Contagion meets 28 Days Later in World War Z, as a global pandemic turns humans into crazed zombies within seconds, and renders major cities zombified in only hours.
Caught up in the initial outbreak of undead horror is a former U.N. investigator named Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family, who barely escape the zombie onslaught in Philadelphia, and are helicoptered to safety on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean. With Washington in ruins — the President is dead, the Vice President missing — the ship and a collection of smaller naval craft are now acting as a makeshift control center for the country.
The situation is equally dire around the world: panicked citizens, toppled governments, and militaries powerless to contain — much less stop — the millions who are infected.
Mankind's survival depends on an antidote to the disease, which requires answers about how and where the virus began. Having led U.N. teams into dangerous areas on fact-finding missions, Lane is recruited by his former U.N. boss to help a Harvard virologist and a team of Navy SEALs with the disease investigation. They begin at a U.S. military base in South Korea, which emailed a warning of zombies shortly before communication with the installation was lost.
After an encounter with a creepy former CIA agent (David Morse), who is a prisoner at the base, and a tense nighttime zombie attack on the team, their quest for answers leads them to Israel, which prepared for the coming catastrophe by closing its borders and isolating itself from other countries before the pandemic exploded. Lane wants to know why.
Playing the reluctant hero dragged into service, Pitt neither oversells Lane's bravery and action-hero abilities nor underplays his strength and quick-thinking skills. It's a restrained but effective performance.
And while Pitt is the star of World War Z, the real attraction is the big-screen zombie-pocalypse; massive action sequences, occasional scares, and an all-around big-budget CGI spectacle. The zombies attack in furious waves, chasing down the living like lions running down prey. Rather than feasting on brains, however, these zombies only deliver a single bite into a healthy victim to spread their contagion and then move on to infect another living person.
The undead spread rapidly and move just as quickly. The World War Z zombies exhibit a hive-like ingenuity in working together to climb walls and breach barriers to contain them. Their takeover of a plane in flight is chilling and thrilling, as a desperate Lane and a wounded Israeli soldier quickly realize they are outnumbered and overmatched by the growing horde of undead passengers.
The price of this bigger, faster zombie spectacle is the absence of the political and religious commentary from the Max Brooks' novel on which it's based, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. The book's subtext isn't necessarily missed, as the film rockets along as an enjoyable wild ride at the movies.
Unfortunately, the World War Z roller coaster comes to a sudden and unexpected halt, as director Marc Forster slams on the breaks of his action-thriller for a third act of quiet tension, as Lane searches for a treatment at a World Health Organization facility infested with zombies.
Typically with action blockbusters the technique is to build up to the climax, with a big, bigger, biggest approach to leave audiences breathless and buzzing by end credits. Forster reverses the paradigm with his slow creepfest. But that wasn't the original concept for the movie's last half-hour.
As the 43-year-old director recently told The Blade, in an interview to appear in Sunday's Arts section, World War Z's original finale featured another massive fight between humans and zombies.
"We shot a big battle sequence and I looked at the sequence and I felt like, after the big sequence in Jerusalem, I felt like you can't top that sequence. ... I felt like we should go back to a more simple, more reflective emotional piece at the end, which I did in a lot of my other movies; sort of more of this haunted house idea, because you want to connect with the character again," Forster said. "If we were to use that big battle sequence then it would just be more of a repetition of everything else. So that was the thought behind that [change], which I think works much better."
It's a novel approach to the big-budget action-film construct, but the sequences are simply out of order as we've come to expect it. Like a 90-minute dessert binge followed by a 30-minute main course, the finale feels awkward, out of place and ... unsatisfying.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.