Review: Brad Pitt tries to bring ‘World War Z’ to life and fails

First, there is no point comparing this to the Max Brooks book of the same name. This is not an adaptation of the book. It’s barely related. This is a case of a studio liking a title and building a brand-new high concept around it after they buy the rights. Love it or hate it, this “World War Z” is its own thing.

I am of very split mind on this film. It’s fairly well-made, even though Marc Forster still prefers chaos over choreography in his action, making it hard to see what’s happening much of the time. Brad Pitt’s fine in it, although he’s barely playing a character. There is so little time spent defining who Gerry Lane is or why he’s the central figure in the narrative that they should have just gone the same way as “This Is The End,” letting Pitt play himself. That’s the ad campaign anyway. “Brad Pitt versus zombies.” And I’ll give them this… it’s truth in advertising. This is Brad Pitt flying around the world so he can run from zombies in new and exciting places, and nothing more than that.

The movie opens with a standard-issue happy family breakfast scene, and then almost immediately drops the family into the middle of the end of the world. Pitt’s character is retired from something at the UN, and evidently he is the only person who can help the world’s governments figure out where the zombies came from and how to stop them. What follows is structured suspiciously like a videogame, in which we have Pitt heading from Philadelphia to New York to New Jersey to Korea to Israel to Wales, and between each stop, we get a little bit of cut-scene exposition, followed by another set piece in which we must RUN DODGE RUN JUMP RUN CLIMB RUN to survive another wave of hive-minded CGI zombies. There’s a resolution to the picture, but an open-ended one that really just represents one step in a much longer process, leaving the film open for further chapters just as most of the big A-list game titles do these days. The ending reminds me of the way the first “Assassin’s Creed” wraps up, and as long as you’re okay with that, you’ll probably be fine with the film.

The comparison to a game also is due to the way the zombies are handled. They are a faceless mass in the film, and most of the times, when we see them, we see them as a rolling, blurry wave of hard-to-discern characters. There are a few quieter moments, but the way these particular zombies have been imagined, it’s either full-blast or it’s nothing, and that dynamic becomes really boring over the course of the film. Because Brad Pitt is the only constant in the film, there’s never even the slightest threat that he’s going to be hurt. It makes everything feel inconsequential to some degree because the outcome is obvious.

Are the set pieces any good? That’s really the only thing you can judge about the movie considering how slight everything else is, and I think they’re okay. They’re all pretty much the same, but Forster certainly brings some ambition to bear in the scale of the mayhem he shows, and he has created some images here that I’ve never seen in zombie cinema. I guess the problem is that I wish those images were wrapped in something that mattered, or that the characters in the film were something more than placeholders. It ultimately feels like a horror film for people who don’t like horror films, an attempt to dress up something that doesn’t need it. Because of the film’s rating, the violence is all played dry and it’s more about impact than about gore. We see zombies run over people, but there’s very little imagery that has to do with why they chase the people down in the first place. There are attempts to play on sympathy by cutting to Pitt’s family, but it’s a cheat. There’s no investment in them beyond the big symbol. Wife. Kids. They aren’t people.

I guess that is my biggest issue. If you’re doing a film about zombies, you have an extra obligation to show me the difference between the living and the dead. In a film that spends this little time on character, it’s hard to care if any of these people make it through to the end of the film. I know we should care because it’s his wife and family and because why wouldn’t we want them to live until the end of the film? That doesn’t seem like enough, though, and while I can’t ultimately body-slam the film or say it’s terrible, it frustrated me enough that when I first walked out of the theater, I was just irritated, start to finish. If I’d written the review the moment I got out of the film, I think I would have really savaged it, but I’ve seen at least two films since then that were much worse, and what it underlined for me is that I get angrier at films that are mediocre than films that are genuinely awful. At least I can feel some passion and sincerity in genuinely terrible movies sometimes. A movie like “World War Z” ends up being a passable way to spend a few hours, but forgettable, and to me, that’s the greater sin.

“World War Z” opens June 21st in theaters everywhere.