I’ll get this out of the way and just say it: World War Z the film pretty much has nothing in common with the acclaimed novel of the same name by author Max Brooks (reviewed almost at the very beginning of the site). Ok, now that we have that out of the way it’s time to get to the important part and that’s how did the film version turn out on it’s own merits.
World War Z was a film that took the long, winding and rough road to finally get to the big-screen. Whether it was the five different writers brought in to work on the script (J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame came onboard first with Christopher McQuarrie coming unofficially to help tighten a few scenes in the end) to the massive changes made to the original source material that was bound to anger the fans of the novel, the film by Marc Forster had an uphill climb to accomplish even before the final product even came to market.
I was as surprised as man others were that the finished product was better than I had anticipated. Some had very low expectations about World War Z coming in due to the rumors and news reports coming in about the problems during production, but it doesn’t change the fact that the unmitigated disaster predicted by every film blogger and critic beforehand never came to fruition.
World War Z might not have been what fans of the novel had wanted it to be, but when seen on it’s own merit the film was both exciting and tension-filled despite some flaws in the final script and use of well-worn horror tropes.
The film begins with a visual montage interspersing scenes of nature (particularly the swarming, hive-like behavior of certain animals like birds, fish, and insects), alarmist news media reporting and the mindless celebrity-driven entertainment media that’s so big around the world. From there we’re introduced to the main protagonist of the film in one Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) and his family. We see that the Lane family definitely love and care for each other with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos in the supportive wife role) and their two young daughters, Rachel and Constance. The film could easily have spent a lot of time establishing this family and their relationship towards each other, but we move towards the film’s first major sequence pretty much right after the opening. It’s this choice to not linger on the characters too long that becomes both a strength and a weakness to the film’s narrative throughout.
World War Z finally shows why it’s not your typical zombie film with it’s first major sequence in the center of downtown Philadelphia as Gerry and his family sees themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. As they wait there are some subtle hints that something might just be somewhat awry ahead of them as we see more and more police racing towards some sort of emergency ahead of the family and more and more helicopters flying overhead. There’s a brief lull in the scene before all hell breaks loose and the film’s zombie apocalypse aspect goes from 0 straight to 11 in a split second.
It’s this sequence of all-encompassing chaos overtaking a major metropolitan city seen both on the ground through the eyes of Gerry Lane and then on flying overhead wide shots of the city that gives World War Z it’s epic scope that other zombie films (both great and awful) could never truly capture. It’s also in this opening action sequence that we find the film’s unique take on the tried-and-true zombie. While not the slow, shambling kind that was described in the novel, these fast-movers (owes a lot more on the Rage-infected from 28 Days Later) bring something new to the zomgie genre table by acting like a cross between a swarm of birds or insects with the rapidly infectious nature of a virus.
These zombies do not stop to have a meal of it’s victims once they’ve bitten one but instead rapidly moves onto the next healthy human in order to spread the contagion it carries. We even get an idea of how quickly a bitten victim dies and then turns into one of “Zekes” as a soldier has ended up nicknaming them. It’s this new wrinkle in the zombie canon that adds to the film’s apocalyptic nature as we can see just how the speed of the infection and the swarm-like behavior of the zombies could easily take down the emergency services of not just a city and state but of entire nations.
World War Z works best when it doesn’t linger too long between action sequences. Trying to inject some of the themes and ideas that made the novel such a joy to read only comes off as an uncomfortable attempt to try and placate fans of the novel. When we get scenes like Philadelphia in settings like Jerusalem and, in smaller scales but no less tense, like in South Korea and on a plane, the film works as a nice piece of summer action fare. This works in the first two thirds of the film but a sudden shift in the final third in Cardiff, Wales could be too jarring of a tonal shift in storytelling for some.
While the change from epic and apocalyptic to intimate and contained in the final third was such a sudden change this sequence works, but also shows just how bad the original final third of the film was to make this sudden change. It proves to be somewhat anticlimactic when compared to the epic nature of the first two-thirds of the film. We get a final third that’s more your traditional horror film. In fact, one could easily see World War Z as two different films vying for control and, in the end, the two halves having to try to co-exist and make sense.
World War Z doesn’t bring much of the sort of societal commentaries and themes that we get from the very best of zombie stories, but it does bring the sort of action that we rarely get from zombie films. The film actually doesn’t come off as your traditional zombie film, but more like a disaster story that just happened to have zombies as the root cause instead of solar flares, sudden ice age or alien invasion.
So, while World War Z only shares the title with the source novel it was adapting and pretty much not much else, the film wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that had been predicted for months leading up to it’s release. It’s a fun, rollercoaster ride of film that actually manages to leave an audience wanting to know more instead of being bombarded with so much action that one becomes desensitized and bored by it. There’s no question that a better film, probably even a great one, lurks behind the fun mess that’s the World War Z we’ve received, but on it’s own the film more than delivers on the promise that most films during the summer fails to achieve and that’s to entertain.