A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on June 27, 2013.
Director Marc Forster’s “World War Z” is a mostly successful globetrotter about the zombie apocalypse with barely developed geo-political pretensions. It’s also something of a conventional blockbuster, albeit in reverse. The movie gets all of its obligatory scenes of chaotic spectacle and destruction out of the way within the first act or so, ultimately becoming an atmospheric thriller with some truly unnerving, almost gut-wrenching moments.
Such a formula works to the advantage of Mr. Forster, who’s never been very adept at directing action (see his dismal “Quantum of Solace”). Even the most simply staged action sequences in this movie are disorienting and easily forgettable. It’s not until the movie settles down about halfway through that it becomes interesting, thanks to a restrained performance by Brad Pitt, a very powerful performance from the unknown actress Daniella Kertesz in a supporting role, and a taut, suspenseful conclusion that is quietly satisfying compared to the clunky bombast of the beginning.
The plot concerns Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former U.N. field agent forced out of retirement to track down the source of a virus that has turned much of the world’s population into ravenous flesh-eaters. In one word, zombies. Being bitten by a zombie means you only have a few seconds before turning into one. The transformation is guttural and painful. Some brave souls are unwilling to turn and end their own lives before the transformation is complete. In one great scene, Lane is unsure whether or not he is infected, so he teeters on the edge of a tall building willing to commit suicide to save his family from himself.
Lane is smart and resourceful, and never loses his cool. He’s just as fast-acting in a crisis as the zombie virus itself. In another scene, he doesn’t hesitate to amputate the infected hand of one character before the virus spreads to the rest of her body. It’s one of a few scenes of visceral horror and it works much better than any of the movie’s attempts to organically balance sensation and human drama.
Full of rabid, unsympathetic undead, “World War Z” tries to evoke emotional resonance by tethering the government protection of Lane’s wife and two daughters to the success of his mission. If he dies, his family will no longer be considered essential personnel and will be escorted off the aircraft carrier on which they initially found refuge.
But the strain Lane’s family feels in his absence, and the uncertainty surrounding their own safety never quite earns the audience’s empathy, probably because they aren’t given very much screen time. The movie favors consecutive thrills over interpersonal drama.
But that doesn’t mean it’s completely lacking in humanity. Kertesz’ performance as a young, severely wounded, but resilient Israeli soldier is the highlight of “World War Z” even though Mr. Pitt’s character is officially given the task of saving the world.
Thus, “World War Z” is worth watching if you’re willing to forgive its absurd, but familiar plot, and equally absurd first half.
3 stars out of 4.