Expertly Paced "World War Z" Comes Out A Winner

For a film so famously plagued by production issues (budgetary, creative, and otherwise), “World War Z” is remarkable in its composure, as if retroactively transforming its choppy history into something nearly unflappable. That its biggest thrills come in its quietest moments is even more of a surprise, but a welcome one. At its best, Marc Forster’s film is an atmospheric, frequently creepy zombie thriller that strikes a nice balance between horror and action-adventure, leaning on familiarity but never abusing it.

Loosely based on Max Brooks’ novel by the same name, “World War Z” stars Brad Pitt as former United Nations investigator-turned-family man, Gerry Lane. Along with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters, Gerry quickly finds himself in the middle of a war zone – in downtown Philadelphia, no less. A virus has broken out in a big way, being passed on through the bites of its hosts. These particular zombies are more “28 Days Latter” than “Night Of The Living Dead,” moving swiftly and attacking mercilessly.

The film’s set-up, including some elegant opening credits, is absurdly brief, but in sparing us from some typically predictable exposition, we’re allowed to connect with the characters through their experiences rather than mundane backstories. An early chase sequence sets the tone, dark corridors lit by the ominous glow of a single flare, all of it just as evocative of “Jurassic Park” as any zombie flick. In fact, it’s obvious that Forster – who’s relatively new to big budget filmmaking – is drawing on classic Spielberg here, from his methods in building suspense to the pic’s out-of-this-world pacing.

Actually, the pacing is so good that it borders on distracting. “World War Z” delivers just the right amount of story and character work in between its setpieces, making its razor sharp rhythm predictable but inimitably comfortable. Ironically, the only action sequence that disappoints is the film’s biggest – a detour into Israel that features the swarms of zombies that have served as the focal point of the film’s ad campaign. The sequence is the movie’s only major lull, but easily forgotten since it’s bookended by stronger material.

David Morse and James Badge Dale turn in interesting supporting performances (read: extended cameos) as an ex-CIA Agent and Army Ranger, respectively, while the rest of the sizable cast generally serves to deliver exposition. Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz is the one notable exception, playing Segen, a stoic soldier that becomes entrenched with Gerry in a very unenviable way. Nearly bereft of dialogue, she makes a strong impression through her screen presence alone, giving Pitt’s character an unlikely compatriot in the midst of total bedlam.

But how does the headliner fare? As far as leads go, Gerry Lane is pretty vacant, but we still buy into his plight. Why? Because sometimes an anchor is more relatable than an action hero, and that choice – made by some combination of the screenwriters and Pitt himself – was absolutely the right one. Lane is the calming force that the narrative requires, the antithesis of his foes. That Pitt is able to a carry the film so effortlessly, in such an unexcitable manner, is a testament to his star power, and it’s never hard to believe that this man would go to the ends of the earth for his family.

That same sense of calmness was likely shared by director Marc Forster, who somehow managed to wring an enormously palatable zombie film from a wildly tumultuous production. No, “World War Z” doesn’t reach the heights of the most notoriously troubled summer blockbuster, “Jaws,” but it’s a quietly stirring success, gently humorous and hampered only by an imperfect second act and a merely adequate climax. The film’s high points hearken back to the days in which CGI was an accoutrement rather than a main dish – and it’s no coincidence that its most satisfying moments are its most intimate.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 21, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Marc Forster
Screenwriter: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, David Morse
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images)