“World War Z” has gone through a battle of its own just to make it into theaters. In addition to rumors of a bloated budget and unrest on the set between director Mark Forster and star Brad Pitt, the film’s original release date was pushed back six months to accommodate major rewrites and additional shooting. The studio may not have been able to keep the behind-the-scenes drama under wraps, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the final product, because you honestly wouldn’t know there was even a problem to begin with from watching the movie. Although fans of Max Brooks’ bestselling novel will undoubtedly be disappointed by how much has been changed during the adaptation from page to screen, “World War Z” is an immensely entertaining film that also happens to be much smarter than your average summer blockbuster.
Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations worker who specialized in averting international disasters. These days, however, he’s just an ordinary stay-at-home dad living with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two kids in Philadelphia. During a routine trip into the city one morning, all hell breaks loose when people suddenly start attacking others on the street like feral animals, transforming the victims into similar monsters within seconds of being bitten. Gerry and his family barely manage to escape the chaos and are eventually rescued by helicopter and transported to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after his old U.N. buddy Thierry (Fana Mokoena) pulls some strings. Of course, Thierry has ulterior motives for saving Gerry’s life and wants him back in the field immediately to help track down the cause of the zombie epidemic, and if he refuses, his family will be swiftly booted off the VIP-only vessel.
“World War Z” isn’t your typical zombie movie, but rather a globe-trotting socio-political thriller that treats the zombies more like a viral disease than something out of a horror film. In fact, the zombies here are a lot different than your typical garden variety that we’re used to seeing in George A. Romero movies and “The Walking Dead.” Not only are they incredibly fast and twitchy, but they behave like insects, swarming together to create large, living structures in order to attack helicopters or traverse walls. It’s a really interesting, nature-based approach to the timeworn zombie mythology, and it makes the action sequences even more intense as a result. There are a number of great set pieces littered throughout the film, each one very different than the next, although the opening attack on Philadelphia is probably the most exciting.
The third-act climax, which underwent such a massive rehaul by Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard that it earned them both screenwriting credits alongside original scribes Michael Matthew Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, is also really enjoyable. Usually, having that many writers working on one script is enough to set off alarm bells, but all four guys are extremely talented, and the movie clearly benefited from the collaboration. Though I’ve never read the book on which the film is based, I am familiar with its unique format (a compilation of individual accounts comprised a decade after the war), and while it may not please fans of the source material, the decision to streamline all the action through Gerry makes the story flow better.
Then again, it also makes everything seem that much more unbelievable, as Pitt’s character somehow manages to escape every impossible situation that he gets himself into. It becomes a little ridiculous by the end, but Pitt creates such an engaging protagonist that you can’t help but cheer him on regardless. “World War Z” is packed with a lot of talented actors in small supporting roles (including James Badge Dale, David Morse and Peter Capaldi), but it’s essentially the Brad Pitt Show, and he’s one of the few guys who can pull off such a star-centric performance without making it feel flashy. So what if he and Forster butted heads during production? It may not have made for great headlines, but it obviously worked, because “World War Z” strikes such a good balance of action, suspense and human drama that all blockbusters should adopt a more thoughtful, hands-on approach to big budget filmmaking.