June 20, 2013



WORLD WAR Z:  Watch It At Home – Third Act Heroics, In More Ways Than One

The travails of WORLD WAR Z on the way to the screen have been widely discussed, and in the end the misshapen, Frankenstein-like $200M (plus marketing costs) assembly of various genres, writers, editors and re-shoots are something of the shambling mess you’d expect.  There’s a fair amount in the final film that does manage to work, though, and perhaps surprisingly (or not), the movie’s best moments are the ones added when the production was at its most desperate.

The original inspiration for the movie of World War Z (which is based on the bestselling and reportedly much more politically incisive novel by Max Brooks, son of a man who knows from misshapen Frankenstein–that’s Fronkensteen–monsters) seems to have been the idea of melding a zombie horror movie with a war epic.  The early sections are loaded with giant set-pieces, enormous attacks in Philadelphia, Korea and Jerusalem which successively crumble to the ravenous attackers, in sequences that sometimes recall Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.  Always (barely) one step ahead of the zombies is our hero, and for all intents and purposes our only character, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt).  Gerry is a former UN worker whose expertise is never quite clear, other than the fact that he’s survived several global hot-spots, and that seems to be enough for the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN (Fana Mokoena) to determine that he’s crucial to the investigation into the cause and thus a possible cure for the epidemic.  Gerry agrees so that, in exchange, the military will protect his wife (Mireille Enos, from The Killing) and children on a mid-ocean aircraft carrier that’s as safe as any place can be in such times.  Due to a random accident, though, Gerry soon finds himself spearheading the investigation virtually alone.

Although there are some impressively-scaled shots and sequences in this stretch of World War Z (the evocative photography is by Ben Seresin and the production design is by Nigel Phelps), director Mark Forster and the screenwriters working on the project at the time, who appear to have been Matthew Michael Carnahan (credited as co-writer of story and screenplay, and a screenwriter of The Kingdom, Lions For Lambs and the US version of State of Play) and J. Michael Straczynski (co writer of the story, and a longtime TV writer)–as well as Brad Pitt, who is also a producer and developer of the project–made two decisions that drastically limit its effectiveness.  The first is the depiction of the zombies.  They’re of the 28 Days Later variety, victims of an unexplained epidemic (they don’t, as far as we know, rise from their graves) who move with dizzying speed.  But unlike Danny Boyle’s zombies, these fiends move, in this section of the movie, almost entirely in massive, seething packs, seen in long-shots so that we can appreciate how they climb and leap and swarm in an insectoid way.  This means that they’re almost wholly a creation of CG, and particularly undifferentiated CG at that, which makes them not very scary at all–they might as well be a microscopic view of the virus that’s turned them.  The second decision was the economic one that a tentpole movie at this budget level must be released with a PG-13 rating, the result being that there’s almost none of the gore we usually associate with the zombie genre–there’s less explicit violence on screen in all of World War Z than there is in any single episode of The Walking Dead, and the effort to keep things that way further distances us from what’s going on.

It’s not as though these conceptual problems are compensated by memorable characterizations for the humans.  Gerry’s family need not be described as any more than “Gerry’s family,” because that’s all they ever are, a warm presence to give Gerry something to fight for.  Even Gerry himself is only a recognizable individual because that’s Brad Pitt up there on the screen, doing his gritty, serious, charismatic movie star best to play him.  The other characters–some of them played by actors like Matthew Fox and David Morse–are so weak that they’re virtually absent even when on screen.  (However, Daniella Kertesz, as an Israeli sabra Pitt acquires along his travels, has notable presence despite being no more than a badass companion for Gerry.)  Forster shows better action-director skills than he did in the flaccid Bond flop Quantum of Solace, but he (or whoever was editing that part of the film) relies on hackneyed frenzy-cutting and galvanized camera moves to generate excitement.

For three-quarters of its length, World War Z bulls its way through with sheer scale–and then suddenly it reverses itself.  The story goes that when Pitt and the other powers that be watched the movie’s last act, they knew it was a complete failure and brought in Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard (both of J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot stable, Lindelof of course being most famous-perhaps infamous–for co-creating Lost), who threw all of it out and wrote an entirely new final section from scratch.  This is the part of World War Z that really works, and it does so by completely abandoning all the epic pretensions and war tropes of the preceding sections and settling down to be an old-fashioned, relatively small-scale zombie movie, with individualized flesh-eaters and our hero having to… very… carefully… creep by them when even the faintest noise could alert them to his presence, making them eat him and probably end the world.  For half an hour, we’re finally back in a real honest-to-god movie, the one they probably should have made in the first place for half the price.

The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone.  World War Z is an epic that works best as a B-movie.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."