World War Z is better than I assumed it would have any reason to be, if only because the very phrase "PG-13 zombie movie" is enough to make any True Genre Fan start dry-heaving. On the other hand, World War Z also fails to be as good as it easily could have been, given that it's basically a hybrid of 28 Days Later and Contagion, and all it should have taken was to slavishly replicate the things that those movies did well. Instead, WWZ goes about, contentedly making its own mistakes and failing to learn from its most immediately obvious forebears.
With that lineage, it should be immediately obvious what kind of movie we're looking at: a plague thriller in which the plague makes zombies. The rage virus kind of zombies that a purist might reasonably grouse are no kind of zombies at all - in WWZ, they're not even cannibals, but are wholly content to call it a day once their poison bites have passed on the disorder - though since much is made of the fact that the victims are in fact reanimated dead bodies, and the very word "zombie" even shows up, dodging the somewhat tedious recent tendency to do all sorts of coy dances around naming names (sometimes a flesh-eating revenant is just a flesh-eating revenant), I think it's fair to wave the film right on through.
I have not read Max Brooks's source novel, but I am given to understand that it's a collage of after-the-fact eyewitness accounts of What Happened During the Zombie Apocalypse. That's something that could work as a movie - it is, in fact, not unlike the structure of Contagion itself - but unfathomably expensive summer tentpole movies need a bit more of a sure thing, and that's how a rotating all-star cast of writers perhaps better noted for their marquee value than their consistent quality - J. Michael Straczynski, Damon Lindelof, and Drew Goddard are among those credited - ended up shaping the material into a globe-trotting adventure centered around Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, who doubles as producer), a former United Nations employee called back into action. What, exactly, Gerry did that so impressed UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is left a bit muddy; the best I can come up with is that he's a professional survivalist. And in that capacity, he's assigned to be the guide in a field of hostile human monsters for Dr. Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel), a virologist hoping to track the spread of the zombie disease in the hopes of stamping it out while there's still a humanity left to save.
But that doesn't happen right away. First, Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) find themselves stuck in an unusually appalling bout of Philly traffic on their way to the airport, and this turns out to be caused by a sudden explosion in homicidal biting, as urban centers across the industrial West start toppling all in the span of a single terrible day (and if you imagine that the film prods at the Post 9/11 NYC wound with a stick, you have imagined correctly). The Lanes are able to escape to Newark, NJ, devastated by rioting, looting, and a general sense of broken-down terror (there's no indication why New Jersey hasn't been affected by the zombie outbreak), and here they acquire a terrified Latino boy, Tomas (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido), whose parents, for unknowable reasons, would rather send him off with the kindly gringos than go themselves. Anyway, at this point, Gerry's UN contacts are able to send a helicopter to pick him and his family up in the barest nick of time, and it's only after he has them safely aboard a remote aircraft carrier that he learns the cost: nobody gets to take up space on that ship unless they're being useful. Nobody, nor their families. So how would you like to plunge back into the well of a global war against toxic corpses?
That takes us a good quarter-way through the movie (WWZ is a blissful 116 minutes, an elegant throwback to the day when tentpole movie had to earn it if they wanted to break the two-hour mark), and it already showcases what might be the biggest problem out of many small ones: WWZ never does solve that problem of crafting a single unified narrative out of the bits and pieces of Brooks's novel, but ends up like a series of mini-movies, all of them starring Pitt's Gerry Lane. There's the Philadelphia Escape, there's the Incident in South Korea, there's the Siege of Jerusalem, where Gerry picks up an Israeli soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertez) to be his kick-ass, one-handed Gal Friday for the remainder of the picture, and there's the Haunted House Thriller, in which Gerry, thinking he might just about have cracked this whole disease, but has to sneak through the zombie-wracked halls of a World Health Organization facility in Cardiff, Wales in order to find a vial of bacteria. This last sequence of the movie, incidentally, is by far the best part, and it may or may not be the result of massive production traumas that led to a very costly Russian finale to be scrapped and replaced by a new ending; my interests in the case haven't led me to do too much research into exactly what got added at what point. There are those who have observed that the end is sudden, and largely unresolved, which is sort of true; but it mostly tells me that not enough critics have the proper appreciation of Italian zombie films. That's where you get properly abrupt endings.
The point being: it's beyond episodic, and it is best when it's the most scaled-back; though I have to credit director Marc Forster with having evolved so tremendously well in his ability to handle big action sequences from the eye-melting awfulness of Quantum of Solace, that out of respect, I shan't even link his name to the Dramatic Chipmunk, as is my custom. In fact, the action in WWZ is pretty solid, all things considered: the Philadelphia material far more so than the Jerusalem scenes, largely because it has a much higher sense of confusion and chaos.
The unresolved issue, though, is that however successful it is as an action thriller, WWZ is a damnably unsteady story with totally uninteresting characters and too many narrative leaps of faith. It's probably just because Contagion exists, and is awesome, that I think this, but it almost certainly would have worked better if Gerry were at least three different characters, and his story broken up rather than told in neat little discrete geographic chunks, like an Indiana Jones zombie-fighting movie (which I know, sounds awesome - but that's not at all what WWZ is, just how it's structured).
Technically, the film is solid if not quite exceptional: Ben Seresin's cinematography probably didn't need to be quite as flat and bleached of color, and Roger Barton & Matt Chesse's editing surely could have slowed down quite a bit in the faster parts of action scenes, and Marco Beltrami's score could have had a bit more personality to go along with his excellent opening credits theme. But it gets the job done, all of it, assuming "the job" was to keep us reliably perked up by the scenes of mass devastation, and creeped out a little bit at the slow-burn tension of the final sequence.
It is not a good zombie film. It's barely a zombie film at all, in fact: more of a bio-thriller in which zombies are symptomatic of a killer disease. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I wasn't totally disappointed by that development. But in a summer where the splashy action films have been weaker-kneed than I'd prefer, it's entirely satisfying at the level of popcorn spectacle, and it's fully aware that the best thing is to never be boring, and let issues like story and character hold off for some more serious and probing tale of the undead taking over the world. Aye, there could be a much better version of this scenario; but there just as easily could be, and have been, versions that are incomparably worse.
That Man of Steel 6/10 is really clipping my wings here.
Let's go with a rare decimal point: