You know how the phrase goes: When there are no more comic book summer blockbusters to reboot or ideas to pitch in hell, the zombie apocalypse action movie epic will walk the earth. Or something like that.
So after seemingly countless delays, reshoots and just generally bad news coming from the Hollywood insider magazines, "World War Z" has arrived. And for some odd, miraculous reason, despite all of the off-screen drama, the on-screen drama turned out pretty good. An actual zombie apocalypse breaking out would be less surprising.
Brad Pitt stars as retired UN superman Gerry Lane. He’s driving his adoring family (the fierce-eyed Mireille Enos of AMC’s "The Killing" plays his wife) to school on a traffic-filled morning in Philadelphia when, wouldn’t you have it, a whole mess of zombies storm the morning commute.
After a creepy stay in a ragged apartment complex, Gerry and his family are picked up by a helicopter and taken to America’s last refuge, a fleet of battleships in the middle of the ocean holding military, political and scientific leaders and their families – though only as long as they are "essential."
Gerry is eventually filled in on what’s happening. The zombies have taken over the entire globe. The president is dead. And now, it’s up to Gerry to scour the globe – namely Korea, Jerusalem and Wales – for the virus’s origins and from there, hopefully a cure for the zombie plague.
"Zombie" plague might be somewhat inaccurate. Considering the disastrous production that skyrocketed the budget and the box office demands of a summer blockbuster with franchise ambitions, "World War Z" is saddled with a PG-13, meaning there is little to no actual bite to these zombies. They make a nice mess of the planet, but there was more brain-eating in the zom-rom-com "Warm Bodies."
Director Marc Forster seems to want to give zombie fans the carnage they’re used to. Several scenes feel the strain of the camera wanting to look down at a crowbar lodged in a zombie skull, a severed hand stump or a quick glimpse at some neck-chomping action. Alas, it can’t be done.
It’s best to look at "World War Z" not as a zombie movie (and certainly not as an adaptation of the book, because it’s about as loose as the Umbrella Corporation’s health regulations) and instead as a pandemic action thriller that turns its victims into a screaming mass of running, decaying bodies that may or may not eat people.
As viewed through that lens, "World War Z" works pretty well. There really aren’t enough good virus/epidemic movies out there, so it’s actually really tense to see an outbreak movie with this kind of massive scale and immediacy. Most zombie or epidemic movies have to take a small approach, normally for budgetary reasons, so to see entire cities under attack and the globe at risk is a fairly new and inherently exciting thrill that the mostly exhilarating set piece moments don’t waste.
Plus, there’s the survival aspect of the film that’s always entertaining and fascinating. Part of the reason why zombies are popular right now is because we like to imagine and plan what we’d do in such a situation. It’s interesting to see how people cope with the pandemic, on both a small scale and large.
Jerusalem builds massive walls to keep the zombies out. An early speech from a creepy David Morse notes that the North Korean government mandated the removal of all of its citizens’ teeth after the breakout. Brutal, yes, but Morse also notes that they’re one of the only countries in the clear.
The global reaction is one of the few aspects of the book the script (from a team of Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski) takes on, much to the film’s benefit.
The human aspect of the story plays well, often times better than the zombie stuff. Most of this is thanks to the performances. Gerry isn't a particularly complex hero, but Pitt gives him all of his star charisma and makes him engaging. When he gets blood in his mouth early on and races toward a tall building's edge, nervously counting down the time it takes to turn, he makes each number carry some emotional weight.
His supporting cast is above average as well, with Enos, Morse, James Badge Dale (previously seen as the main goon in "Iron Man 3") and Peter Capaldi (the viciously profane Malcolm Tucker from "In The Loop") giving their fairly underwritten parts more character than expected. Apparently Matthew Fox is in the movie as well, but he seems to be a victim of the production problems, relegated to a line or two and a credit as a nameless "Parajumper."
The well-documented issues show up in several other places too. The notoriously rewritten and re-shot third act, though suspenseful and well crafted, feels rather small and tidy. Same with the early Korea sequence, which feels unnaturally confined to two sets. The story feels a tad rushed at points as well, especially an early character’s comically quick demise and the ending’s forced attempt at setting up a franchise.
Despite his action movie aspirations, Forster (previously behind "Quantum of Solace") still doesn’t have the best hand for the material. He belongs to the Paul Greengrass school of shaky cam and quick edits but without the same ability to manage and capture the chaos. He's much better when he backs away from the action, holds the camera still and shows the impressive magnitude of the zombie invasion.
It’s hard to say that these issues would be as evident if the production wasn’t such a public disaster. However, hiding how the sausage is made is a part of the movie-making game, and that being the case, there are still some unsavory pig guts and gristle poking out of "World War Z."
Yet despite all the behind the scenes and behind the camera problems, the film works. It’s often creepy, with the set design managing to sneak some horror movie mood – flickering emergency lights and a late zombie-ridden medical center – into the action movie proceedings. There are a few entertainingly jumpy moments, and it’s consistently intense and exciting. It manages to move at a breathless pace while still making time for doses of much-needed humanity.
In the end, "World War Z" plays much like a zombie horde: a lot stronger and greater than its shuffling, stumbling individual parts.
For more of Matt's take on "World War Z," click here to listen to his conversation with Brian Kramp on the Kramp Cast.
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published April 19, 2014
Gone is Jude Law's pretty regality; in "Dom Hemingway," the Brit looks rough, and he gleefully tearing into his profane lead role like an untamed wolf that just got its first taste of meat. For Law, it's a chance for him to let loose with a character like never really before. And he most certainly does, with big, audaciously compelling results. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, has a hard time getting on his level, but can you really blame it?
Published April 16, 2014
You never know where you might meet your future bandmates. Maybe you'll meet them through a mutual friend. Maybe it'll be a chance meeting in a railway station. Maybe you'll meet them half a world away. That certainly wasn't the case with Milwaukee rock outfit Commander Tang. In fact, George Phillips didn't even have to leave his front lawn or his Washington Heights block.
Published April 15, 2014
"Sabotage" finds Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly pushing his persona in a new direction. It's not simply that the film is unexpectedly more murder mystery than action thriller; "Sabotage" is easily the meanest, most vulgar and most violent movie on Arnold's resume. Credit where credit is due for trying something new, but considering the film's brainlessly scummy ugliness, it qualifies merely as a not-quite-noble failure.
Published April 15, 2014
Even though Corey Pieper's latest single "One More Time" isn't conventional Milwaukee, it's obvious the up-and-coming pop singer has love for his home city. The musician namedrops "the 414" near the beginning of the track, and the regional callouts - along with shout outs to his Hawaiian heritage - aren't merely for show.
Published April 14, 2014
When Wake Owl first arrived in town, they were at the bottom of a three-band bill at the Cactus Club with their freshly released debut EP, "Wild Country." Since then, their crowds and popularity have only grown, moving up to a $10 Pabst Pub gig last June and now a Friday night headliner gig at Turner Hall Ballroom. And instead of a five-song EP, Cameron and company arrive with a brand new full album, "The Private World of Paradise."
Published April 13, 2014
Much like the first movie, "Rio 2" is colorful and vibrant and cracks a few good jokes here or there. It's a generally enjoyable film, albeit one that feels like several animated features audiences have seen and forgotten long before.
Published April 11, 2014
"Draft Day" is an ad, less for the NFL Draft - though it is conveniently coming up in just a month - and more for the league itself. It's a hopeful attempt to get people to mindlessly consume a sport that's becoming more and more difficult to mindlessly consume. The mildly impressive thing is that, under "Ghostbusters" helmer Ivan Reitman's eye, the light, fluffy football trifle goes down almost as easily as designed.
Published April 9, 2014
Milwaukee got its first taste of TED last year with a TEDx conference - a local, self-organized talk event, run independently but guided from afar by TED - in Harambee. And now, thanks to some ambitious students at UWM, it seems the city will get a second taste of TED.
Published April 8, 2014
A small wooden and plastic model of a stage has now graduated into a full stage, lit with lights and bright, colorful, comic book influenced projections. Superglue will no longer be necessary to keep it together. Now, the stage merely waits for its actors, an audience and a story to unfold. That story is writer David Bar Katz's "The History of Invulnerability," the story of Jerry Siegel and his famous creation: Superman.
Published April 8, 2014
Edward Albee's one-act drama "Zoo Story" is a fairly small production. After all, it features merely two actors, one set - a park - and one necessary set item, a park bench. For the upcoming staging at Marquette University, however, director Grace DeWolffe is working with much more than merely two guys and a bench. In fact, she's got $1.5 million worth of technology to bring her show to life.