World War Z

Bloody murder--NOW without the blood!
Marc Forster
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, Daniella Kertesz
The Setup: 
One man tries to find key to worldwide zombie outbreak.

I grew more and more curious about this the more it was predicted to be a huge mess unable to be saved and was heading toward being the biggest flop of the summer. This is adapted from a novel by Mel Brooks' son, which as far as I understand (I haven't read it) was presented as a series of news articles and thus had no characters or plot to speak of. So making it into a movie starring Brad Pitt was always going to involve it being an entirely new story. Then they realized that the film they had wasn't working, and brought in Damon Lindehof, who looked at it and decided that they needed to scrap the last 40 minutes and shoot a whole new final third to the movie, which was then done. Did they succeed in rescuing it? For the most part, they pretty much did, although it remains somewhat of an odd bird.

We open with a credits sequence that looks lovely in 3D and shows the typical montage of our world spinning out of control via politics, the environment, stuff like that. Then we join Pitt and family (wife and two daughters) preparing breakfast, then stuck in traffic. It is supposed to be Philadelphia, but was actually shot in Budapest, and it only superficially resembles Philly. A cop goes by quickly, people are running, there's an explosion, and boom, full-on zombie outbreak. The scene is well-directed and involving, although it's over a bit too fast. Gerry (that's Pitt) commandeers a camper and gets his family out of there (somehow) and drives up to Newark (somehow). It seems that they, and all of society, adjust fairly quickly to the reality of zombies, but that's just the way it is.

Gerry is a former UN dude, or something involving him being in dangerous international locations, so the government wants him. The next morning they escape to the top of the apartment complex in a good, tense scene, and are picked up via helicopter and taken to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Pretty amazing that they set this whole thing up since yesterday, but one aspect I liked is that the reason Pitt's family is allowed there is because of his experience, and if he doesn't go to work, they all just get dumped out with the rabble and left to die. So he has to go to Korea and try to find the origin of the outbreak. This leaves his family largely out of the movie, which was fine with me as I couldn't deal with those whiny girls much longer.

He flies off to Korea, where they find a base where they think the whole thing started, but everyone in question is long dead and it comes to nothing. These zombies respond to sound, and there's a good scene in which they're taking bicycles back to the plane, when suddenly Gerry's phone rings. Please silence all cell phones prior to zombie apocalypse! They barely get away, then, off to Jerusalem! There the survivors are walled off in seeming safety, but some of the survivors start singing some song of unity and the human spirit or whatnot, and this draws the attention of the zombies, who climb over the walls in the human pyramids you see in the trailers. The lesson is clear: Keep your annoying, precious outpourings of the human spirit to yourself. Gerry and a new buddy, a female soldier, barely get out on a departing airplane and--off to Wales!

This is where I suspect the new ending begins. Gerry has seen the zombies ignore certain people, and has an idea that... he'll keep to himself and tell us later in the narrative. So they're flying, and once more it is little yappy dogs that lead to human catastrophe. The zombies escape on the plane, there's some mayhem, and Gerry throws a grenade that opens the side and sucks them all out. But the plane goes down and... no one survives, except Gerry and his buddy! Life is amazing like that. They hoof it to the nearest facility that houses a store of deadly diseases and: the exposition, please!

Gerry thinks that the zombies want fresh, juicy, succulent cuts of tender human flesh, captured at its peak of flavor, and bathed in a tangy Asian barbecue glaze. They don't want stanky old leprous sick flesh, so they don't eat sick people. In fact, they actually don't eat anyone at all, because that might draw blood, and this movie is PG-13, a topic we'll return to. So he thinks he'll try it out and inject himself with some deadly pathogen that they have a cure for, and see if his snackability diminishes. But guess who lurks between the humans and the pathogen storehouse? If you guessed pygmy marmosets, you're wrong. Nor is it a gaggle of especially territorial geese. No, it is in fact zombies that prowl the halls, and Gerry and crew go through in a nice suspenseful sequence, he injects himself, waits, then: stops to enjoy a Pepsi product! The loss of 97% of humanity doesn't negate the need for cool liquid refreshment. Pepsi! The choice of an undead generation.

Gerry makes it back out, in another nice suspenseful sequence, and in a jif we're got concluding voice-over and Gerry is reunited with his family, who are FINE! You'll notice that there is much discussion of how "this is not over" and has in fact "only begun," because movies of this scale do not get made anymore unless they're going to generate sequels. And it seems that Brad Pitt has chosen this to be his franchise.

So it turns out to be a kind of strange, unshapely movie, but one that still manages to be pretty good. I'm no gorehound, but the total absence of blood and gore of any kind really kind of skews this. We have no visceral sense of what might happen to you if you're bitten (in fact, might not be that bad... no more pressing deadlines!) and that removes the sense of creeping rot and decay that zombie movies use successfully. It just seems like really big crowds competing with you at the supermarket, and a lot of annoyance. So for the first half you watch these scenes that are involving, but remain at a curious distance and never really grow unnerving or that one has much feeling about. The original ending was said to be another large-scale battle in Africa, and was said to be more of the same impersonal combat, then the end.

So what Lindehof did, and I have to say it was smart thinking, is to realize that the movie had too big of a focus and lacked any personal involvement, so he devised an ending that brought everything way down and put things on a human scale. I'm not sure he planned it, but a side-effect of this strategy is that: if the movie is PG-13 and can't really show any horror, what can you do? And what you can do is suspense. So at the end you have some quite good suspense sequence and at last we start to sense some human risks being taken here and have occasion to care about Gerry in a way we hadn't til then.

So this intelligence about rescuing the script kind of put me on the side of this movie and made me happy they were able to make it succeed. Still, a wonky thing. While Gerry is running around between Korea and Jerusalem, i.e. the first two-thirds of the film, it seems like nothing is happening. We just watch one event unfold after another, without real personal involvement. Then things get better at the lab, but by the end, you just watched an interesting but not altogether involving series of events unfold. It just doesn't have the resonance other zombie movies have, and it's not really ABOUT anything--the way Dawn of the Dead was about consumerism, say--this doesn't even make much out of the danger of contemporary disease outbreaks... it's just kind of about nothing. Combine that with the PG-13 tameness, and you have a forgettable zombie movie safe for the kids, but good enough while it's in front of your eyeballs.

Should you watch it: 

It's not bad, it's pretty good, but it left me pretty unmoved.