By Brian Lafferty
June 21, 2013 (San Diego) – After a long and troubled production history going back to 2007 – none of which needs to be rehashed here – World War Z is finally here. It’s a simple pulpy globetrotting zombie flick starring Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, a former member of the United Nations called into action to combat a worldwide zombie pandemic. Such a simple plot, yet it serves a movie so confounding that I may never know if it’s good or bad. If I were to look at it from every respect, it would be split right down the middle at 50%. I can make strong arguments from both sides.
The first half features some appallingly wretched camerawork and cutting. I can understand if director Marc Forster wanted to give the audience a visually immersive experience of the chaos. However, when the camera jolts in every possible direction, and the shot selection and cutting is done arbitrarily, the outcome is sloppy and unprofessional.
The technical incompetence isn’t limited to mobility and editing. A few key sequences are frustrating to watch because cinematographer Ben Seresin (director of photography for the awful Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) uses so little light that it’s too dark to make out anything. In scenes with sufficient lighting, shots containing both humans and zombies aren’t effectively scary because it’s next-to-impossible to tell who is infected and who isn’t.
I complain not as a film critic who is interested in film aesthetics and movies as an art form, although the film image is my specialty. I’m complaining as someone who wants to be entertained and as someone who wants to know what’s happening.
Suddenly the movie changes. Literally halfway through, World War Z transforms into a completely different – and better – movie. It’s as if it was made by a completely different set of filmmakers. Once that entry point finally opens up, it’s a pleasure to take in the pulp (and I refer to the Republic serial-style, adventure-laden pulp, just to allay any confusion). The screenplay’s potential, unfulfilled because of the shoddy filmmaking, is finally reached as the hero travels across the globe and finds trouble in Israel, on the plane, and at the WHO in the U.K.
When the zombie hoard inevitably overtakes Israel, even the camera mobility and shot assemblage differs from that of the first half. Every cut has what the late editor-turned-director Edward Dmytryk would call a positive reason; in other words, the cut is made only to improve the scene. While the zombie hoard chases Gerry and Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz) through Jerusalem, the camera gracefully rushes along, the wide shots filming the chase with clarity and excitement. The now-competent cinematography and cutting makes it easy to tell who’s human and who’s not. Suspense later builds at the WHO, livened up by some crafty writing, superb acting and blocking, flawless cutting, and fine camera movement.
The competent filmmaking also affords the special effects a chance to work their movie magic. It still leaves a little to be desired, though. The zombies are not scary, but then I’ve rarely found zombie movie scary. The only exception is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a film that Forster and his writers maybe could have taken a few cues from. In that movie, the zombies, consumed with an absolute uncontrollable rage, barrel full-force towards their victims with blood in their eyes. The zombies in World War Z similarly run after their victims. It doesn’t work well here because they aren’t very threatening. Also all of the infected, at least those that don’t off themselves to prevent turning, are generic background characters with no background whatsoever, so it isn’t personal and in-your-face.
While the opportunity to frighten is lost, another emerges. Every extreme wide shot of a massive zombie pile called to mind the memories of a six-month period years ago when my house had major ant problems. It was gross and unpleasant watching streamlines of ants trundle along the kitchen floor, out from the bathtub faucet, and overtaking the trashcan. The zombie hoards are like giant hills populated by incredibly angry ants. Not very pleasing to the eyes, and I mean that as a compliment.
All of that is good quality filmmaking, but that’s the second half. The first is beyond belief in its incompetence. It is quite a conundrum of a film, one that is neither good nor bad. It is what it is. At least I didn’t have to think hard about what grade to give it.
World War Z is now playing in wide release.
A Paramount Pictures release. Director: Marc Forster. Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski, based on the novel by Max Brooks. Original Music: Marco Beltrami. Cinematography: Ben Seresin. Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, and David Morse. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.