The scars of a tumultuous production are on full display in World War Z, Marc Forster’s utterly innocuous adaptation of Max Brooks’s zombie-apocalypse bestseller, but the seemingly endless rewrites and reshoots hardly explain or excuse the overt and largely unconvincing heroic image given to the film’s star, producer, and longtime champion, Brad Pitt. The actor-humanitarian plays Gerry Lane, a former high-ranking U.N. operative turned family man who finds himself in the middle of one of the world’s first zombie outbreaks in Philadelphia with his wife, Karin (Mirielle Enos), and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove). His specialties are enough to get his family on an isolated naval command center, but also make him the first choice to lead the investigation into how to stop the outbreak, which takes him from South Korea to Jerusalem and finally to meet with survivors at the World Health Organization building in Cardiff, Wales.
The zombies twitch, leap, gnash, and destroy, but the film has all the thrill and surprise of a model U.N. summit. They topple over busses, buildings, and barriers, but we rarely see them devour a body, as the filmmakers evade images of blood and gore. The screenplay, by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof, sees the uprising of the undead as a worldwide pandemic, a cause for an international group hug and eradication of cultural and religious grudges in the hopes of human survival. (The holdout, naturally, is North Korea, who solved the problem by pulling the teeth out of all of their citizens almost overnight, news relayed to Gerry by an imprisoned C.I.A. operative, gamely played by David Morse, who’s gone all Renfield in the wake of the outbreak.) It’s an interesting idea, but one that’s executed with cheap political sentiment, and one that unfortunately leads to the film portending to be “better” than just another zombie flick.
It’s not hard to see what drew Pitt to this material. The film’s melding of humanistic enthusiasm and genre trappings is an initially promising vision of a husband and father constantly separated from his family due to work that varies from the comically insubstantial to the socially important, like Pitt playing a hapless airhead in Burn After Reading while also designing and producing affordable housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The personal elements, however, barely come through in Pitt’s performance or, for that matter, Forster’s typically stilted, shallow direction. Ultimately, World War Z feels more like a wonky disaster film, in the mode of Deep Impact or 2012, jettisoning the cheap thrills of its horror-genre origins for droning talk and empty chaos, with Pitt’s heroic-intelligent doings taking precedence.
Forty-five years after the start of George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, each entry of which is equal parts potent political statement and wildly entertaining genre study, the earnest politicization of World War Z makes it impossible to enjoy its minor genre kicks and creative set pieces. The film’s climactic sequence in the WHO’s zombie-infested Ward B is engaging and effective, up until a particularly egregious Pepsi plug, and the escape from South Korea is inventive enough, when the writers aren’t desperately trying to locate a funny bone or feign toughness. There’s the hint of something enjoyable underneath World War Z’s cluttered, repetitive narrative and mundane aesthetic, but all the strong opinions of the helping hands that labored to realize Forster’s film have left little meat on the bone for the audience.