World War Z is clearly out to make a buck — and needs to, since with its well-publicized overruns, rewrites and production delays, it looks to have cost gazillions in screenwriter salaries alone — but for its first hour or so, you'd never guess this sprawling contagion epic had anything on its mind but action storytelling.
The opening credits are still crediting when Gerry (Brad Pitt), a U.N. troubleshooter turned stay-at-home dad, gets trapped in a Philadelphia traffic jam with his attractively generic family. And no sooner are they hemmed in on all sides than a zompocalypse erupts.
It's a worldwide plague, but in these chaotic opening moments its impact is rendered in vividly personal, unnervingly viral terms. The camera follows Gerry's gaze as his practiced eye takes in the carnage and he realizes that once bitten, a victim takes barely a dozen seconds to convulse, go glassy-eyed and turn into a raving, gnawing, alarmingly fast-moving monster whose only purpose is to find another host.
That means the plague spreads exponentially in these crowded urban environs. Gerry manages to get his family out of the gridlock, though, and by nightfall they've made it as far as Newark, where they hole up in an apartment building to await rescue by a onetime U.N. colleague of Gerry's, who thinks he may be the one guy on earth who can get to the bottom of things. By the next morning ... well, no point spoiling surprises.
Based on an unconventionally structured best-seller by Max Brooks (son of funnyman Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft) the movie has been adapted — to the consternation of some fans — into a straight-ahead race-against-time flick. On the page, Brooks had conceived World War Z as an oral history of the Zombie War, transcribed in the journalistic style of Studs Terkel.
But movie blockbusters, especially the ones with budgets that have skyrocketed past $200 million, require real-time urgency, and the filmmakers were hoping for a trilogy. So they opted to focus their story conventionally on a central character (Pitt, understated and appealing), sending him globe-hopping so he can witness swarms of zombies overwhelming vastly differing defenses in such picturesquely varied spots as Korea, Israel and Russia.
Those differences in national approach — walls, quarantines, firepower — are pretty much the point of the novel, and as the book's geopolitical concerns get subsumed by the requirements of a Hollywood blockbuster, the film becomes less interesting. Happily there are cinematic compensations — sprawling citywide action set pieces, for instance, that acquire a weird beauty when the camera takes a bird's-eye view of infected crowds that look like swarming insects.
Director Marc Forster, whose botched foray into 007 territory in Quantum of Solace wasn't much of a calling card when it comes to staging big-budget action, can't be faulted for the way he choreographs chaos this time. He's come through with a sharp, straightforward contagion epic that operates on an enormously grander scale than most. And he's managed to keep it rooted firmly enough in the real world that when the word "zombie" is first uttered midway through the film, it's almost jarring.
The film isn't subtle about making parallels to AIDS and other pandemics, and when it radically shifts gears in its final third, you won't need to have read Vanity Fair's take on its troubled production history to know things were rejiggered at the last minute.
Still, whatever problems World War Z encountered in its making, the movie has made it to theaters not dead on arrival, but walking dead, running dead, and — when it's really working — swarming dead.