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.