I know what some of you are thinking. Zombie apocalypse? Really? Again? But if you start complaining about the lack of originality in summer movies, honestly, when will you stop? (The answer in my case is Labor Day or cocktail hour.) And in many ways, when compared with "Man of Steel," "Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek: OMG Ricardo Montalbán!," "World War Z" is pretty refreshing.
The movie, loosely adapted from Max Brooks' 2006 novel of the same title, is under two hours long. Its action set pieces are cleverly conceived and coherently executed in ways that make them feel surprising, even exciting. Brad Pitt, playing a former United Nations troubleshooter pressed back into service to battle the undead, wears a scruffy, Redfordesque air of pained puzzlement.
Faint praise? Maybe. Brooks' book is a work of sly pseudo-history composed of data and anecdote drawn from an eerily recognizable future world. A kind of sequel to Brooks' "Zombie Survival Guide," it was published at an earlier moment in the long zombie march through modern popular culture.
Compared with its source, and to "The Walking Dead" in both its graphic novel and cable television versions, Forster's film represents a careful step backward. It does not expand the tonal range of zombie fantasy, like Ruben Fleischer's "Zombieland" or Colson Whitehead's novel "Zone One." Nor does it exploit the allegorical potential of a world overrun by flesh-craving, half-decayed former people, in the manner of "The Walking Dead," which turns the desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape into a forum for philosophical debate and ethical inquiry.
"World War Z," in other words, does not try to extend the boundaries of commercial entertainment but does what it can to find interesting ways to pass the time within them. It starts with a flurry of images establishing that we are in a familiar world of global anxiety and media distraction, as news reports about environmental and medical problems alternate with bits of celebrity gossip. Gerry Lane (Pitt) takes all this in while making breakfast for his wife (Mireille Enos) and their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) in the family's Philadelphia home.
Then, during the drive to school, the City of Brotherly Love is rocked by explosions and suddenly full of lurching, screeching creatures who smash their heads through car windows and start gnawing the people inside, who turn into ... but by now you know the routine. Like their brethren in video games and other movies, these Z-folk are fast-moving and hard to kill, though we and Gerry eventually learn the traits that distinguish them from the rest. They are inflamed by loud noises and move in terrifying swarms, their individuality completely swallowed by the blind, ravenous will of the virus that infects them.
The siege of Philadelphia resembles the alien invasion in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," both in its impact and its efficiency. Forster, whose previous films include "Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland" and the James Bond installment "Quantum of Solace," is more of a craftsman than a visionary, which is something of a relief in this age of action movie grandiosity.
Along with a young boy they have rescued (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido), Gerry and his family are helicoptered to an aircraft carrier, where Gerry's former boss (Fana Mokoena) has an offer that can't be refused. In exchange for the safety of his loved ones - and at the cost of a severe reduction of Enos' screen time and expressive range - Gerry must travel the world in search of the virus's origin and possible cure.
What he finds are a scattering of interesting actors - including James Badge Dale, David Morse, Peter Capaldi, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu - in locations from South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales. Along the way Gerry loses and acquires potential sidekicks, the most durable of whom is a tough Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) whose tiny frame and close-shorn hair contrast pleasingly with Pitt's burly, bemaned look.
The zombies - computer-generated en masse and carefully made up for close-range viewing - are creepy and cool, though the movie doesn't quite meet the challenge of making them seem truly new or scary. But if you want to be diverted and mildly disturbed, they, and "World War Z," will at least temporarily satisfy your appetite. And of course they would feel the same about you.
'WORLD WAR Z'
Directed by Marc Forster; written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, J. Michael Straczynski, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and Max Brooks, based on the novel "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War," by Brooks; director of photography, Ben Seresin; edited by Roger Barton and Matt Chessé; music by Marco Beltrami; production design by Nigel Phelps; costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo; visual effects supervisor, Scott Farrar; produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Ian Bryce; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes.
WITH: Brad Pitt (Gerry Lane), Mireille Enos (Karen Lane), James Badge Dale (Speke), Daniella Kertesz (Segen), Matthew Fox (Parajumper), David Morse (Burt Reynolds), Fana Mokoena (Thierry), Abigail Hargrove (Rachel Lane), Sterling Jerins (Constance Lane), Ludi Boeken (Warmbrumm), Fabrizio Zacharee Guido (Tomas), and Peter Capaldi, Ruth Negga and Moritz Bleibtreu (WHO Doctors ).
Rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Epic slaughter of the already dead; more discreet and selective killing of the sympathetically alive.
c New York Times Syndicate