The zombie tale has always been one of increasing isolation, of the disintegration of community, writ small and intimate in the midst of a usually global calamity. Whether barricaded in a room with a few other survivors, dodging the undead in an attempt to gather supplies, or just trying to find a moment’s respite from a relentless foe, the zombie apocalypse is an exploration of the horror of being on the wrong side of a terminal numbers game.
Part of the genius of Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, World War Z lay in how effectively it dramatized the big picture so often alluded to in zombie fiction, yet seldom conveyed in any fullness—the struggle of the human species to survive. Though a series of Studs Terkel-flavored fact-finding interviews conducted with survivors a decade after the titular world war, Brooks places the classic zombie tale of survival within a larger framework, creating an overview of the struggle that fascinates in much the same way as can an overview of World War II, the Civil War or other large-scale, years-spanning conflict.
Though ostensibly adapted from Brooks’ immensely popular novel, the Brad Pitt-helmed World War Z is as much a faithful adaptation of the book as 2012’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting was of the ubiquitous baby-brewing tour guide with which it shared a title. Which is to say, hardly, if at all. To an extent, this was to be expected. Though the interview approach creates a compelling mosaic of the heroism and horror of a true world war, it would be a challenge to convert the book into a traditional film narrative. Challenging, but not impossible—yet the film World War Z doesn’t even try. Much as with What to Expect…, the appropriation of Brooks’ name and source material seems more like an attempt to manufacture buzz and fan base attendance (subsequent disappointment and rage be damned) through the most shallow, cynical means possible.
But so what? There’s no rule that says a movie must adhere to its source material, or that the result can’t represent both a striking departure and a marked improvement over the original. Couldn’t World War Z be a solid zombie pic while ignoring most of the material that inspired it? Certainly! But then again, there’s the little problem of the film not really being a zombie flick at all.
One could go into how World War Z fits into or defies the genre conventions of the zombie film, but that would miss the point—much as with the appropriation of the book title, the monsters in the film are pretty much zombies in name only. Alternating between being human-sized locusts/battering rams and a suicidal flash mob tasked with replicating a particularly determined swarm of army ants, the “zombies” move with a CGI-enhanced speed so frenetic it’s hard for horror to get a shiver in edgewise. When, toward the end of the film, several are shown just standing around, their behavior elicited laughter—unsought laughter—from the audience. (Note to director Marc Forster: it’s not a good sign when the audience laughs at your monsters.)
In the film’s defense, by the supposedly tense final act of World War Z, the audience has been given plenty to laugh at, for while the film steers clear of most of its source material or even really being about zombies, it embraces the role of ineptly executed, plot-hole-ridden actioner. As such, it’s filled with at first head-scratching, then derision-inducing “Really?!” behaviors that serve as thinly veiled excuses to raise the stakes in their respective scenes. A few of the more egregious “Just try to ignore the screenwriter behind the curtain” moments? The scientist who needlessly accompanies protagonist Gerry Lane (Pitt) through zombie-infested halls, accidentally making a loud noise not once, not twice but four times. (By the third “whoops,” the guffaws from the audience turned derisive.) Or the fact that Lane, perhaps mankind’s last hope (sure, why not), has a phone to stay in touch with his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), but no direct line to those in command. And then there’s the convenient setting down of his only weapon in order to enter a key code—a pretty simple task to complete with one hand—so that his character can conveniently, and stupidly, leave it outside the room. This artificial heightening of the suspense and danger is so clunky that, as a viewer, I found myself caught between annoyance and pity.
But at its core, World War Z doesn’t fail because it’s not sufficiently faithful to Brooks’ novel, or respectful of the genre conventions in which the novel is based. It doesn’t fail because of the twelve-too-many shortcuts it takes in getting from Act I to Act III. Rather, shorn of any number of possible narrative strictures, Forster’s film is all sea and no shore. Propelled along at a pell-mell pace, World War Z substitutes movement for life. But, appropriately enough for a film so chock-full of CGI-manufactured “zombies,” a closer look reveals just how lifeless the whole thing really is.
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof (screenplay); Matthew Michael Carnahan, J. Michael Straczynski (screen story); Max Brooks (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
Release Date: June 21, 2013