World War Z review: mutated Hollywood ebola

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World War Z red light Brad Pitt

World War Z has no guts of any kind: it has absolutely nothing to say, and it takes a long, dull, circuitous route to get to that nothing.
I’m “biast” (pro): love love love love the novel

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have read the source material (and I love it, as noted above)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You know what’s special about ebola viruses? They are awful and lethal and kill people in the most horrifying sorts of ways, liquefying organs and drowning the infected in their own blood. But the “good” thing is that these viruses kill so quickly that it’s tough for any outbreak to spread beyond an immediate vicinity. We’ll have to start worrying when ebola learns how to let the infectious go about their business for a healthy-feeling couple of weeks, spreading the germ far and wide, before it lays them low.

Let’s hope ebola doesn’t look to Hollywood for inspiration. The viruses the big-budget film industry attempts to spew far and wide may be “only” cultural in nature, not literally deadly to the body… but they are detrimental to the spirit, and they are transforming our entertainment into a pestilent mush. Worse of all, they have the power to be everywhere all at once. Much of the planet will be exposed to World War Z by this Friday, from the U.S. to Lithuania to Vietnam to Argentina. By mid July it will have spread to Poland and Iceland. In August it will be in Spain, Japan, and Venezuela. There will be no escaping it. There will be nowhere to run.

Bloated on its own reportedly $400 million budget and logy with an odd inertia for a globetrotting tale, this is the most flavorless sort of blah that Hollywood regularly vomits out. Z cannot decide if it’s a horror movie — albeit one with the squeamishness dictated by a need to recoup those outrageous production costs by trying to draw in younger teens — or a medical thriller… one that knocks off the only “character” who’s a doctor or researcher almost as soon as he’s introduced. In both cases, the camera quite literally turns away at the first hint that even a peek of blood might be forthcoming. World War Z has no guts of any kind: it has absolutely nothing to say, and it takes a long, dull, circuitous route to get to that nothing. It cannot even manage the slightest bit of urgency that one would imagine that armageddon would inspire.

As a bonus, it’s in 3D, which is entirely pointless, except as a way to inflate ticket prices.

There was potentially potential here, and I’m not even referring to Max Brooks’ magnificent novel, from which this borrowed a title and little else. (Read the book. It’s powerful, poignant literature about human nature and the human spirit couched in a journalistic narrative looking back at the zombie war. It made me cry. This movie does too, though for different reasons.) There’s the start of a motif about our indifference to looming disaster: the opening credits play over a montage of TV clips in which the first hint of news of an unknown virus spreading among human populations is lost among a cavalcade of screaming pundits and crap TV, wherein a talk-show host cooing “Your shoes are so cool” comes across with the same level of import as the latest dire global warming projections. But that satirical thread is lost when the film turns into an intense sort of urban disaster, as former UN worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family are stuck in an apocalyptic traffic jam as Philadelphia falls to fast-moving rabid zombies. There’s some momentarily intriguing stuff here, new perspectives on a familiar scenario — mobs of panicked people running from something we cannot see; the clearing out of a supermarket that happens with unexpected pitfalls and kindnesses. But the terrifying fury and speed with which civilization collapses then gives way to the half-cocked medical mystery, as Gerry heads off with a military team to seek out the source of the virus, in the hopes that this might lead to a cure.

This is where Z falls so flat that it becomes the scariest thing here. Gerry is the most insipid sort of Hollywood Hero, “heroic” merely by dint of his placement within the film as the central character. (This is not Brad Pitt’s fault. He has demonstrated that he can be hugely appealing [Moneyball] and intriguingly complex [Killing Them Softly] onscreen. It’s the fault of the script, which doesn’t even seem to realize that it is itself tired of the “white man saves the world” meme.) We know nothing about him beyond that he worked for the UN doing something vague but generically dangerous… which is what he continues to do as he hops around the planet following up on a few wispy clues: a mention in a weeks-ago email from a U.S. army base in South Korea of “zombies”; a cryptic suggestion that a man in Jerusalem, which rumor has it has walled itself off from the infected and is surviving intact, has answers. We learn nothing about Gerry except that — shock of shocks — he is worried about the family he left back on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, a sort of floating military base and refugee camp. Poor Mireille Enos (Gangster Squad, the American version of The Killing on TV) — as Gerry’s wife, Karin — spends the entire movie hugging her children and making beds; every time Gerry calls to let her know he’s okay, she seems to be straightening up the bunks she and her children have been assigned. This is tedious and offensive on its face but also makes no sense within the context of the film: surely there are urgent jobs that need doing when too many scared, terrorized people are crammed into too small a space with too few resources; surely there’s no reason for anyone to be waiting around doing nothing. (We have no idea what sort of outside-the-home work Karin might have done before the apocalypse — the film really couldn’t care less about her as a person — but even if she has no particular skills, anyone can inventory bottles of water or pallets of toilet paper, no?) It’s also indicative of the shocking lack of imagination the four (male) screenwriters — Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play (2009), Lions for Lambs), Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield), J. Michael Straczynski (Underworld, Thor), and Damon Lindelof (Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus) — demonstrate across the whole of the film: if they couldn’t even have come up with some dramatically interesting work for a supposedly major character to do with the survival of the human species apparently at stake, no wonder they couldn’t come up with a remotely interesting story set at the end of civilization.

The best thing, for limited values of “best,” about World War Z is the global scope of the disaster it shows us: it’s sketchy, but it’s still more than other similar films have achieved. It’s possible that that scope couldn’t have been achieved on a significantly smaller budget… but the sad, infuriating, septicemic irony is that that scale means nothing without human characters to care about, not in a film that seems to want to be taken primarily as drama, not as cartoon sci-fi action (not that it could possibly work on that level, either). So perhaps Z is more like ebola than I imagined: if this is too big in a self-destructive way, perhaps it will implode upon itself and die off before it can perpetuate itself. My real fear, however, is that Z is just bland enough to spread around the world quickly among unsuspecting audiences already inoculated against flavorless pabulum. God help us if this is successful enough to suggest to Hollywood that the strategy here should be repeated.

World War Z by Max Brooks [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Wed, Jun 19, 2013 9:12pm

It’s impressive just how much was squandered here. A brilliant book, a strong actor, multiple successful writers and $400 million.

Wed, Jun 19, 2013 11:56pm

Pity. I guess I will just rewatch Man of Steel, then.

Thu, Jun 20, 2013 3:45am

We knew there was trouble when it came out they reshot the last 40 minutes of the film. Currently at 75% on Rottemtomatoes after nearly 70 reviews. I’ll go see it at the discount matinee just because I like this sort of movie. Haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my list (after reading the review, this is probably a good thing).

Thu, Jun 20, 2013 10:32am

Darn. Oh well. At least the waiting is over.

I’m usually inclined to hew more closely to a book than most filmmakers do. Fair enough, it’s not as though I’m an authority on filmmaking. But I do think it’s rather odd to take a book which has as its basic premise multiple viewpoints and the gradual assembly of a complete picture, and throw away that premise in favour of a standard action plot. I hope they paid Brooks a lot of money for the title and the idea of a world-spanning story (except for China, which sequences were apparently cut out so that the film could be sold there).

In marketing terms, though, what’s the point? How many people are there who’ve read, or at least who recognise the title of, the book, but who won’t have heard about the production quagmire, who won’t have read a selection of reviews, who will just go and see the thing from name recognition alone? Enough to justify the book rights?

I believe Straczynski wrote the original script, which rumour has it was much closer to the book, but he’s only credited now because of WGA rules — there’s pretty much nothing of his left after the others got their hands on it. So rumour has it, anyway; I can’t confirm this.

Keith, early RT scores are often much more positive than later ones. Anyone would think the studios made sure that the critics they knew would be positive got in there early.

reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Jun 20, 2013 1:39pm

Due to the nature of the movie, I’m picturing the other writers descending on the original script and tearing and devouring it until nothing is left, then moving on to spread their dead ideas to others.

reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Jun 21, 2013 5:31pm

I was following Straczynski’s public internet posts at one time (some convoluted e-mail listserv thing that today would be “following him on Facebook.”)

Anyway, I happen to recall him announcing that he’d been signed to adapt World War Z at the same time that his script for Changeling (the Eastwood-directed Angela Jolie vehicle) was filming.

So apparently JMS started writing the script for World War Z way back in 2008, and an awful lot can happen to a script in five years.

reply to  David_Conner
Fri, Jun 21, 2013 5:56pm

The fragments I’ve heard suggest that he wrote the script which got the project greenlit (and was somewhat closer to the book), then went on to other things, and the other three guys came in to change it.

Thu, Jun 20, 2013 3:14pm

Just FYI, Ebola doesn’t liquify your organs.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Emily
Sun, Jun 23, 2013 8:07pm

It’s poetic license. This isn’t a medical site. :->

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Fri, Jun 21, 2013 8:10pm

I still hold that the book is unfilmable.

Ah, well. I’ll still probably see it, since the only other opening this week is Monsters U, which I just can’t generate any enthusiasm for, outside of taking my girls to a matinee, or maybe the drive-in.

OTOH, I still want to take my 13 year old daughter to Man of Steel, so there’s that.

Ian Osmond
Ian Osmond
reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Sat, Jun 22, 2013 12:25am

I want to see the book done as a Ken Burns documentary, or History Channel special, with somber narration as cameras pan over photos, and found footage cutting to interviews with people, and like that. It’s ENTIRELY filmable, as long as you stick to the same genre as the book: an anthology documentary of personal stories. I want to see Max Brooks interviewing the people, with shaky clips of the Battle of Yonkers, intercut with arrows of the zombies’ direction of travel, graphics showing where the military set up, and other graphics showing where the military SHOULD have set up, knowing what we know now about Zed.

I want to see scary graphs demonstrating the exponential population growth of the Zed population, the “long tail” cleanup of zombies that we are still undergoing, maybe some drone surveillance flights over the “white zones”.

It would be wonderful. It would not be a movie, though. It’s an epic story fit for the small screen.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  Ian Osmond
Sat, Jun 22, 2013 2:04am

I lot of people on the internet say this, but would anybody watch it? That’s the real problem.

You could overcome the lack of narrative throughput (sorry, the term I’m looking for here is through-line) in the anthology to make it watchable. It would be hugely expensive, though. I’d guess somewhere around $50M.* So, even if it was an artistic success, the audience for that kind of program is really very small. I’m not sure it could be any kind of commercial success. I realize that “The Civil War” (14+ million viewers per episode) and last March’s “The Bible” (9-10 million viewers) were very successful, but they’re the exceptions, not the rule. And let’s be realistic here: we’re not aiming at PBS-watching history buffs or Christians here. We’re making a fake documentary about zombies. That’s kind of a niche audience.

This is all speculation, of course, but if you’re a producer, these are the questions you have to ask before embarking on the kind of production you’re describing.

*Yeah, they just reportedly spent $400M on this version, but the economics of film and television production, in terms of both costs and revenues, are vastly different

Sat, Jun 22, 2013 3:34pm

Is the book unfilmable as a movie? Perhaps, simply based on the likely runtime involved to do it justice. Unfilmable, period? Not at all. Think about it: in this day and age, handheld recording devices and surveillance cameras are pretty much ubiquitous, . They could have done a mini-series – even an ACTUAL series? – pretty much as the book was written: an interviewer sitting down and talking with survivors. Think of the initial interview with T. Sean Collins, the soldier-turned-mercenary: he was hired to protect a rich guy (and a bunch of celebrities and their entourages) from the zombie hordes in a house that was wired to broadcast everything via an Internet feed. That’s the prime example from the book where video footage could have been interspersed with shots of the interviewer/interviewee talking about specific events related to that particular person.

In a zombie apocalypse people WOULD be taking footage with their devices, likely even at the risk of life & limb, because it would be a historical and unprecedented event. Presented documentary-style – but, again, not necessarily as a movie – this could have adhered much closer to Brooks’ mind-blowing novel. I haven’t seen the movie yet (not sure if I will), but the trailers and reviews make it obvious that the only thing this flick has in common with the book is a title. Kind of a squandered opportunity if you ask me, and I am surprised and somewhat saddened that Max Brooks signed on for this, although I’m sure that financially speaking, he is not the LEAST bit saddened, ha ha…

Skip Jones
Skip Jones
Mon, Jun 24, 2013 7:26am


reply to  Skip Jones
Mon, Jun 24, 2013 9:03am

I rather agree with you. At the very least, if you want to enjoy both, watch the film first, because seeing a story expanded is easier to enjoy than seeing it cut down and simplified.
(This is why I still think turning novels into films is a terrible idea. I’d much rather see short stories made into films…)

Mon, Jul 15, 2013 5:29pm

I have nothing of substance to add to the above review, but one detail stood out that’s indicative of the supremely lazy filmmaking on display here:


There is a scene in which Pitt’s character, Gerry is trapped in a small lab with several deadly disease samples. He plans on injecting himself with one of them, and it is important that he choose correctly.

In the previous scene, it has been established that another character has the ability to call a phone outside of the lab (which incidentally seems not to alert the zombies when a much quieter noise does…. nice consistency there, screenwriters), and that the lab walls are not soundproof (you can easily hear the zombie through the glass). Gerry has access to a pen and paper and knows that this other character can monitor him in via a security camera in the lab..

What is the obvious solution to this problem? Write on a piece of paper, “When I Hold Up the Correct Sample, Call the PHONE.” then hold up the samples one at a time close to the camera until you hear a ring. Then double (and triple) check to make sure.

What does Gerry do? He writes, “Tell my wife I love her,” in a cheap bid for audience sympathy and then injects himself with one of the drugs seemingly selected at random in a cheap bid for suspense.


Biggest (non-military) waste of money ever… and call me crazy but cutting out almost all of the book except for the American and Israeli sections plays right in to “Jews run Hollywood” stereotypes. The book was a lot more evenhanded in its examination of the worldwide effects and causes.

Worst of all, the ending sets up a sequel of the Killing Private Zombie vein, which I have no interest in watching. While the last hundred pages of the book felt like gratuitous padding, they were a complete delight compared to the last hour and a half of this pandering, spineless Blandfish sandwich. Apparently there were significant changes made to the ending – maybe the original script was superior, I’m not interested enough to hunt it down. Even with a grittier ending, I can’t really see how this could have been salvaged.