Anyone who believes that Hollywood is financially responsible need look no further than World War Z to dispel that fantasy. A fundamentally straightforward, no nonsense action film, this zombie epic could have been just as effective with a fraction of its $200 million budget. The result of this excess isn’t a waste of time, just an inexplicably bloated waste of money, full of unnecessary spectacle and distracting special effects. The story’s simple: tasked with seeking solutions to a worldwide zombie epidemic, former U.N. employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is separated from his family and flown around the world, where he experiences a series of increasingly unpleasant zombie crises.
To the film’s credit, its economy of narrative allows for a focus on zombie set pieces, rather than tedious exposition. Unfortunately, the satirical perversity of George A. Romero’s zombie canon is missing from the film, which is comprised of workmanlike iterations of familiar confrontations (in supermarkets, apartment buildings, etc.). However, there are a few sequences that reach for something a little more distinctive, including a zombie attack aboard an airplane and the showdown at the World Health Organization that comprises most of the film’s final third.
Much was made of the filmmakers’ decision to postpone the release of World War Z, in order to conceive and shoot a new ending, but these efforts have paid off handsomely. While the prosthetic third act could have felt tacked-on and distracting, it proves to be the film’s most carefully crafted sequence, one that suggests an evolution in the filmmakers’ thinking. Rather than up the ante, they wisely do a late-film 180, concluding on a more contained, intimate, and suspenseful confrontation that privileges inventive storytelling over the cartoonish mountains of CGI zombies that muddy the dramatic focus elsewhere in the film.
In spite of this strong finish, World War Z never overcomes the bland anonymity of its characters or director Marc Forster’s visual strategies. Given the film’s lack of personality, you may even find yourself wondering if Forster and Pitt were infected with a zombie-like virus of their own during production. (At the very least, reports suggest they didn’t get along.) While they generally dodge outright tedium and embarrassment, their efforts lack the humour, insight, and imagination that distinguish great zombie cinema from this more disposable brand of Hollywood entertainment.