie carnage are not missed here. Watching someone who has been converted into being brainless and hungry tear up a living human being is one of the simpler visual thrills a zombie movie can offer; it’s also one of the more repetitive. Z’s maneuvering with its smaller playing field for horror is congratulated by the fear still intact from its bloodless images, which make one fearful not for when a zombie will attack them, but at how many zombies will at once. The movie’s production tales linger over the film as much as the magnitude it sets for itself, but it is irrelevant while watching the film as to what parts of this story were thrown together by which of the numerous added writers. However, it is clear that more than a few brains were at work on salvaging this story, which makes for decent twists that elevate the entire entertainment experience of the movie. Owning even more to the Children of Men comparison, Z’s twists are mostly welcome, even if goofy and relying on bad luck (but is the idea of survival not more than just having good fortune?). This is a story that shifts direction and by its third act, the problem has not been addressed by a massive battle; it is instead a face-to-face meeting.
 From its beginning, World War Z’s anxiousness to never settle down provides a strong energy of its own. This is especially the case when that energy takes the viewer from Philadelphia to Israel and, eventually, to Nova Scotia. A few explosive moments of violence also make for exciting surprises. Yes, the grenade that Pitt activates in a plane crash might be silly, but it’s for a greater cause, I swear. And that accidental suicide? In a lesser movie, it would be played off as a terrible joke. But World War Z is good enough that I believe in it. To quote F. Gump, “It happens.” Whether it was pulled out of a hat or not, the third act for this film is another welcome shift of focus. Instead of getting bigger, the film gets smaller and much more close up. This is the first time in which we get to have longer glances at these zombies; to soak up their crazy eyes and twitchy teeth chattering. Whereas these undead antagonists brought stress to us earlier in the movie when shown as packs of thousands, here they successfully make for eerie one-on-one moments, especially with Pitt’s final standoff. It is worth mentioning, however, that no force is stronger than zombies or science in movies than product placement, or at least this is how it seems to be. I can only imagine the amount of money that Pepsi paid to be included in such a crucial scene and to play a role of diversion (as Brad Pitt had been himself earlier in the same scene). The screenplay duct tape does show wear with World War Z, regardless of the amount of writers who worked on this film. How does Pitt recognize sick people when he can only see them from so far away? What’s so bad about going to Nova Scotia, when it turns out to be a safe location? And why does Matthew Fox have a small cameo? Is he evidence of a different subplot? Was it really necessary to give Pitt a moment of being wounded by a plane crash when said wound doesn’t add up to much drama later? One of the movie’s disappointing factors, even though it’s not huge, is the whole Muse element. Though I had been actively trying to avoid buzz as much as possible for this film, my ears caught wind of Muse’s involvement in the soundtrack and that sounded good to me. Their (or should I say, Matthew Bellamy’s) taste for music, which already has an orchestral sound, appeared to be a good idea for a different type of action movie. Sure, synthesizers doing whirling arpeggios may not work for a standard shoot ’em up, but showing a different type of global conflict? That could work.  To my disappointment, as a former Muse fan who listens to them like people who binge on addictive substances on weekends, Bellamy’s contribution to the film is only in little pieces. There’s a motif that appears every now and then that feels like the introduction to a song, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead of accompanying the chaos with something newer, the film relies more on Marco Beltrami’s standard score than anything else. Even if Muse were to bring in its new dubstep-y sound, it would at least been more progressive. Instead, we get maybe three Muse songs, heard in partial. Interestingly enough, the Muse that is featured in the end credits is an instrumental (but even a movie like Johnny Depp’s The Tourist featured Muse’s “Starlight” playing out in its full form).

When World War Z needs to get it right, it mostly does. It delivers on the level of providing a horrific spectacle that actually feels worldwide by heightening the amount of believable zombies shown on-screen, as well as utilizing its various international locations. At the same time, it provides the audience with a relatively unpredictable journey that offers a different perspective on a violent event that we’ve seen numerous times, as led by a star who is committed to this project and ultimately to standing behind his humanity. World War Z thankfully understands there is more to protection of the human race than just (in Lt. Aldo Raine voice) killin’ zombies.

 

Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

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Rating:

3 out of 5