Throughout the episodic and ultimately annoyingly unresolved WORLD WAR Z, we have the lovely face of Brad Pitt filling the screen. As U.N. investigator Gerry Lane, it is his story that leads us through another zombie apocalypse, starting with the odd happenings during his rush hour in Philadelphia, to his increasingly desperate globe-trotting in an equally desperate attempt to find out what is going on, and how it all started. No distance is too great, no peril too daunting to keep Gerry from zooming around an increasingly desolate landscape, his expression one that is full of compassion and pain and confusion.
Though retired, and playing pancake-making househusband to lovely wife (Mireille Enos) and two lovely daughters (Sterling Jerins & Abigail Hargrove), when all heck breaks loose and society crumbles in the time it takes for Gerry to drive his wife into work, the U.N. calls him back to work. He is in no position to refuse, since the job offer comes with his familys rescue from the zombies by way of a battleship safely sailing in the middle of the Atlantic. Naturally Jerry is reluctant to leave them, but duty, and the threat of sending said family ashore, send him into the fray and on that ci-mentioned desperate quest to find out the origins of why people are suddenly turning into the zombies, and, of course, how to stop it.
Adapted all too freely from Max Brooks book of the same name, it attempts to coalesce the diverse oral histories that make up the novel into a simple narrative and fails. Instead there is Pitt and his derring-do at every pivotal moment, surviving plane crashes, the loss of key members of his team, and coolly slicing off a zombie-bitten hand to save the rest of the victim . He is, in short, a good man in an emergency, but even that is not enough to rescue the klunky kludge at work here.
The individual stories themselves, however, are another matter. The opening sequence of reality spinning out of control for no reason and with no explanation on a crowded city street. South Korea and its mysterious e-mail warning of the zombie threat. Israel and its canny wisdom in believing the threat was coming and taking appropriate actions. That isolated W.H.O. research lab in Wales where the survivors watch their turned colleagues on closed-circuit television and ponder their habits. They are interesting, and beautifully acted in a drear and dark fashion. Literally and figuratively dark, which is director Marc Forsters tone of choice. Artistically, it makes sense, since everyone is walking around in the dark metaphorically with no clues about how or why the plague started, and no clue about the best way to survive.
Adding to the uncertainty is that these arent regulation zombies. Rather, they are zombies that can sprint with excitable intent, swarm like ants, and render their victims undead with one bite in the time it takes for said human to fall to the ground, post-bite, and endure a spine-snapping fit that signals the process is taking place.
Its a ghastly process, but in keeping with the PG-13 rating, its not especially nauseating. The Lane familys race though, through an apartment building stairwell with the zombies hot on their heels is. With red lights flashing in the darkness, the quick cuts of hand-held camera shots, and the sudden flash of a hungry zombie, all teeth and rotting flesh, in close-up, it is terrifying. As are the shots of the zombies swarming over a barrier that should be impregnable when a few happy humans decide to celebrate their putative rescue in song. On the other hand, a sequence wherein Gerry is sneaking around some zombies for reasons that dont bear going into, is surprisingly dull. Forster uses all the correct tropes of suspense, but never quite gets the idea of suspense that propels it. Perhaps it is this part of why the high-pitched chittering the zombies exhibit when giving chase is less unnerving than comical, like Big Bird on acid, even with the snapping of those vicious looking teeth.
WORLD WAR Z aspires to be a thinking persons horror film, and there are glimmers throughout that raise ones hopes that eventually it will find its way to being one. Of particular note is the virologist who likens Mother Nature to a serial killer, his eyes gleaming with prospect of solving this riddle that she has posed for him. Alas, thats as profound as it gets. As things progress, action takes the place of psychological insights, and gore replaces philosophy. At its best, its a sort of chimera of CONTAGION by way of The Walking Dead, with a solid emotional core, provided by Pitt, but with a failed narrative, a botched third act that went through rewrites and reshoots to no avail, and without anything original beyond those fast-moving zombies.