World War Z has good intentions or, at least, loftier goals than most mega-budget summer fun. Reading about its troubled production in various entertainment news outlets, it’s hard not to admire Brad Pitt, at least a little bit, for having aimed to make the thinking person’s summer blockbuster with this movie, which he also produced.
His character, a United Nations specialist/agent (his precise job is never made clear, but he’s a kind of Mr. Fix-It for the UN, traveling to the worst parts of the world and getting good people out of trouble), finds himself, along with his family, caught up in a zombie apocalypse that is spreading, as these things tend to, like the shockwave of an atom bomb. Rather than being part of some military unit tasked with annihilating the undead, which would have been the more exciting, action-oriented way to construct a zombie apocalypse movie, Pitt’s character is more like a human rights activist, zipping around the planet trying to figure out how to put an end to a pandemic before everyone on earth succumbs to it. Pitt’s not an action hero, and bucking and groaning against the constraints of its nigh on insurmountable budget ($200 million) and the economic necessities that tend to get in the way of good storytelling, World War Z isn’t an action movie. It’s an attempt to set up a living, breathing story about real people against a giant zombie backdrop. That’s an admirable intention, but the end result is a movie that proves that when you’re considering the merits of the biggest and most expensive movies of the summer, good intentions aren’t enough.
It might seem untoward to focus so much on the budget of a movie that’s so easily reducible to a watchable concept (Brad Pitt/zombie apocalypse: what more do you need to know?) but the fact is, World War Z is first and foremost an event, not precisely a movie, and nothing that costs $200 million in 2013 can ever really extricate itself from its own need to make money. Whatever Brad Pitt’s intentions, as producer or star of this film — his ostensibly admirable desire to make a more human blockbuster event-movie — the bottom line is that no studio is shelling out hundreds of millions without expecting a massive return, and getting that many people into a movie theater means you gotta hit quite a few lowest common denominators.
To that end, World War Z is rated PG-13, meaning fans of the gore generally associated with zombie stuff will be disappointed, but a wider range of ages can get in. On the surface, sanitizing the violence we associate with zombies in order to allow younger folks into the theater seems like a cop-out, but it not only allows the movie to claim a less exploitative agenda, it also tends to work to the movie’s advantage: in lieu of your run-of-the-mill closeups of desiccated ghouls gnashing out some infant’s carotid artery, director Marc Forster attempts to structure the thrills of the movie around old-fashioned high-tension sequences. He’s reasonably good at it, a talented imitator of his many antecedents (not to get too I-went-to-film-school, but Hitchcock, Bava, De Palma, Romero, Lang and Otto Preminger must have all been studied, to mixed but generally passable results).
On the other hand, a director like Forster is not really the type to wrangle a production as big as World War Z into something that resonates on a real person’s level. Being responsible for some of the most middling, faux-high brow stuff you’ve seen come out of Hollywood in the past 10 years (Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace), Forster’s talent is mainly in putting together competent set pieces, like the one where Pitt finds himself trapped midair in a plane full of zombies or the one where the entire city of Jerusalem is overrun by the undead. But he doesn’t have anything more than a craftsman’s touch, so he can’t balance the action with any real sense that the millions of people dying from the zombie plague matter much.
Pitt does well, as usual, which is a big benefit, since he’s the entire movie, give or take a speaking part here and there. He acts with the heavy-eyed gravity and the determination not to rest on his looks that he’s brought to so many better movies in the past decade. If people are going to resign themselves to riding out the zompocalypse alongside some adventurer (or rather, some movie star big enough to command a leading role in a movie on this scale), they should count themselves lucky to have the guy who’s been smart enough to work with Andrew Dominik, Terrence Malick, and Bennett Miller for his previous three films.
And that’s it. World War Z isn’t nearly what it could have been — it only halfheartedly attempts to give a believable portrayal of how the world might respond to a global pandemic, and every single character besides Pitt’s is reduced to exactly one trait. But compared to similarly-budgeted disasters like Battleship, Jack the Giant Slayer, or even the overwhelmingly adequate Man of Steel, World War Z is frigging Metropolis. But it can only be the Metropolis of summer popcorn flicks. We’ll have to wait for a different director to con his or her way into $200 million before we’ll get the Metropolis of zombie holocaust films.