World War Z, an adaptation of the Max Brooks novel, is the kind of movie that you see once in theaters, you enjoy it, and then you go on with your life. Perhaps one day – five, ten years down the line – you happen upon the movie while surfing channels. You’ll begin wondering, absently, why the particular scene you are watching seems so familiar. The title might come back to you eventually, perhaps once you finally see its big A-Lister Brad Pitt, and you might even exclaim “hey, that was an okay movie!” to whoever cares. You may continue to watch it, or you may not. Either way, again, you move on with your life once your experience with the movie is done. The movie is perfectly serviceable and fleeting.
In the first ten minutes, however, the movie is actually a bit more than simply “serviceable and fleeting,” dropping us into the story as efficiently as you might hope from any decent zombie flick. We get a brief glimpse into the happy family life of Gerry Lane (Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and his two lovely daughters. Spending just enough time at the kitchen table for a balanced breakfast of pancakes and exposition, we learn Gerry is a former United Nations employee now spending the days with his family. “You’re my job now,” he tells his girls. In the background, a TV newscast spouts off vague buzzwords like “apocalypse” and “martial law.”
Family? Cute little urchins? Retired UN Employees? Martial Law? Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Well, director Marc Forster hears you. The zombie action kicks in almost immediately after all that useless junk like plot and character establishment are out of the way. Gridlocked later that day in Manhattan traffic, the Lane family suddenly finds themselves scrambling from their car, zig-zagging around the street as various explosions begin to erupt, and civilians are suddenly getting chased down by packs of ravenous, briskly-running, high-jumping and quite contagious undead creatures.
Gerry leads his family out of Manhattan, and to Newark, where his old UN colleague Thierry (Fana Mokoena) rescues them and transports them to an offshore military base to regroup. On the base, where speculations including more buzzwords like “zombie” and “pandemic” run amok, Thierry forces Gerry out of retirement to assist in a mission to traverse the globe to find Patient Zero, if at all possible. Gerry leaves his family on the base, and joins a crew on the mission that takes him to locations like North Korea, Jerusalem, and even the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva.
World War Z, as it hops from one zombie-ravaged location to the next, runs almost two hours. Very little of that time feels at all dull, most likely because there is so much plot to be covered, and there are so many locations in which to cover said plot. Yet while the story never bored me, it never exactly thrilled me either. Co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, the movie has been largely marketed as the “plausible” Zombie Movie. And while I am not enough of a zombie expert to comment on WWZ’s conceptual credulity, I would expect the actual surviving humans still navigating such a disaster to be terrified in interesting and relatable ways. Unfortunately, the human element to this story of human decimation never quite peeks through the zombie carnage.
While part of this lack of connection has to do with the writers’ failure to write moments of genuinely convincing intimacy between Gerry and his family, or even to make larger, philosophically interesting conclusions about how today’s world would tackle such a crisis, the cast seems less than eager to add much texture. Enos’ Karin is given little more to do than simply wait worriedly at the phone for her working hubby, and Brad Pitt’s take on Gerry feels equally uninterested in conveying the kind of toll it takes to be separated from his family in such turbulent circumstances.
Speaking of the action, even Forster’s most intense sequences – while made with unmistakable competence – feel weirdly lacking in tautness or suspense. His eye for action has not exactly improved since his flagrant Bourne-aping in Quantum of Solace; his camera jitters with no direction, his editor cuts with no restraint. The pacing feels off as well; action plugs along listlessly, and the moments of respite don’t convey the kind of gravity needed to helps fully appreciate just how unimpeachably screwed humanity is. This lack of tension and gravity messes fairly heavily with our ability as viewers to fret over this particular family – about whom we eventually realize we know very little – or for humanity in general. World War Z may be the “plausible” zombie movie, but unlike other (better) movies in the genre, it’s content simply to be another movie populated with zombies. That’s unfortunate.
But let’s talk about that “unmistakable competence” a bit, because it really does save World War Z from devolving into entirely generic mediocrity. In the moment at least, Forster does express particular skill in his more low-fi moments of action, usually involving Gerry navigating zombie-infested death-traps like a dark, rainy tarmac or an important corridor in the WHO Headquarters. These are rare moments of genuine, technically proficient suspense and, while the absence of that elusive human element prevents any real concern for Brad Pitt’s life, it at least inspires curiosity about how he might get out of his various dilemmas. That might not seem like much, but it really does help shape Forster’s movie into a decent one – one that is “serviceable and fleeting.”
“Serviceable and fleeting,” as well as that describes this movie, seems like an equally apt descriptor for much of the work of Marc Forster, whose films are mostly decent and unobjectionable, yet altogether forgettable (we all liked Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball, but do we talk about them anymore?). Part of the reason I do not think he is a better-loved director than many anticipated him to be is because his filmmaking style rarely sears in the mind; it produces imagery that scarcely lingers, and never haunts.
Still, Forster is committed, workhorse-like, to that temporally finite experience of sitting in a darkened room to watch a movie. To that end, World War Z indubitably serves its purpose, and an extension of what Forster does best. Just don’t expect much better.
Bottom Line: World War Z certainly has its moments, even if those moments leave you wishing there was more to the movie overall.