Approximately two and a half minutes into World War Z, Philadelphia is invaded by zombies, causing large scale destruction and mass mayhem throughout the city. It’s one of the quickest dives into action of any apocalyptic movie. Armageddon had an action packed prologue with meteorites descending upon New York City, then took about 40 minutes to establish its overcomplicated yet simple plot and introduce a dozen characters. 2012 didn’t get around to wiping out Los Angeles until about 45 minutes in, up until then the U.S. government and conspiracy theorists rambled on about the possibility of the end of times. Typically, the most dull sequences of a horror/disaster movie are towards the beginning, as the audience knows what they’ll eventually be in for but need to learn every character’s backstory before watching them get killed off one by one. World War Z doesn’t have this problem. It takes two minutes to introduce us to the protagonists, then it’s off to the races and doesn’t stop. For the first two-thirds anyway. Then it does stop. The film is intense, lots of fun, and a very satisfying big summer blockbuster. Until it isn’t.
It’s no secret that World War Z had one of the most problematic productions in recent memory, resulting in massive rewrites, reshoots, and a budget ballooning to well over $200 million. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) was accused of being unqualified to handle big action sequences, pointing to the lukewarm reception of his ‘James Bond’ entry, Quantum of Solace. Three screenwriters are credited with having penned the film (more are rumored to have contributed), with Lost creators Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard brought in during post-production to rewrite the entire third act after Paramount executives watched a first cut of the film and realized the ending didn’t work. What’s Hollywood to do when all seems lost? Get the guys who made Lost! With such tinkering going on, the final product has very little in common with the source material it’s based on, the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (son of Mel). For a film plagued with so many problems, the final product overcomes most of them seamlessly, delivering a cohesive story and exciting action for a long period of time. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t sustain itself to the end and is unable to walk away completely unscathed from the issues that arose while filming.
First, the good aspects. And there are lot of them. Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations field agent with a wife and two young daughters. A Zombie invasion hits, and do to his expertise as a former U.N. investigator, Gerry reluctantly agrees to help a military team find the source of the virus that’s causing this plague, with the hope that a vaccine can be developed upon finding the origin of the outbreak. He globe-trots from South Korea, to Israel, to Wales, in search for answers, all the while fighting off hordes of zombies. When the zombies attack, they attack fast. These aren’t your Night of the Living Dead zombies, these are the sprinting, frenzied and rabid zombies à la 28 Days Later. Different types of suspense sequences are implemented resulting in a potpurri of action scenes that feel like highlights from varying genres. The opening is out of a disaster movie and brings back memories of the alien invasion in War of the Worlds. A chase throughout an abandoned and darkly-lit apartment complex has the same jump-out scares and horror elements along the lines of Dawn of the Dead. Then there’s the film’s biggest set-piece, a full-on zombie invasion of Jerusalem as Brad Pitt and the Israeli army need to take out the ‘running dead’. With helicopters flying above the city as soldiers onboard man turret guns, to a battle on the ground using assault rifles and grenades, it’s what it might of looked like had the enemies in Saving Private Ryan been zombies instead of nazis. This is the largest scale, most epic zombie movie ever made. With a budget so big, the undead are allowed to storm major cities in lieu of a shopping mall, as was the case with the Dawn of the Dead remake. This isn’t a zombie movie made for hardcore fans of the genre. With a PG-13 rating it lacks the blood and guts that usually comes with the territory from such material. There’s no brain eating, head exploding, or decapitations, and most of the violence is suggestive, cutting away before anything really gruesome happens. However, the lack of gore doesn’t take away from the intensity of the battle scenes. Everything is still so viscerally exciting and the fact that this ins’t your average ‘grindhouse’ style horror movie, the gross-out factor of typical zombie fare isn’t necessary.
The film takes its premise fairly seriously which allows for very few instances of comic relief. Being a movie about widespread panic due to a pandemic, it shares similar themes to fear inducing thrillers like Contagion and Outbreak. Brad Pitt is a consistently solid leading man, and being front and center in nearly every scene, he carries the picture admirably. The character doesn’t get to display a huge range of emotions as he’s consistently heroic and in control of the situation. As a result, this isn’t a particularly difficult acting assignment for Pitt and he doesn’t get to ham it up as he did in Inglorious Basterds or emote like he did in Moneyball. Nevertheless he’s solid, and if a zombie apocalypse ever does breaks out, he’s someone you’d want by your side.
Before we get to the third act halt, the film features one of the of the best airplane sequences of any movie in years. There’s not much you need to know about this scene, but remember Snakes on a Plane? How does Zombies on a Plane sound? Then the third act hits. Everything that occurs after the plane sequence is the result of rewrites and reshoots. It’s not even that the third act is so bad, it’s just that it belongs in a different movie. It’s at this point that World War Z does turn into more of a generic horror movie. With the majority of blockbuster films saving their show-stopping action for the finale, this film goes the other way. The energy dissipates and the biggest spectacle you’re gonna get has already occurred smack in the middle of the movie. If this strategy is supposed to be innovative, it doesn’t work. There’s a reason most movies stick to the formula of building to an over the top climax, it does work. Adverse to the epic nature of everything else in the movie thus far, the entirety of the third act takes place in the intimate setting of a science lab. Again, the sequence isn’t an entire failure, it’s even pretty suspenseful at times, but it belongs either earlier in the film or realistically in an entirely different movie altogether. It’s a bit disconcerting that it’s glaringly obvious as to the exact moment when the script was rewritten and where the new scenes were placed. It’s hard to imagine what a mess the original ending was if this is the fixed version.
World War Z is really good for the majority of its running time and there’s something to be said for that. But, for the third act to be the weakest portion of a film is a real problem. Had the first act started out weak and then picked up as the movie went along that would be acceptable. Had the movie started off strong, lagged in the middle, than redeemed itself at the end, that would be okay too. But to build up such a strong momentum and goodwill only to go out with a whimper is frustratingly disappointing. Although World War Z is only two-thirds of a good film, I’m hard pressed not to recommend a movie that I was really digging for the first hour and twenty minutes. And as it goes, two out of three ain’t bad.