World War Z is a B picture on a massive budget. Despite its globe-trotting narrative, A-list star and elaborate special effects, the film moves with the speed and relentlessness of, well, a zombie swarm. Brad Pitt, the headliner, is breathless for much of the picture, and watching it I was often the same.
What a relief that summer movies can still be this briskly entertaining. After already sitting through a pair of superhero flicks that needlessly ran more than two hours (that’s you, Man of Steel and Iron Man 3), here is a picture that dispenses with most of its narrative setup in the opening credits, then gets down to gory business. No zombie history lesson. Very little science talk. Just one terrific, terrifying set piece after the next.
World War Z, based on the Max Brooks bestseller, does offer a quiet, domestic scene before the chaos starts. Gerry Lane (Pitt), a former United Nations troubleshooter, is making pancakes at home for his wife (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. Gerry is on hiatus from traveling to hot spots around the globe so that he can spend more time with his kids, but when a rabies virus of some sort begins spreading through major world cities, he’s made an offer by his former employer: help find the source of the outbreak and your family will be given shelter on a quarantined battleship.
This sounds like the makings of an awful disaster movie, I know.
And so Gerry is off, first to South Korea and eventually all over the planet. This sounds like the makings of an awful disaster movie, I know. But director Marc Forster, working from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, brings a crucial sense of economy to the proceedings. We’re given the basics of each situation – the entrances and the exits – and then horror strikes. And really, what else do you need to know when a zombie is loose on a commercial airliner mid-flight?
This isn’t to say the movie never pauses. Indeed, some of my favorite moments were small touches, such as the way we don’t hear Gerry’s words when he whispers good-bye to his older daughter. Pitt has another good moment during a rooftop escape sequence, after a zombie’s blood gets in his mouth while he’s trying to shepherd his family onto a waiting helicopter. Knowing the virus kicks in after 10 seconds, he teeters at the roof’s edge, ready to jump at the first sign of infection.
There’s a hint here of one of the more troubling elements of the zombie genre: how our family members can quickly “turn” on us. World War Z doesn’t push this theme, however, or really go for the sort of socio-political commentary that has elevated so many zombie films, from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later. The closest World War Z comes is when that zombie swarm spills over a wall that’s been erected around Jerusalem. A comment on Israeli isolationism, perhaps?
Let’s not dig too deeply into this one, for that would be to overlook what the movie has in spades: sharply staged thrills, clever little touches and hordes of voracious zombies. Sounds like a pretty good B picture to me.