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World War Z Review: The Zombies Got Off Easy

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | June 21, 2013 | Comments ()


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World War Z is part of what you could charitably call the impressionist school of action film. The goal isn't to excite you with realism, or to carry you through an intense scene where your connection to the hero is both strengthened and threatened by the danger. It's not even to scare you. Rather, it's to subject you to a blurry, muddy, ugly, thoroughly unentertaining series of scenes whose rapid camera shakes and haphazard edits are meant to represent what it would feel like to actually go through the things you're barely seeing on screen. For instance: when watching a family of four scramble up a stairwell to avoid an approaching pack of zombies, we don't get to see the family in relation to the exit they're running toward, or in relation to the zombies coming up behind them. We have no idea where they are, how far they've run, how far they have to go, or really any other piece of information that would make this the most minimally functional of chase scenes. All we see are sleeves and stairs and red lights, the images bouncing erratically, the people framed so bluntly and poorly it's tempting to wonder if the whole thing is a kind of dare to see how much bad moviemaking an audience can stand. This is what it would probably look like to you if you were running for your life, but you aren't. You're sitting in a theater, eager for something exciting and captivating, and you've been handed what might be a home movie shot by a child. (I had the additional misfortune of seeing the film in 3-D, and the seasick compositions are even worse through tinted lenses and forced perspective.) Director Marc Forster seems to have forgotten that his job isn't to subject you to something, but to shepherd you through it; not to bludgeon you, but to elate you with fire and light and the power of the moving image. And he never comes close. He doesn't even get in the same time zone. The film is a grainy, mindless slog peopled by cardboard characters making stupid choices, and the only losers in this war are those of us who watch it happen.

The sloppiness of the film betrays its true intentions: to paste together a variety of scenes and hope they work. The film feels like it's been assembled by committee, and news stories about the film's troubled production bear this out: after an initial round of photography during which the ending was being crafted almost on the fly, the film's release was delayed so that a new ending could be written and shot in an attempt to glue together two halves of a story that still don't feel like a whole. The final version of the story is a collaboration between Matthew Michael Carnahan (who was already rewriting a script by J. Michael Straczynski) and Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard (who were brought in to salvage what they could) and maybe even Christopher McQuarrie, hired by Paramount to be on set and revise during reshoots as needed. It's impossible to know, but all that matters is this: the final product is bland and forgettable. The novel that inspired the film, Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, opted for an oral history approach as a way to try and do something fresh in a stale genre; ironically, the film version feels as predictable and uninspired as every movie Brooks was probably trying to make us forget.

The basic plot deals with Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN investigator who's living with his family in Philadelphia when a zombie outbreak occurs. After surviving for a night in a city going mad (including leading his family on the stairway chase I mentioned earlier), Gerry and his family are rescued by a friend of Gerry's still with the UN, who shuttles them to an aircraft carrier in the north Atlantic and arranges for them to stay with the military and other evacuees on the condition that Gerry jump back into the field to track down the source of the virus that's reanimating the dead. This becomes the engine for Gerry's medical mystery tour: he travels to South Korea, Israel, and other places in an attempt to understand how the zombie plague started and what needs to be done to survive.

What makes his journey so frustrating is the way it's told. Forster seems to be going through the motions when it comes to the requisite action set pieces, checking them off dutifully even as he ignores every opportunity to make them visually or thematically exciting. The visual failures are obvious: everything's shot close up and shaky as hell, and it's often impossible to actually see what's happening. At that point, action becomes something to tolerate, not enjoy. But the thematic failures are even more damning. World War Z allots a bare minimum of screen minutes to something resembling character; we know Gerry loves his wife because he says so, but none of the dialogue or interactions have any emotion or chemistry. Gerry's not a person. He's a stand-in, the thing we're supposed to watch while the digital explosions happen, but because we don't care about him, the action never hits home. I could at least forgive some ugly choreography if I cared about the character in harm's way, but Forster never gives an inch. He just plugs away as if he's running an assembly line. And in a very real sense, that's what he's doing. It's like watching a producer do their homework.

When the film isn't oozing through forgettable action sequences, it's subjecting viewers to the deeds of thick-headed characters. When Gerry meets a pair of scientists at a far-flung hospital who question his identity and methods, he doesn't give them his name, he just shouts angrily that they're wasting his time. When Gerry calls his friend with the UN to propose a solution to the zombie plague, he doesn't explain his plan. He even says "There's no time to explain," as if there were some other, better time for him to take seven seconds and tell his friend he might have discovered a way to save the world. Characters set their weapons down before entering areas they and we know are overrun by zombies; they hide their desires from each other just so the director can milk fake tension from a scene; they run and jump and all sound the same. It's dispiriting to witness because no movie, not even an action movie, has to be this dumb. A few more ounces of character and intelligence would turn the images on screen into real people.

It wouldn't make sense to talk about the performers or their work. The flimsy screenplay doesn't give them anything to work with, which is a shame considering the caliber of the cast. Pitt's done wonderful work in the past, especially playing men torn between the kinds of warring obligations that create good drama. (The existentially conflicted killers of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly, the lone wolf GM of Moneyball.) It's almost sad to see him do something this mediocre. There's also a cosmic injustice to casting Peter Capaldi, who lit up the screen with beautiful vitriol in In the Loop and "The Thick of It," as a stock doctor that could have been played by any old man in a sweater. One of the weirder moments comes when Matthew Fox shows up a few times as a nameless paratrooper; after originally being attached to the movie but then dropping out to film Alex Cross (the equal of two evils), he opted for a cameo that feels exceedingly odd. You keep waiting for his presence to mean something, just like you keep waiting for the rest of the script to call upon its actors. But then, it'd take an actual script for these actors to do something, and the film seems to subsist only on vague ideas.

Talking to Marc Maron recently on the comedian's WTF podcast, Evan Goldberg, writing partner to Seth Rogen, explained the big-budget mentality of studios when they make movies like this one. He said, "When the train gets that big, it can't stop. The studios will figure out a way to make it work." That sense of fatigued commitment to a pointless end pervades every speck of World War Z. The film was once talked about as the beginning of a possible trilogy, and the finished product feels desperate to start a franchise instead of doing the thing that would actually make such a series compelling: telling an interesting story with skill. That this film exists is a fate we can't escape, but maybe we'll be luckier than Gerry Lane and his two-dimensional sidekicks. Maybe we won't have to see them, or their zombies, ever again.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • This was a bland paste for the zombie genre.

  • where's_wallace

    Wait wait! Which one was le Fox?

    This is pretty spot on, my little brother dragged me to this and I had to more or less turn off my brain to get through it so i could get in my sibling quality time. It's supposed to kick back on though whenever Matthew Fox is near. Weird...

  • Snickerdoodlebug

    He was one of the guys on the helicopter that picked up the family from the apartment building. The rest of his part was cut when they reshot the ending. He forces the wife to sleep with him to keep her families place in a Florida refuge camp.

  • BobbFrapples

    Goofy, pointless, and pure I'll-watch-it-whenever-it's-on-television schlock. I love the book; this was like seeing a friend after they've had heavy plastic surgery. You recognize a freckle or two, but it's a whole new face.

  • TheMudshark

    "This is what it would probably look like to you if you were running for your life, […]"

    Except it probably wouldn´t because you qould be a moving body with all kinds of sensory and mechanical equipment to help you balance the effects hasty running has on your perception, and not inside a box with a square window that some asshole is shaking around until you´re physically sick because he doesn´t feel like doing any real directing today.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    Definitely not as good as the book... but it was not the sh_tstorm I thought it was going to be. It was entertaining enough... and air-conditioned... buttered popcorn-ed... and very large soda-ed. After reading the story in Vanity Fair about the cluster f_ck of the movie being made I was really expecting it to be completely crap-taculare, so maybe I just went in with really low expectations.

  • Jen13

    I feel like I saw a different movie than described, lol. Bourne movies made me literally get sick from the shakiness, but even in 3D I was fine watching this one. I really, really liked it. It was intense and scary without being all "braaaains" with the zombies. Brad Pitt was good in it. Admittedly the characters were thin, but I wasn't expecting richly layered relationships from a zombie movie.

  • Jenn TheYellowDart

    Funny thing is, I was willing to just GO WITH IT (even after having read the book like 8 times) and forget comparing it to the book. I was ok with it just being a name-share and nothing more. UNTIL we got to the second half where ***NOT REALLY A SPOILER BECAUSE IT DOESN'T MATTER SO DON'T JUMP DOWN MY THROAT***he and the Isreali girl soldier (name? who knows...who cares) got to the WHO lab in uhhh...Wales?? After that it completely lost me. It was laughable.

  • Eva

    Well this is one instance where I completely disagree with you. I just got back from the movie and liked it quite a bit.

  • Foop

    Sometimes you disagree with a review so much you can't even make it past the second paragraph. I felt the rapid editing and camera work added a lot to this film, and its the first time I've ever felt that. Maybe it's because I'm a sound mixer by trade, and I appreciate how the movie utilized sound design to create the tension, and disoriented you just the right amount: when a zombie outbreak happens and you're right int eh middle of it, I don't WANT to know what's going on, I want to be just as terrified and confused as the characters. Yes there was some terrible, distracting CGI and I'm very disappointed if that's the ending they "fixed," but I found this a solidly entertaining movie, and place it well above any of the messy and lackluster entries we saw in May.

    The only complaint I really have is unavoidable, and that's that this is in no way shape or form related to the book, and I'm resentful they stole its name.

  • Melissa

    Here's how I know this guy probably didnt actually,see this movie. The dead are not reanimated. Tis is a virus that spreads from person to person very quickly. These are not traditional zombies. People are infected by a small bit and turn in 12 seconds. The movie compares it to rabies.

    The scene in the stairwell I believe is meant to show what they are experiencing. Fear of not knowing how far to go and not knowing what's behind you and how far. We're meant to feel what they feel. I loved it and the audience I saw it with loved it and clapped at the end.

    Don't listen to this guy. Pajiba reviews are always ridiculous and this one is no different.

  • BlackRabbit

    Soo...the movie lurches brainlessly from place to place, acting out things from a better time without meaning or intelligence? It's brilliant-a zombie film as metaphor!

  • fapar

    I need to read this book, which is apparently fabulous.

    However, I think a better choice for the zombie novel-to-film operation would be Colson Whitehead's Zone One. Amazing contribution to the genre. I feel like I'm doing some shameless plug for the book here, but I know there are a lot of zombie fans around and I can't not recommend it.

  • The shaky cam stuff was annoying. But it's mostly just in the first part of the movie. Or maybe I just got used to it. Overall I didn't think it was bad. Though I haven't read the book, thus didn't have any expectations. My friend who read the book said it's definitely different.

  • *Futile rage*

  • kirbyjay

    I'm looking at the pics up above ^ see up there..... and trying to decide who is the scariest....
    FatKilmer's lovechild, BabyFat Osment,
    Marilyn Manson's voodoo stare,
    Mickey Rourke's Pekapoo puss
    or
    Kim K's " I didn't get the celebrity birthing suite" tantrum.

    Though Lou Pickles is looking kinda hot.

    The Zombie flick? 'll always watch Brad, but only on On Demand.

  • ferryman

    Even the absolute worst moments of my life never disintegrated into a shaky cam moment.

  • blacksred

    redbox it is. I am willing to give brad pitt a $1

  • Hates Vertigo

    Thanks. I won't see this either due to the jumpy camera technique. Even Superman made me slghtly headachey with motion sickness. It's a stupid technique that serves no purpose other than to make some of us sick. And I'm not paying for that.

  • emmelemm

    So there aren't even a few decent action sequences in the whole thing? Well, fuuuuuuuuuuuck.

    I guess I'll just have to wait for Pacific Rim or whatever it's called. I don't care if shit don't make a lot of sense as long as it's beautiful and thrilling.

  • ,

    So ... just what I expected, sadly.

  • kelleyisadork

    i'm glad you mentioned that the movie is a shaky one. i get motion sickness very easily and hate paying money to see a film i have to watch through my fingers. it should be required in the ratings to tell you that the film will make you vomit.

  • TK

    Well, fuck.

  • mswas

    Just stick with the book!

  • denesteak

    Preach!

    I love zombie movies but I don't think I can handle shakey cam... also, awful plotting and bastardization of an awesome, awesome book.

  • Captain D

    Is it possible that with zombie fatigue setting in this movie (I'm specifically looking at you, Zombie Pile) will overtake Fonzie jumping the shark in our lore?

  • Morgan_LaFai

    It seems unlikely. Nuking the Fridge already has that moniker, though it only applies to shark jumping film sequels. Maybe this could work in terms of genre fatigue, but I doubt it.

  • Max

    All I wanna know is...How the fuck does he get out of that crashing airplane from the commercials?

  • GHOSTHOUND

    Answer (spoiler alert !!!!) = He doesn't, the plane crashes and he miraculously survives...not uninjured, but he carries on - he is after all Brad Pitt.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    Does it ever explain why the zombies behave like a Katamari, rolling around and sucking up everything in its path?

  • Zuffle

    Exquisite writing. Dan, your reviews were the best on Earth a few years ago, and they've only gotten better since. You make critique your bitch.

    If I ever happen to meet you, I'm totally gonna grab your junk.

  • Tony Maxwell

    I was checking the comments to see if anyone else would be as complimentary of Dan's writing before submitting one of my own - I'm not even going to try outdoing Zuffle's.

  • BWeaves

    I'm obviously over thinking this, but if if you have a bunch of infected people infecting other people, what's the point of tracking everything back to the first patient? Wouldn't it be more helpful to analyze the disease as it is manifesting itself in your immediate vicinity and find the cure there. Obviously patient zero isn't the one who has to personally infect everyone. Once you've got everything under control, then go back and see how it started, just for curiosity's sake.

    Also, I won't be seeing this, so I really don't care.

  • PaddyDog

    It may not make sense in the context of hundreds of thousands of zombies, but tracking back to patient zero is how it's done. It's critical because it allows you to identify clusters which will give you a pattern not just of transmission but also of incubation and most importantly of how mutable the virus is. If you start with the people in your vicinity, they might have a strain that is several versions mutated from the original and that may only help you to understand the disease in a small cohort as opposed to understanding the full disease.

  • Kaylee E

    Which was one of the biggest missteps in the film. Pitt counts the transformation in Philly as 10 seconds and in South Korea it was 10 minutes from bite to zombie. And then they never mention it again. A real waste of potential, could have made the round the world mystery hunt far more interesting.

  • Slash

    This. They want to find out where diseases started (as much as they can) so they can keep them from starting somewhere else. Or at least know where/what to avoid. Like caves filled with bat feces in Kenya.

    Read "The Hot Zone" a couple months ago.

  • llp

    YES! One of the 2013 issues of Wired has an interesting article about how this works in specific hospitals. It kind of gave me nightmares.

  • Slash

    This? http://www.wired.com/wiredscie...

    Google is our friend (until it rats us out to the government)

  • Fredo

    But..but...then how are going to have this globe-spanning thrill ride make any sense?

    Wait, it doesn't have to make any sense?!

    JACKPOT!!

  • Fredo

    The moment I heard Marc Foster was attached I started to worry. This is the man that made the most boring, nonsensical Craig-era Bond movie.

    Then they said they were re-writing Straczynski's script. And that scared me even worse because that script was as close to a movie-length adaptation could be that retained the essence of the novel.

    Then the trailers showed up and the ant-like super-zombies showed up. Then I knew it was over.

    Sorry. Keep this WWZ and I'll keep the hope that someday the HBO miniseries will come along.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I've got a HBOner just thinking about that. Please excuse me while go take care of this.

  • birdgal

    Considering the last Matt Damon Bourne movie made me ill due to shaky camera work, I will DEFINITELY not be seeing this one, even if the reviews were better. Thanks for looking out for those with motion sickness, Mr. Carlson!

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I'm just going to snuggle up with my printed copy of the fabulous book and fall into a peaceful slumber knowing that I'll never have to experience the nightmare of this clusterfuck.

  • idiosynchronic

    Doing the same with the brilliantly performed audiobook version.

  • Bea Pants

    The audiobook was my first exposure to WWZ. My friends and I were making the 9 hour drive home from Atlanta to St. Louis and someone put it in the CD player. Driving through rural Kentucky/Illinois in the dead of night while hearing it was definitely a singular experience. I won't sully that memory with this giant cinematic turd.

  • Julie Chase

    GREAT review. I was already apathetic about this film, this just cements the fact that I'll never bother.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Yeah, I won't be seeing this now.

  • Some Guy

    Ugh...Even your description of how shaky this movie apparently is was enough to make me dizzy.

    Is it a bad sign when you see a bunch of previews and then read the review and still don't have a real grasp of the plot of this film other than the obvious Brad Pitt and zombies?

    That's not to knock the review. The review was well written. This movie apparently isn't.

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