Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: "World War Z"

The thing you have to understand about zombie movies is that we've reached the point where virtually every example is a hybrid comedy. Winks and smirks have become an indelible part of stories about the walking undead. There's gore and death, but we take it sardonically -- even cheering when a loathsome human takes the bite.

People thought "Shaun of the Dead" was such a revelation, but all it really did was take a genre that was 60/40 horror-to-funny and flip it around.

That changed with the novel "World War Z," which approached the notion of a zombie apocalypse with total earnestness. Author Max Brooks, following up on "The Zombie Survivor Guide," tackled the material with a completely different mindset from the familiar ragtag group of survivors gradually getting chomped.

Brooks had an almost journalistic approach, relating vignettes from myriad different characters and perspectives from all over the globe. Rather than a single dominating story thread, it was a patchwork of diverse tales skillfully woven into a pattern.

The long-gestating movie starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") takes the mindset of the book, and throws away most everything else. The focus is on Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator tasked with finding the source of the virus that is rapidly turning normal people into ferocious flesh-eaters. Gerry, and nearly everything that happens to him, is a concoction of the movie.

In effect, they kept Brooks' frame but painted a completely different picture inside it. The result is plausibly entertaining, and commendable for the sober way it approaches the concept of a plague of undead.

About those zombies. Like other recent iterations of their ilk, a person can morph into one in a matter of seconds after being bit. They're of the "fast zombie" variety, running and jumping faster than an Olympic-level human athlete, and have a tendency toward spasmodic twitching and clattering their teeth, like they can't wait to sing their fangs into you. They seem to behave with a collectively mind at times, working cooperatively to scale high walls and other feats we've never seen before.

It's a novel, unnerving approach.

After an intro in which Lane gets his wife and two daughters to safety aboard a Navy ship, he's strong-armed into leading an expedition to South Korea, where it was believed the outbreak first started. His further questing takes him to Jerusalem and then Wales, his allies rapidly getting picked off, as he frantically searches for a weakness in the virus.

Some of the story is extremely effective, such as the rapid spread of the virus amongst a jetliner full of passengers. James Badge Dale has a memorable turn as an Army officer cut off from his command, who's adopted a doggedly systematic approach to fighting zombies.

Other parts are just loopy, such as an encounter with a rogue CIA agent who's pulled out all his own teeth and has a nutty theory about the Jews having known about the danger all along. Turns out he's right (!), leading to a sequence in Israel that strains credulity. Although we do pick up another interesting supporting character there, Daniella Kertesz as no-nonsense soldier Segen.

A trio of screenwriters keeps the audience guessing, though some of the contortions of the plot sap energy from the proceedings. The tamed-down PG-13 violence doesn't help, nor does Forster's ham-handed camera work during many of the action scenes. A chase up a building stairwell is so murky and jangled, we can barely tell what's going on.

(Definitely pass on the 3-D upgrade, which hardly makes a difference other than rendering the image even dimmer.)

I like the idea of "World War Z" more than the movie they actually made. I suppose a jumble of random characters wouldn't have been possible for a mainstream movie. But the filmmakers end up jettisoning the very thing that made Brooks' book special.

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