First of all, zombies don’t run, despite the “Z” in the title of World War Z. The movie’s fast-moving antagonists move en masse and bite people, but they don’t eat people — they’re content simply to spread their pathogen via saliva. That’s the second way the villains in World War Z-for-zombies aren’t zombies. Third, they “turn” within ten seconds or so, and blood-borne pathogens don’t work that way. The biters are sometimes called “the undead,” and a scientist in the movie says that efforts to kill them with lethal viruses failed “because dead people don’t get sick.” But the reason that earlier, more traditional film zombies moved so slowly and clumsily was a little thing called rigor mortis. If you’re bookin’ it down city streets and up the stairs of tall buildings, you’re not dead; you may be something else, like the rage-infected people in 28 Days Later or the depraved sadists in Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic-book series, but you’re not dead. To say otherwise ignores physiological realities like blood circulation.
So, whatever they are, the folks in World War Z are causing mayhem all over the world, and it’s Brad Pitt to the rescue. Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who quit to spend more time with his wife (Mirielle Enos) and two darling little daughters. Then the epidemic hits, and the UN pulls Gerry back in. Why? Because he has experience in the field, and because he Knows How to Do All the Things. This is fortunate, because on the very first mission the UN sends Gerry on, the accompanying virologist accidentally kills himself with his own gun before he even gets off the plane. At least I think that’s what happens; the director, Marc Forster, is widely loathed among James Bond buffs for his incoherent handling of the action in Quantum of Solace, and World War Z is Exhibit B in the case against Forster directing anything more strenuous than My Dinner with Andre.
World War Z is based glancingly on a novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), generally admired for its attention to the geopolitical fallout of a real-world zombie apocalypse. As far as I can see, the movie uses the marketable title and practically nothing else; there is no Gerry Lane in the book, at least no character who survives multiple conflagrations by the skin of his teeth, including an airplane crash. (The airplane, happily enough, goes down within presumed walking distance of the WHO Center that Gerry had wanted to reach.) The only way a proper World War Z movie could have been made was as a satirical mockumentary, for a fraction of the eventual price (two hundred million dollars). It seems as though, as soon as Brad Pitt got involved, the movie became about a hero who manages to get in and out of every pandemic hot spot and somehow figures out how to save humanity from the biters.
The big money moments involve hordes of biters — sorry, I’m still not allowing them the dignity of the “zombie” label — literally piling up to scale a massive wall in Jerusalem. But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. A later scene in which Gerry and some associates sneak past some biters at the WHO Center achieves more suspense with, say, two or three biters. Meanwhile, safe in a Navy ship out in the ocean, Gerry’s wife sits and waits by the phone. Sometimes it rings and she answers it. Once, she takes the initiative and calls Gerry, at the worst possible time, when he and some associates are trying to sneak past some biters in South Korea. You have to be quiet around biters, you see, because “they’re drawn to sound.” Oh, I see. Completely unlike all those earless deaf zombies who wouldn’t bother you if you were leading a brass-band parade in all those George Romero movies.
Other than almost getting Gerry killed (and mercifully sending us all home early) and handing the phone over to Gerry’s UN superior at one point, the wife is useless. Mirielle Enos (who resembles Jessica Chastain enough to qualify this movie as some sort of weird Tree of Life sequel) may have been an impeccable actress in TV things like Big Love and The Killing, but you wouldn’t see that from what she’s allowed to express here. Pitt has more going on with Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier, who reminded me a bit of Jenette Goldstein’s hardcore Marine Vasquez in Aliens, only without the dialogue or the humor. Come to think of it, Aliens remains the gold standard of humans-vs.-monsters war movies, and World War Z reaches for that here and there, and generally falls on its face. The action is unscannable spinach, the characters are dull, and the climax is the very pinnacle of anti-climax, making World War Z seem like a terribly expensive prequel to the real movie that exists past the end credits.