By Richard Schickel
If you’re seeking hordes of zombies on restless prowl, you had better look elsewhere than “World War Z.” A few of them turn up in the course of the movie, looking weird and acting strange. You can tell they’re not entirely of this world because they usually have the shakes something awful and are wearing smears of fright makeup (boo!). They got the virus real bad, and that ain’t good.
After reshoots, delays and a budget north of $200 million, I read in the press that this movie can never, ever recoup its cost. “Disappointing,” I can hear some executive murmuring in his swell office, but that’s not necessarily the case. I mean, there’s the redoubtable Brad Pitt to take into account, ever agreeable and always easy on the eyes. And there’s a plot that’s one minute in South Korea, the next in Israel, another time in Wales, not making an awful lot of sense, but never quite sending you out in the cold prematurely. Best of all, there are plenty of set piece action sequences that are staged by the director, Marc Forster, with exemplary zeal and scale.
Particularly in the picture’s long middle passage, he demonstrates a gift for varying and extending these pieces that is well above average, and without making a travesty of what plot there is. As you can imagine, it’s fairly simple: The zombies are pretty much out to destroy the world, which as far as I could tell, has only the easygoing and beamishly smiling Pitt to bring them to heel. Other characters pop in and out of the proceedings, with no consequential impact on them or, for that matter, on their careers. They are all fine, dandy and, alas, never around long enough to really establish their presence.
Yet, perhaps perversely, I kind of like this movie, as do some other reviewers I’ve read, and I’m wondering why this should be. I think it begins with the fact that it breathes so easily. It has a few slack sections, where it diverts its attention to the wife and kids in a highly conventional way. And sometimes—fairly rarely, I’ll admit—it just sort of stands around doing not much of anything. But mostly it is up and doing, darting hither and tither, and I appreciate that in movies of this kind. It’s not breathless the way so many grander action movies are. And it’s not ever languid or pretentious, either. It pretty much goes about its business in a smooth, professional way.
It’s summertime, you know. There are a lot of films that spend what “World War Z”—I guess accidentally—did. But a lot of huffing and puffing usually accompanies that effort. They’re out to give you an “experience.” Maybe this movie, given its cost, has no choice but to try that too. But it doesn’t feel that way. It had a whole bunch of writers—usually a sure sign of panic and mixed motives—but it still feels small.
I don’t want to oversell “World War Z.” In the end, it’s just a nicely made little movie that unfortunately got too big for its budgetary britches. On the other hand, it’s not nothing either. It’s “enjoyable”—a mild enough description, but one that will not be overused as the summer winds along, breathing fire, brimstone and—what’s the word I’m searching for?—“disappointment.” Or maybe just sighs of regret and shrugs of resentment. This film doesn’t deliver anything powerful or even lengthily memorable. But it’s OK in its own agreeable way. At $40 or $50 million it might have seemed a lot better than that.