World War Z is a terrific argument for continuing to subscribe to print magazines, for flying first class instead of coach, for drinking Pepsi and for skipping interfaith worship services. What it is not, unfortunately, given the vibrant source material, Max Brooks’ multi-national novel of the same name, is an innovation in the zombie genre, or even a particularly frightening zombie movie. World War Z had myriad production and budget problems on its way to theaters, but the real problem with the movie, which makes UN Inspector Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) the nation-hopping main characters, is that Brooks’ story, which is largely jettisoned here, belonged on a small screen, not a big one.
As I wrote at Slate, part of the problem with World War Z is the way it substitutes Lane’s family drama for Brooks’ consideration of the way different countries would respond to the emergence of zombies. Lane has retired from his job at the United Nations when the apocalypse strikes, and is puttering around making pancakes for his daughters when his expertise in war zones gets him called back into action. His family tries to be cheerful about their relocation to a naval cruiser—”Baby, it’s bigger than our old apartment on 72nd,” Gerry’s wife Karin (Mireille Enos) tells him as they’re assigned bunks on the ship. But it quickly becomes clear that the decent treatment of Lane’s family comes with strings. “There’s no room here for non-essential personnel,” a military officer explains to Lane, who’s reluctant to go back into the field. “There’s a long line of people waiting for these bunks.” As drama goes, that’s fine, though the movie doesn’t do much to establish Karin and their daughters as people, or Gerry’s connection to them.
A similar briskness in the movie frequently robs it of any sense of horror, whether of zombie attacks, or the way humans respond to them. An imprisoned CIA agent (David Morse) that Gerry meets in South Korea, where he makes a brief stop (at night, so essentially none of the country is visible) tells him that North Korea had a singularly brutal solution to the crisis: “They pulled the teeth of all 23 million in less than 24 hours. No teeth, no bites.” During the conversation, we get a glimpse of the man’s gums, but the movie doesn’t have the sense to build up the reveal into something really horrible, or the budget to actually take us into North Korea, which in Brooks’ novel remained an eerie mystery.
World War Z spends a bit more time in Israel on the suggestion of that same CIA agent, who notes that the country’s put the final touches on a massive wall system recently. “Finished all those thousands of years of work a week ago? Pretty convenient timing,” the man tells Gerry. Once there, he meets Jurgen Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken) a Mossad agent who makes the case for Israeli paranoia. “In the 30s, Jews refused to believe we could be put in concentration camps. In the 70s, we didn’t believe we could be massacred at the Olympics,” Warmbrunn tells Lane of the inability to believe the impossible that hurt Jews in the past, and produced new Israeli intelligence protocols to make sure the country was prepared to respond to the impossible. The movie’s take on Israeli politics swings back and forth from justifying paranoia and aggressive action to celebrating a more open attitude towards Palestinians. “You’re letting people in,” Gerry observes. “Every human being we save is one less zombie to fight,” Warmbrunn tells him. But in the end, one of World War Z‘s major action set pieces suggests that a more tolerant attitude towards Palestinians is precisely what dooms Israel.
The movie does a little better when it’s willing to indulge in dark humor, like the kind that characterizes Lane’s visit to South Korea. “How did you all escape this?” Gerry asks of an operating room where a doctor turned. “The expenditure of ammunition,” a soldier tells him in a bit of hilarious deadpan. And there’s a nice moment early in the film that suggests that decency might be what keeps humans alive, rather than selfishness. Stopping in a grocery store on their flight from an infested city, Gerry’s looking for an inhaler for his daughter Rachel when he’s confronted by a hoodied looter. But rather than attack him, the looter asks:”What do you need?” “Albuterol,” Gerry tells him, cautiously. The man doesn’t just find him the inhaler, he hands over other drugs, too. “They grow out of the asthma, supposedly,” the man offers up a word of comfort. “And this shit, too. It’s magic for my kid.”
Any of these ideas, about human generosity, about what kind of mental fortitude it takes to survive the apocalypse, or about how different countries respond to the apocalypse would have made for a perfectly interesting spin on the zombies, a genre rich with metaphor. But instead, World War Z is all occasional startle, sound and rapid shuffle representing nothing.