'World War Z': Pitt's zombie flick delivers
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Arriving in theaters on a trail of anti-hype that might actually disprove the adage that no publicity is bad publicity, "World War Z" plays out as a muscular, engaging and relatively intelligent horror thriller. It's more than watchable, and it serves up a few sequences that prove first-rate armrest-gripping (or even -shredding) stuff. Whether this will prove sufficient to please fans of the best-selling book upon which it is based, a tale that had a documentary-style approach that the movie largely eschews, is unclear.
Back in the second golden age of American horror movies of the late '70s and early '80s, zombie-invasion movies such as "Night of the Living" dead were allegories about societal breakdown, and the source of ultimate horror lay in the oppressive patriarchal family structure. "World War Z" is hardly the first such movie to turn this idea on its head, but this one really does it with extreme prejudice as it were.
Star and co-producer Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, devoted husband to Karin Lane (Mireille Enos, who seems to have been recruited for the sole purpose of projecting "attractive but also serious") and dad to adorable-but-not-cloyingly-so moppets Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove). He has no job to speak of as the movie opens, but as he's driving his family to an appointment and hordes of wild-eyed people-eating creeps start bleeding into the streets of Philadelphia, we learn that he's a onetime U.N. investigative bigwig, and his former bosses very desperately want him -- because, you know, he was the best they had -- to look into the reasons there are suddenly hordes of wild-eyed people-eating creeps roaming the streets the world over. No way, dude, Gerry tells his former bosses (OK, he doesn't say "dude," but he might as well); there's not a chance he's going back to that dangerous (we know it's dangerous because of the attractive but serious way Mireille Enos furrows her brow at the mere mention of it) globe-trotting gig because it'll tear him away from his family and family is all that matters.
As Gerry and family flee the viral chompers, going looting in a Jersey supermarket and holing up in a housing project in increasing fear and discomfort, it becomes clear to Gerry that the U.N. has the helicopters to airlift the family to an aircraft carrier far enough out into the ocean to serve as an effective quarantine from the monster-creating virus. And even when he's gotten to relative safety, he refuses at first to return the favor and go off on a fact-finding mission, because family is all that matters. So once he boards a cargo plane for Korea, whence the virus causing all the trouble might have originated, Gerry gets his own FamPhone, with which he can whinily chat with his wife and kids about how much he misses them pretty much every hour. Yeesh.
As you might have inferred, the Gerry's character is meant to gibe with the real-life Brad Pitt's own presumed self-image of a very earnest and concerned husband and father, and the extent to which "World War Z" works as a global-epidemic thrill ride really has very little to do with its home-fires homilies. Gerry's travels take him to a genuinely eerie blacked-out airbase in Asia, then to a seemingly impermeable Israel that becomes overrun just as Gerry is learning of ostensibly effective martial-law-tinged keep-the-creatures-out methods. He survives a spectacular plane crash to trek to a remote lab where he discovers the paradoxical key to winning this war, in a climactic sequence that's as effective as the raptors-in-the-cafeteria scene in "Jurassic Park." Director Marc Foster, having recently made a complete hash of a James Bond assignment ("Quantum of Solace") gets back some action-movie cred with this scene and some others.
The PG-13 levels of bloodletting and the somewhat anti-sensationalist tone throughout suggest that the participants were at least slightly embarrassed by the idea of making a horror movie: The title notwithstanding, the word "zombie" is barely uttered throughout, and when World's Greatest Dad Pitt deigns to pronounce it, he seems to pointedly turn away from the camera. When the protagonists are going up against the sound-sensitive (how much do you want to bet that Gerry's FamPhone starts ringing at just the wrong time at least once?), very vicious wild-eyed people-eating creeps, such concerns grow less pertinent, and "World War Z" delivers a well-above-average quotient of what we've come to expect of summer movie thrillers. It's clear that Pitt and company wanted to achieve something more. I personally am almost relieved that they did not.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.