World War Z review: mutated Hollywood ebola

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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