The end is nigh…again.
2013 may go down as The Year of The End… at least at the multiplex. The year isn’t even half over, yet we’ve seen enough entries in this trendy new apocalyptic sub-genre to categorize them into The Good (This Is the End), The Bad (After Earth), and The Invisible (Rapture-Palooza, anyone?). World War Z is the latest thrill-pocalypse to grace cinema screens this year, and it carves out its own niche among the throng — that of the sorta-good, sorta-bad, kinda-indifferent middle of the pack. Certain sequences are positively riveting while others fall completely flat, and by the end we’re left thinking, “This is it? This is really the end?”
Confusion and indifference are not feelings one yearns for while watching a film about the breakneck struggle to survive a zombie pandemic. To be fair, though, the audience comes by them honestly, since the film itself seems to be confused about what it is. For months, reports circulated that World War Z underwent a significant script overhaul; what began as a polemic with thinly-veiled political subtext pivoted towards standard summer popcorn territory. For proof of said pivot, look no further than the opening credits, which denote a screenplay written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (scribe of such muckraking films as Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom) and the duo of Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (who, between them, have delivered popcorn blowouts like Cloverfield, Star Trek, and Cabin in the Woods). The merits of one method versus another is not the real problem — each writer’s style has been successful in the past — but rather the uneven mashing of those methods that is World War Z‘s true virus.
After an opening title sequence built around a series of news clips covering sundry global warning signs — widespread famine, political upheaval, environmental collapse — the film swiftly turns away from the “why” to hammer home the “what.” What is “the what?” It’s an apparent zombie apocalypse, spreading around the world, with nary a safe haven and global panic at a fever pitch. As opposed to widening its scope to capture the implications of said global panic (Soderbergh’s Contagion tackled that angle successfully, though sadly without zombies), World War Z takes a myopic hero-worship viewpoint, casting Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane as the determined source of humankind’s survival.
Gerry is a former U.N. analyst who left to live the idyllic family life. Naturally, the worldwide crisis leads him back to his past… and he was obviously a top-tier guy, since the government spends more time seeking him out than they do any world leaders (the U.S. President, we learn, is killed within an hour of the initial attack). He leaves his family with his best friend and former U.N. colleague Thierry (perhaps Gerry and Thierry became friends while playing Rhyme Time with their names), then heads off to investigate the source of the outbreak and, if possible, discover an antidote. The crux of the story literally consists of this one man traveling from one country to the next, weathering one zombie-ridden action set piece after another, in a flat, episodic rhythm.
Within that limited context, certain sequences work splendidly. The massive pyramid of the undead showcased in the film’s posters is spectacular. Better still is the airplane invasion that caps the film’s trailer. Pitt has become one of the most venerable movie stars for a reason, and his easy charisma is a welcome guide through the hysteria. He — and the film — hits a high point in a riveting sequence of cat-and-mouse, as Gerry seeks a crucial cache of medication while attempting to go unnoticed by the hungry hordes. The sequence is unmistakable — it has the feel of that juicy second-act capper that gives way to a revelatory third act. Only problem is, there is no third act. Instead, we are force-fed a narrated coda about human connection before the frame freezes and the movie fades to black.
Such a limp conclusion is frustrating, like the screenplay cut itself off at the knees…or maybe the filmmakers just ran out of ideas. But it’s unfortunately fitting for World War Z, which starts as a parable, quickly becomes a popcorn entertainment, and closes as a weak call for human togetherness. Apocalyptic hysteria aside, a movie this confused couldn’t possibly go out with a bang… instead, it goes out with an ellipsis.
The Blu-ray offers an unrated cut plus behind-the-scenes featurettes.