Critics are supposed to be unbiased, impartial, a blank slate. However, we see trailers of films. We read the trade magazines and websites that report on troubled productions, hasty reshoots, revised endings and the endless polishing of scripts. Add in the fact that zombies are getting to be as tired a subject as teenaged vampires, and I had low expectations as I sat down for my screening of World War Z.
And I’ll be the first to admit that my bad vibes were unfounded speculation. World War Z is an exemplary edge-of-your-seat summer popcorn movie. Blending action, horror and globe-hopping adventure, you can put World War Z on the list of the Pleasant Movie-Going Surprises of 2013. Given the wildly entertaining novel it is based on, and the considerable acting skills and movie-making acumen of Brad Pitt, I should have had more faith in this project. Consider me properly chastised.
The plot is simple. You’ve probably been watching it for 35 episodes on AMC’s The Walking Dead. A virus strikes the population of the entire world. One bite from an infected person is deadly, and you will very shortly join the ranks of the re-animated dead, seeking your own victims and spreading the virus to your fellow man. Like The Spanish Flu and the Bubonic Plague before it, the micro-organisms of the world have conspired and mutated into a lethal problem for humanity. As the Harvard-educated virologist in the film says, “Mother nature is a serial killer.”
Enter Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a U.N. investigator who is experienced at entering global hotspots and managing a crisis to a satisfactory outcome. He is dispatched to find the origins of the virus, the illusive Patient Zero who first exhibited symptoms, in an effort to help find a cure. He leaves behind his wife, Karin (Mirelle Enos) and two children who will remain under military protection for as long as Gerry is considered “essential personnel”. In other words, don’t die, or we’ll drop your family off at the nearest refugee camp.
World War Z maintains a frantic pace that propels Gerry from a rainy airport tarmac in Korea to the streets of Jerusalem on the verge of being overrun to a World Health Organization facility that might hold the key to a cure (if you can get past all the zombies that have taken over the facility). Each action set piece is meticulously staged and generates a tension in your gut that subsides only briefly before the next threat arrives. Sure many moments stretch the bounds of credibility, but let’s not forget that this is a movie about the Zombie Apocalypse. Feel free to put your criticisms about the realism of the film in the round suggestion boxes located outside the theater.
World War Z taps into our real world fears as well as those that live only in horror movies. When the initial wave of the virus hits and sends Gerry’s family on the run, the scenes of people running blindly through the streets fleeing an unseen threat will leave you looking for the Twin Towers falling in the background. The fact that the scene takes place in Philadelphia is irrelevant. The images on screen are so realistic they tap into our collective sense of dread, our shared post-911 anxiety that is much closer to the surface of our psyches than you might imagine. The opening scenes are a larger scale version of what we all saw happening in the aftermath of the Boston marathon earlier this year. The familiarity of the sights and sounds serves to make World War Z that much more unnerving.
Along with the large-scale mayhem, World War Z gets the small moments right as well. As society begins to disintegrate, survivors prey on one another, and the world quickly becomes a Darwinian experiment. Gerry finds himself in an armed altercation as he attempts to find an asthma inhaler for his daughter. There’s a shootout on aisle three as people fight over milk and bottled water. When the police arrive, it’s not to maintain law and order, but to grab some food from the shelves before it’s all gone. The image is more chilling than any army of zombies.
In my review of Pain & Gain earlier this year, I sarcastically pondered the relative nature of a numerical grading system for movies. In that instance, my point was “bad is bad”. In the case of World War Z, great is great. Movies should be judged on the basis of what they are attempting to be. World War Z doesn’t aspire to being Schindler’s List or The Godfather. It wants to be a scary, big-budget thrill ride, and it accomplishes that with room to spare. If Iron Man 3 got an 8 from me, and Fast Furious 6 got an 8 from my colleague, Spencer, then World War Z heads to the top of my class with an . . . . . .
8.5 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.