Silver Screen: World War Z **
At this point, even the irony of American consumers stumbling forth en masse to mindlessly consume anything zombie-related has lost its zing. From Twenty-eight Days Later to the new spate of Romero movies to Shaun of the Dead to The Walking Dead-- enough with the zombies already.
Max Brooks’s clever horror novel World War Z managed to stand out among the deluge of zombie fiction in part because of its unique form and scope. The modern tradition of zombie fiction is drawn almost exclusively from the Romero movies, which implied broader national and worldwide catastrophe but due to budgetary constraints kept a narrow narrative focus. Even in the most lavish of them, the pretty cool Land of the Dead, the action was confined to a single city. Using the oral-history format popularized in nonfiction by Studs Terkel, Brooks examined the zombie plague from a global perspective. The book worked not only because of its broader scale, but because Brooks thought through a lot of the practical details and brought a creepy verisimilitude to the genre.
The film adaptation of World War Z keeps almost nothing from the source material, save for the title. The multitude of international perspectives is dropped in favor of a single protagonist, U.N. worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), and all the specifics about virology and governmental response have been changed. Something fundamental, too, has been altered about the movie, which suffered significant production troubles, with more than one director trying his hand at it before Marc Forster ultimately got the credit. The screenplay is credited to four different writers, although who knows what the actual number is. Though the movie is fundamentally cohesive, it lacks any sense of purpose, unifying ideas, or memorable characters. The individual scenes are decently constructed, but they add up to absolutely nothing.
The real star of the movie, then, turns out to be the budget. The only novelty in this otherwise programmatic genre exercise is the ability of the camera to pull way back and pan over entire city blocks full of zombie destruction. The walking dead, teeming like ants, scurry by the thousands to lay waste to New York, then later Jerusalem. A few moments are truly stunning, but any time the camera gets too close up to the action, the generic, mostly computer-generated zombies look less like terrifying movie monsters and more like digital videogame villains.
Pitt does his best to anchor the movie. His character is competent, if vaguely explained-- he does what, exactly, for whom, and why?-- but he’s a strong enough actor to be convincing as a caring father, a scrappy survivor, and an intrepid investigator. Without Pitt, the film would absolutely come untethered.
But what is Pitt really holding together? The movie has no internal logic-- even the basics of the zombie plague are botched and incoherent. (Airplanes are said to be “the perfect international delivery system” for the virus, which makes no sense considering the infected become zombified within twelve seconds of contamination.) It’s rated PG-13, so there’s no spectacle of splatter to gin up cheap, visceral thrills. There’s no nothing, just a lot of money aimlessly thrown at the screen-- and a little of yours, too, lost.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.