“Movement is life” is a chief bit of advice offered forth in and heeded by “World War Z.” As I understand it, fidelity to Max Brooks’ best-selling novel has been scant at best, but neither that nor countless post-production woes prevent Paramount’s costly adaptation from ultimately serving as an efficient and effectively exciting globe-spanning zombie thriller.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) may be new to the whole stay-at-home-dad thing, but his old ties to the United Nations come in handy when he and his are forced to flee Philadelphia in the wake of a chaotic outbreak. It turns out that zombies have infected the populations of America and countless other countries, and if Lane can hope to keep his family safe on a naval carrier far from the infected, then he must venture back into the world to assist the government in finding an origin for the disease and, hopefully, a cure.
The particulars of Gerry’s former U.N. gig are tough to gather, just that he has experience keeping his cool in hot zones and the kind of vaguely vital bona fides to redirect an airliner with one well-placed phone call. Beyond that, Pitt proves himself credibly resourceful (taping magazines across his arms to prevent being bitten), fairly intelligent and -- in another summer chock full of supermen -- distinctly vulnerable to injury. Director Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace”) smartly surrounds one of the world’s most famous faces with relative unknowns to then sell the notion that his hero is but one man up against universally dire odds, and for the most part, the supporting ranks manage to still stake their claim opposite the superstar, whether it’s Mireille Enos as wife Karen, James Badge Dale as a gruffly pragmatic soldier, Elyes Gabel as a cocky virologist, David Morse as a rogue CIA agent or Daniella Kertesz as a particularly devoted bodyguard. (On the flipside, Matthew Fox fleetingly appears in a blink-and-miss-it military role.)
The zombie lore offered here is fairly fresh, opting for a fast and feral pack mentality more prone to virulent violence than traditional cannibalism, making it all the easier to grow in number. The scope of the infection is appropriately overwhelming, and while the bloodless limitations of a PG-13 rating are occasionally impossible to ignore, the jittery intensity of Forster’s early set pieces demonstrate a welcome improvement on the nigh incoherent action sequences of his Bond entry. (With that said, I struggle to believe that the herky-jerky camerawork and frequently dim settings would benefit from a 3-D viewing.) What’s more, the whip-crack pacing keeps the mood tense throughout, even when the would-be ticking-clock subplot of Lane’s family being kicked off the overcrowded carrier is inevitably given short shrift.
Without ever going full “Kumbaya,” Forster’s approach to this global catastrophe is a worldly and humane one. Looting and panic make their due appearances, but more often than not, the people Gerry meets are unified by their border-crashing plight rather than being prone to acts of random cruelty as is so often a given in apocalyptic fare. Of course, all the good intentions in the world can’t stop a mindless menace from busting down doors, and that celebratory spirit of unity even doubles as a fatal dinner bell once the seemingly impervious walls of Jerusalem are circumvented by the good old-fashioned teamwork of some commendably cooperative zombies.
Although credited to four different writers, the screenplay is nonetheless littered with clever little ways by which to expedite the usual mayhem: a dropped toy unwittingly counting off the seconds it takes for transmission to take hold or, in a particularly nerve-racking sequence, the quick and quiet team effort to keep infected airline passengers back in coach where they belong. Many an ultimatum arises to force Gerry into action, alleviating some of the messiah complex that tends to come with this territory (*cough* “I Am Legend” *cough*) and making his heroic deeds more viable to the audience.
The seams of rewrites and reshoots become most apparent with the arrival of the third act, which places an evident emphasis on quiet horror over hectic action, swapping out digital hordes for more shambling foes in proper make-up. Even this sequence maintains a remarkable tension, though, and while some may rightfully see it as being constrictive for a movie of supposedly worldwide proportions, it feels borderline subversive in a season of tentpoles where a bigger climax is automatically assumed to be a better one. Movement is life, but when it counts, “World War Z” chooses to step carefully.
SCORE: 7.8 / 10