I'll admit, when I hear an upcoming film is going to cover a familiar topic—whether it be zombies or vampires or buddy cops or an alien invasion—I typically want the filmmakers to bring something new to the table. Or, at the very least, add a few new twists to the familiar. Strangely enough, when I read that Max Brooks' WORLD WAR Z was being turned into a film (after years of trying), I knew that this book that I'd read and loved could never be made into a big-budget, mainstream film without some considerable changes. Against current thought, it could have been made into a film in its original form as, perhaps a fake documentary, but we all know how well those have been going over lately.
My point is twofold: anyone upset about the film's structure probably didn't want it made into a movie in the first place; and, the film delivers a zombie film that does, in fact, add a few new wrinkles to the zombie canon. These certainly aren't Mr. Romero's (or Robert Kirkman's) slow-moving, decomposing walking dead that have mostly risen from their graves to eat humans. From what I can tell about the zombies in WORLD WAR Z, they seem more into biting than eating. Their mission is to spread their virus-like condition to other humans as quickly as possible—and considering the time it takes from a bite to turn you into a zombie is about 12 seconds, that's pretty fast.
These zombies run (a bone of contention for many, but since these aren't really traditional zombies, it makes sense), and they have swarming hive mentality, which results in some of the film's most sensational visuals of zombies piling atop zombies to scale or topple even the largest barriers. Truth be told, I'm not sure this qualifies as a zombie movie; the virus-like element pushes it more into the same category as 28 DAYS LATER, but it has the qualities of a zombie movie and the characters call them zombies, so let's proceed with that in mind.
The film tells its globe-trotting tale of the spread of the zombie plague by following the exploits of a former United Nations worker Gerry Lane (whose expertise on viral diseases isn't exactly clear), played by Brad Pitt, who happens to live in Philadelphia where an outbreak seems to happen right before his eyes and the eyes of his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. But the UN seems intent on getting Gerry and his family to a safe location—an aircraft carrier way out on the ocean—so he can do his job and track down the source of this newborn plague.
To a certain degree, the book's structure is maintained to a lesser degree as Lane goes from South Korea to Israel to Scotland with a few stops in between looking for the ground zero of this mess. And each location offers a new, terrifying discovery, which often leads to the next stop on Lane's world tour. The South Korean stop keeps things smaller in scale (with effectively twitchy, paranoid appearances from the likes of Matthew Fox and James Badge Dale), but the things discussed about the "North Korean solution" are just awful and mostly believable.
But it's the set piece in Israel is magnificently staged and moves like a high-speed rail train through a china shop. Jerusalem is one of the few cities that hasn't been invaded, thanks to an already-built wall around its perimeter. But Lane is there when the wall is scaled, and it's a terrifying moment that is almost hard to picture without actually seeing it (okay, fine, if you've seen the trailers, you probably have seen it). The best part of this sequence is that Lane picks up a sidekick in the form of a young Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz), who becomes something of a bodyguard for him. She's ruthless, fearless and kicks much zombie ass.
As directed by Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL, QUANTUM OF SOLACE) and written by God knows who when all is said and done, WORLD WAR Z fizzles a bit toward the end for two very distinct reasons. First, the final sequence set in a World Health Organization in Scotland, during which Lane attempts to find a way to stop the zombie attacks, is kind of simple and the coincidences run so deep that I simply couldn't wholly accept them. It's still a great, tense piece of filmmaking (featuring the great Peter Capaldi as a WHO doctor), and it's one of the few times we really get to examine exactly what these "zombies" look like and how they behave.
The second, more sweeping problem with the film is with the Lane character. Other than the fact that he loves his family (duh) and he has superhuman powers of deduction, he has virtually no other distinguishing characteristics or personality traits. He's like a generic everyman action hero tossed into this global catastrophe who somehow manages to get along with just above-average intelligence, charm, and the ability to run and never stop running. Even his reaction at the realization that what he's dealing with may be zombies barely registers; maybe he blinks a few extra times. It's not Pitt's performance that I have issues with; it's the character himself who comes across as more of a sketch than a human being. And in a film where the human population is dwindling at an alarming rate, a few flesh-and-blood life forms would have been appreciated.
Still, WORLD WAR Z has many strong moments in it (I haven't even mentioned the insane zombie attack in an airborne commercial plane). If you're precious about the source material, you might as well stay away. But if you're willing to be flexible and open your mind to something that at least makes an effort to be original within a crowded, familiar genre, this one gets it right more often than it fumbles it. I will take issue with the fact that the PG-13 rating makes it feel like we're watching an "edited for television" version of a much more violent work. Perhaps a future home video release will let loose the blood and guts; here's hoping. The film may not stick every landing, but it's still a worthy effort, with a handful of great scares and sweeping action scenes that convey the vast, desperate nature of this version of the zombie apocalypse.