Big-budget zombie movie gets so lost in its global scale that it doesn't give us a flesh-and-blood hero who makes it all matter, despite Brad Pitt's best efforts
Globe-trotting isn't something we get in a lot of horror films — usually, the more confined the space, the better. But there's a definite reason that "world" is in the title "World War Z," an apocalyptic thriller that imagines a zombie outbreak that begins in Korea (or is it India?) and spreads to the far corners of the planet.
And whither goeth the zombies, former U.N. field researcher Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is not far behind, hopping from Asia to the Middle East to the United Kingdom in an attempt to quell the outbreak that has turned billions of people into the undead.
Unlike the traditional, shuffling animated corpses of the classic George Romero school, these creepers are fast runners (more akin to the ones in Zack Synder's remake of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead") and are smart enough to down helicopters by jumping on them en masse or to form human buttresses, like ants, so that they can climb high walls.
While "World War Z" has no shortage of impressive sights and sounds, and plenty of hair-raising moments, it gets so lost in its global scale that it doesn't give us a flesh-and-blood hero who makes it all matter.
The story starts intimately, as Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos, "The Killing") drive their two young daughters to school in Philadelphia. But what appears to be a routine traffic jam in the City of Brotherly Love soon turns into a terrifying battle with shrieking, running zombies, whose victims join their ranks less than 15 seconds after being bitten. The Lanes make it to Newark and a grocery-store looting already in progress, and the U.N. sends a copter to pick up Gerry (who's being forced out of retirement) and his family.
While the wife and kids are holed up on an aircraft carrier, Gerry travels around the world trying to figure out where the outbreak started and how to find a cure.
Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Quantum of Solace") effectively generates suspense and terror, whether operating on a small scale (dark hallways, an army base under siege on a rainy night) or huge (the walls of Jerusalem being breached by what appears to be an endless supply of zombies).
What Forster can't do, alas, is make Gerry and everyone else in the film more than just a functionary of the plot. Max Brooks' book, on which the film is based, tells the story of the great zombie outbreak as an oral history, with numerous narrators capturing the saga of a global epidemic. A team of screenwriters with no shortage of genre bona fides — including Drew Goddard ("The Cabin in the Woods"), J. Michael Straczynski ("Babylon 5"), Damon Lindelof ("Lost") and Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom") — get the scale right, but they make the movie mostly about one guy, and then they apparently forgot to write him.
While the mock-documentary genre has been somewhat overplayed in recent years, using it here would have allowed the filmmakers to tell a far-reaching story in a more journalistic style. Had they stepped back and shown us the big picture that way, the movie might have worked; in trying to be huge and intimate at the same time, however, they lose the personal touch.
Pitt pours himself physically into the role, but there's not much meat for him to attack dramatically. The character reminded me on more than one occasion of Tom Hanks' Vatican expert in those Dan Brown movies: Both men jump to brilliant conclusions with the tiniest amounts of evidence, and neither of them has a haircut that's flattering to any adult male.
"World War Z" tries its hardest to tap into the zeitgeist of super-viruses and mega-bacteria that sweeps the global consciousness on a seemingly weekly basis, but for all its impressive shots of zombies invading the Taj Mahal, it doesn't manifest our fears nearly as well as, say, "Contagion" or "I Am Legend."
There's real horror to be found in "World War Z," both in its vivid imagining of zombie hordes on the rampage and in its portrayal of cities in ruin and the human race pushed to the brink. For all its effectiveness at portraying the horror of possible human extinction, the film's actual humans are so soulless that this could just as well be the movie version of the video game "Plants vs. Zombies."