In your typical zombie movie, the focus is on a group of people holed up somewhere, trying to survive. They man the barricades and scavenge for supplies, desperate to avoid detection by the flesh-eating hordes.
But even as they hunker down, there has to be someone in the wilderness figuring out how to fight back. There must be some remnant of the government, some brain trust of scientists and virologists and military leaders. World War Z takes us out of the bunkers and into the front lines.
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It’s an interesting idea that never quite comes together. Epic scenes of cities overrun by shambling oceans of the undead run up against sequences of more traditional, close-quarter zombie fighting, and the dashes of heartfelt family drama create a mishmash that feels neither grand nor intimate, just confused.
Gerry (Brad Pitt) was once a U.N. adviser, traveling to global hotspots to solve international crises. He’s now a stay-at-home dad in Philadelphia, making pancakes for the kids and cleaning up the house. He and wife Karin (Mireille Enos) are taking the kids for a trip when everything goes to hell.
The streets gridlocked, helicopters buzzing overhead, and explosions going off in the background, there is something clearly amiss. That something, needless to say, is a zombie attack. All at once, the undead are everywhere: flooding the streets, attacking people with disorienting speed, and creating new killers with every bite.
Following a desperate drive to get their daughter some medicine, and a desperate fight in a zombified apartment complex, Gerry calls in a helicopter evacuation. (It’s nice to be friends with a U.N. deputy secretary general.)
At this point, we go from grounded to globe-hopping: traveling from a naval flotilla to South Korea to Israel to Wales, Gerry hopes he can discover the key to neutralizing the zombie threat.
At its best—such as during zombie assaults on Philadelphia and a walled-off Israel—World War Z achieves the epic scope it is clearly striving for. These undead are of a sort we’ve never seen before: They are not only fast, they also seem to work in tandem, slamming into parked vehicles to tip them over and clambering over each other to scale walls and buildings.
More frequently, however, the film drags. The family drama that serves as the film’s heart never quite clicks. Gerry is separated from his wife and children for so much longer than they are together that the audience never gets a chance to sympathize with them. And the smaller sequences, such as zombie attacks set in an apartment and in a nearly overrun World Health Organization building, feel cribbed from predecessors such as 28 Days Later and Resident Evil.
These smaller set pieces feel all the more minuscule after the glimpses of all-out chaos. Some audiences (and fans of the book) may be disappointed by the results. We were promised World War Z, not Occasional Skirmishes Around the World Z.
The cast is top notch, with Pitt turning in a performance that exudes both world-weariness and commitment. The most pleasant surprise comes from Daniella Kertesz, who plays an Israeli captain that tags along with Gerry through much of the last two acts. She doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but her wide eyes and hard face make her the perfect complement to Pitt and a fine wing woman for a global jaunt.