In its insatiable search for franchises to garner huge worldwide box-office grosses, Hollywood — or in this instance Paramount — has turned Max Brooks’ smart novel about zombies and a global pandemic into a Brad Pitt action-thriller called “World War Z.”
As these things go, “Z” will probably satisfy moviegoers in China, India and for that matter the U.S. Summer movie audiences demand bigness and action with or without stars so Paramount and Pitt may have a winner although with a reported $210 to $250 million budget plus related marketing costs that term may be relative.
What has been lost here is a different kind of movie had Hollywood — damn, I really did mean Paramount and Pitt — followed the smart and unusual narrative threads of Brooks’ “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” which presented the pandemic through first-person accounts.
You might want to give Pitt a pass since he paid his indie dues in a series of remarkably adventurous films such as “Babel” and “The Tree of Life.” So he’s allowed to produce and star in a potential franchise although after seeing “Z” I can’t quite understand why audiences would want to see Pitt go out time and again to battle a zombie menace.
Then again maybe they will.
According to Laura Holson’s Vanity Fair article this month about the trouble-plagued production, Pitt and his producing partners were intelligent enough to abandon an already shot showdown between Pitt and the zombies in Moscow in favor of a more nuanced climax that demanded costly reshoots and pushed back “Z’s” release.
So there you have it: A movie that could have been much worse and is now sort of okay. This is what $250 million buys you in 2013 Hollywood.
Let’s focus on the okay. The opening sequences start off in fine style, then seemingly violate the spirit of the adventure. You’re introduced to family man and all-around good guy, Gerry Lane, a character that doesn’t even exist in Brooks’ novel.
He has quit a job to play family guy although the movie doesn’t initially disclose what that job was. All you know is that as Gerry drives his family to work/school through gridlocked traffic in Philadelphia, all hell breaks loose. A pack of wild animals that resemble human beings is attacking everything in sight.
For once an all-too-familiar action sequence — the destruction of an urban center by alien forces — is seen from the point of view of the poor schmos caught up in the catastrophic fury. But director Marc Forster quickly violates this POV by inserting helicopter and long distance shots that move the action away from the distraught family.
Pitt’s Gerry now reveals his true nature and former job, that being a former UN “investigator,” which sounds mundane but more or less means he is a James Bond-like character only with a family.
He is forced to abandon that family — a scene that plays badly since if the world needs saving and his family is otherwise doomed why is he whining about leaving them? — to hopscotch around the globe in search of a zombie cure.
His mission is so vague I dare any viewer to articulate it at any time prior to the third act. But clearly the filmmakers mean for this character to take you everywhere to understand the nature of the menace and understand how humans find a means to fight back for this first film of a projected series.
I repeat, the character does not exist in the novel.
The odyssey takes him first to South Korea, then Israel, Wales and Nova Scotia. Sequences grow more preposterous, none more so than one where he must blow up an airplane in midair to kill its zombie passengers, crash lands and somehow he, and the only other passenger the movie makes you care about, survive!
There are neat things here and there. Especially the fact that this movie’s zombies, dumb creatures that they are, only get alerted to their human enemy by sound. So if one creeps quietly enough, you may go undetected.
This leads to suspense sequences in which the actors tippy-toe around and sound editors have great fun with amplifying a crunch of broken glass underfoot or the creak of a door hinge.
So as cliffhangers go, “Z” is, yes, okay.
So too is Pitt, who downplays the heroics as much as the script (by several writers) lets him and lends his action hero a bit of soul and conscience, both unusual traits for men who normally act rather than think. He proves once again what a fine actor he is.
Pitt’s supporting cast changes frequently as he jets freely about the ravaged globe. But Mirella Enos delivers strength and warmth as his wife, usually on the other end of mobile phone calls, while Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove impress in their few scenes as his daughters.
Thierry Umotoni does a lot with little as Gerry’s ex-boss; David Morse has a riveting cameo as a mysterious CIA agent in prison in Korea; and Badge Dale has fun with a no-nonsense Army Ranger in the same country.
In Jerusalem, Israeli filmmaker Ludi Boekin smartly plays a Mossad agent while neophyte actress Daniella Kertesz has an attention-getting role as a soldier who continues on with Gerry in his quest for the zombie solution.
On a side note, I’m not a fan of zombies. Vampires have an erotic allure and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster a certain poignance. But zombies are flesh-biting monsters that provoke no interest or curiosity. Boring creatures really.
But director Forster and his CG effects gurus have at least created visually interesting zombies.
Like humanoid locust, they swarm up walls and down boulevards with speeded-up action and weird movements. They clearly are no longer human nor do they care about physical hurt. They are Undead but are propelled by an inner controlling albeit mindless force. They want only to bite and spread a lethal virus.
The 3D print screened for the press in Hollywood worked mostly against the movie. Forster places hand-held cameras in close quarters and sometimes at night so the 3D, which only further reduces light levels, making action sometimes hard to see.
Other action sequences especially in Israel where the zombies surmount a Wall surrounding the country and tumble onto a screaming populace are first-rate, visceral stuff. If Forster wanted to prove himself an action director after the poorly received Bond film, “Quantum of Solace,” he has done so.
The problem from an aesthetic rather than a commercial point of view is that “Z” emerges as a paint-by-the-numbers formula action flick. That’s what a franchise calls for but you can’t help wondering what might have happened had a filmmaker followed Brooks’ lead in making a geopolitical thriller relying on post-war accounts rather than a Brad Pitt vs. the Zombies movie.
Opens: June 21, 2013 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount Picture and Skydance Prods. present in association with Hemisphere Media Capita and GK Films a Plan B Entertainment/Apparatus production
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Ludi Boeken
Director: Marc Forster
Screenwriters: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Screen story: Matthew Michael Carnahan, J. Michael Straczynski
Based on the novel by: Max Brooks
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Marc Forster, Brad Simpson, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Paul Schwake, Graham King, Tim Headington
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Nigel Phelps
Music: Marco Beltrami
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Farrar
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editors: Roger Barton, Matt Chesse
PG-13 rating, 116 minutes