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Film Review: 'World War Z' fun but lacking

The expensive film leans on familiar zombie crutches.

June 21, 2013|By Andy Klein
  • Left to right: Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, Abigail Hargrove is Rachel Lane, and Mireille Enos is Karin Lane in "World War Z," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films.
Left to right: Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, Abigail Hargrove… (Courtesy of Paramount…)

The big-budget "World War Z" (directed by Marc Forster from Max Brooks's novel) is first and foremost an old-fashioned zombie movie. It makes no rotting bones about it. In the 45 years since George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" — whose influence on the genre will never be equaled — there have been a surprising number of really good zombie films (some of them also by Romero).

I say "surprising" because, compared to (for instance) the werewolf, vampire and Jekyll/Hyde genres, these films fail to tap into truly basic human fears and conflicts. They are easily the least sexual of these myths, unless you have issues around necrophilia; even Frankenstein has some sexual undertones. These other horror staples are rich in subtext; but zombies aren't a metaphor for anything. They are clumsy and stupid; all they have going for them is implacability. Romero's groundbreaker was powered by the notion that your BFF, your child, your mother, might turn instantly and (more or less) invisibly into the terrifying Other.

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Brooks's bestseller distinguished itself from shelves of zombie books by a very clever narrative device: It followed the structure of Studs Terkel's nonfiction "oral histories" (like "Hard Times," "The Good War" and "Working"). It gained verisimilitude by disguising itself as history or reportage.

It also made the book seemingly unfilmable, more so than other recently "unfilmable" books like "Life of Pi" and "Cloud Atlas." Each chapter is a different voice; there is no central protagonist to bind together the "plot."

It's understandable why the project (which started shooting almost two years ago) was delayed by rewriting and reshooting. Rather than trying to develop a way to convert the structure into filmic terms — like the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer did for "Cloud Atlas" — the filmmakers simply gave us a hero and jammed the unusual narrative into a very usual form. Pitt plays the hero (duh!): he is Gerry Lane, a former U.N. inspector pressed into finding the source of the plague and from that a cure. His role in the movie is much like Tom Cruise's in "War of the Worlds"; he's who we identify with. His primary motivation is one of the most universal; he wants to reunite with his family.

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