News Column

Review: 'World War Z'

June 22, 2013


June 22--A happy family organizes into their car for a drive into downtown Philadelphia, only to find traffic stalled, and then witnesses a large explosion in the distance. They see people running, panicked, in the opposite direction.

Something is not right, and the uncertainty makes moviegoers feel uncomfortable. Then there's the pure fear of seeing a man, or what used to be a man, head-butting his way through a windshield to chomp his rotting teeth into a motorist's arm.

"World War Z" gets right down to nasty business, and this is the first of many good decisions made in the production of this sobering "this is what the pandemic could look like" action-thriller starring Brad Pitt and based on the apocalyptic novel by Max Brooks.

That collection of oral histories about a zombie war made for fascinating reading, but it would be nearly impossible to film, so instead drawing inspiration from the novel to make a "Contagion"-meets-action movie extravaganza was wise.

With fast pacing that brings the picture in at less than two hours, "World War Z" feels streamlined compared to some of the more lumbering summer blockbusters that include an extra half-hour of carnage and blowing stuff up.

The marvel of the movie comes in the depiction of the zombie outbreak. This is no lurching crew of the undead but starving sprinters who swarm together in a deranged manner, climbing on top of one another to reach human flesh as a creepy collective.

I found these images fascinating the first time I saw them in a trailer months ago, and in the context of the film, they set my leg to pumping and my mind to thinking: Hurry up, they're coming!

This manic depiction is just as intelligently countered by the decision to make their many kills muted. There's just not that much blood in the movie.

Think about it: What is any new zombie movie going to show us, in any more graphic detail, than the wonderfully blood-splattered TV smash "The Walking Dead" has shown us in, by this point, hundreds of slaughtered zombies and humans?

"World War Z" instead concentrates on the visual details of civilization breaking down, with city after city overrun, and on Pitt's character, Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who worked in the most dangerous places on the planet, being forced into service in the name of protecting his family.

Director Marc Forster works from a script that saw many irons in the fire from first draft to rewrites, and the result is solid. The film focuses on Pitt's character as he chases down an answer for how this virus began, and though this is a hero turn for the star, he plays it so stoically that it feels more like a detective role with zero action-hero bravura.

The visual pandemonium of the zombie riots is neatly balanced by personal moments like Gerry calming his daughter as her asthma threatens, or his moments with an Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) whose trust he gains by lopping off her zombie-nibbled limb.

There are answers arrived at that will seem too simplistic, and one of my least favorite moments in a film that feels original in many ways -- especially in a summer filled with franchises and reboots -- happens in a concluding speech that essentially says "We'll be back with a sequel."

But "World War Z" is more frequently scary good entertainment. This is a smart zombie movie that shows brains can be put to good use in ways other than being munched on.

Michael Smith 918-581-8479


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