‘World War Z’: Dead on its feet

June 21, 2013

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Ahhh yes, the zombie apocalypse – that moment when the dead rise and, by biting the living, turn them into zombies as well. Some theorize that Patient Zero was Ronald Reagan.

Before long, there’s an unorganized zombie army meandering around the streets, chomping on any unfortunate warm-blooded soul who happens to cross their path (and there are always a few). And – wham! Instant Tea Party.

Zombies have become the fear-fantasy of the age, having replaced aliens from outer space and natural disasters as the metaphor for how little control we have, how much we fear and how quickly it can all change. Still, “World War Z,” Marc Forster’s film of Max Brooks’ best-selling novel, is a little late to the party. After all, “The Walking Dead” has been on the air since 2010. Hey, Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” came out in 2002.

But with Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos in the lead roles and a budget north of $150 million, “World War Z” commands attention. And, for the first two-thirds of its almost two-hour running time, it delivers. Even with a late assist from writer Damon Lindelof to shore up the finale, however, “World War Z” still suffers from what’s referred to as third-act problems. It builds and builds to what ultimately is an anti-climax.

Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a house-husband in Philadelphia who, we eventually learn, used to be a trouble-shooter/fixer for the United Nations, until he burned out. One day, while driving his kids to school and his wife to work, traffic in downtown Philly grinds to a halt. And then all hell breaks loose, as seemingly rabid people go running through the crowd, attacking and savagely biting anyone they can.

Pitt is experienced enough at crisis management to know that he needs to grab the family, abandon the car and run like hell. But he’s still got enough presence of mind to actually observe what’s happening: who’s doing the biting, what happens to those who are bitten.

Eventually, he gets to a place safe enough to call his old boss, who sends a helicopter to airlift him and his family to an aircraft carrier 100 miles offshore. There, he’s given an ultimatum: His family can stay safely on the ship – if Gerry flies off to Korea and other points unknown. He’ll travel with an immunologist, who is hoping to figure out what caused this plague and whether there’s a cure or anything else that can help the living survive.

Brooks’ novel was a neat little conceit: a series of first-person accounts of the zombie infestation by its survivors, from interviews conducted by an investigator from the new world order. It was episodic and nonlinear, with only a few of the characters recurring in the narrative.

For a big-budget computer-effects film, however, you need a movie star who can be front-and-center at all times. Pitt handles it capably, finding the intelligence and pragmatism of the character, as well as the resourcefulness and emotional heart that pulls him along.

Yet the script, credited to Lindelof and three others, is necessarily more reductionist than Brooks’ book. Instead of a series of snapshots of the human response to an inhuman and fast-moving crisis, Forster (who has directed everything from “Stranger than Fiction” to “Monster’s Ball” to “Quantum of Solace), has to follow Pitt’s character on a globe-hopping search for clues to a way to survive the plague.

What he ends up with is not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” a similar medical thriller . Really, the template here could just as easily be Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” which created the mold for films like this.

But here’s the thing about zombies: They’re only as interesting as the filmmaker imagines them to be. There’s nothing new in that regard with “World War Z.” Like the creatures in “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend,” these living dead run like they’ve been zapped with electrical current. But when they’re standing still, they’re jaws clack together like elderly dogs, and they make screechy noises like the raptors in “Jurassic Park.”

As a result, the law of diminishing returns kicks in early in “World War Z.” The zombie threat always seems to be roughly of the same urgency and immediacy; it always seems to go from zero to 60 very quickly but doesn’t always track logically (consider a sequence in Israel, in which the lone barrier separating the healthy from the undead has no one standing lookout on top).

The one time late in the film in which the scare factor actually gets ratcheted up is aboard an airliner, in which the virus unexpectedly breaks out in an enclosed space. But that leads directly to the film’s rather flat finale.

After a while, it also becomes obvious – and less exciting – when Forster is utilizing CG stand-ins for the zombies and their victims. Yes, computers can create spectacularly painful-looking stunts – but the digital tools often look prefabricated and phony when executed on this scale.

To be sure, there is excitement and much food for thought in “World War Z.” The film is not a bust – but its ending will leave you saying “if only…”

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