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World War Z is smart, tense, and exciting. Looking back, the movie has the intelligence of 28 Days Later, the tension of The Crazies, and the fun of Zombieland. It’s that film where you are on the edge of your seat for the first hour, and satisfied with everything coming together in the second.
Right from the beginning we are introduced to Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) and his wife and two daughters. They sit around the kitchen table eating breakfast when a newscaster says that Marshall Law has been invoked in some area. The way Lane explains this to his child is rather amusing, saying how it is “house rules, but for everybody.”
It takes only five minutes from the establishing shot to see we are on the streets of Philadelphia where all hell breaks loose as the Lanes abandon their car and steal an RV to escape the mercilessness of the savage zombie-like creatures. Of course, it is always less than compelling when the origin of these manifestations is said to be rabies, but the way the people transform within seconds—with their eyes whited-out and backs bending like you would see in an exorcism—really makes you reflect about how intelligence, consciousness, and soul are eviscerated from these humans.
From there, Lane and his family struggle to reach a landing spot on top of a building for a helicopter rescue as they encounter looters and rapists while trying to find medical resources for their asthma-stricken daughter in an abandoned grocery store. Eventually, they find refuge on a ship where a former UN colleague of Lane’s orders him to investigate the matter back when they used to work together. It was either that or being forced off the ship.
Then the movie starts to careen from location to location as Lane uses tips he has collected on the way to find answers to this pandemic in places like Korea, Israel, and Cardiff. You would think that the point of view of just one man on a mission to save the world get boring, but the narrative weaves shots of both Lane country-hopping and his family back on the ship. Although this is somewhat obligatory, the cuts between family members mean something because we are so invested in them succeeding, which is impressive for a motion picture with hardly any exposition to do.
Of course, the zombies are the attraction in this theme park. They run at their prey and bite them with their teeth to infect and plague a new host. About every 20 minutes an epic zombie attack occurs, and with the aerial shots mixed in with the ground shots, the impact on viewers’ senses and fears is striking. I must admit that the answer to curing this sickness is quite clever, too. So clever, in fact, that I was surprised I didn’t get it, even when clues were staring right back at me.
But this isn’t a director’s movie or an actor’s movie (even though there is a good deal of camerawork and acting) as much as it is a screenwriter’s movie. There are metaphors, analogies, hyperboles, and so much more that the dialogue came off as more exhilarating than the action scenes. At the same time, I could detect the movie running out of steam, bursting at the seams of cogency when a particularly vivid plane crash sequence is followed by a final reel that is more ho-hum than anything else. The production problems were visible at that point, but I imagine untrained eyes will not see the jarring shift in narrative complexity.
The movie, however, is never boring. You are grabbed at the beginning and not allowed to look away from the screen for the majority of the running time. And to nuance the pic with a multitude of scenes that subvert expectations make it much more credible (I mean what do you do when the president is dead and the vice president is missing?).
There are a great number of thrills to be had in the first hour and change of this movie, even though some of them may come off as more and more mechanical and routine as time goes on. And the casting is fine, even though some characters in some passages leave much to be desired (cough, David Morse, cough) while the characterizations of characters in other passages seem largely unnecessary. The best I could say is that if you accept the world this universe is rendered in, then you will be handsomely rewarded.