I had my concerns about the film version of World War Z from the first trailer. As the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and a fan of Max Brooks's spellbinding novel, I've got some flesh in the game, as it were. I hoped to see a film version that at least nodded to the geopolitical complexities of the novel, which suggested that zombies would potentially exacerbate pre-existing interstate conflicts -- and star/producer Brad Pitt did as well. The pre-release buzz on the film did not make me any more sanguine. So, by the time I sat down for the New York premiere of the film, I tried to throw away any unrealistic hopes or expectations that this was going to be the zombie Citizen Kane. Besides, trailers can deceive, bad buzz has preceded good films, and this is a friggin' summer popcorn flick. Surely, the equation must hold: Brad Pitt + $150 million > Fast and Furious 6. Right?
To judge World War Z fairly, one has to consider its myriad possible purposes. So let's go from hardest to easiest in grading this film:
As a faithful adaptation of Brooks's novel, director Marc Forster's film fails, and fails spectacularly. In looking over my notes after the lights came up, here are the parts of the plot that I was able to determine appeared in both the film and the book:
a) There are zombies;
b) They've gone global;
c) Israel's security bureaucracies are competent.
That's it. Everything else has been changed. And I mean everything, including altering the zombies from slow, lumbering, George Romero-type Night of the Living Dead ghouls to fast, Danny Boyle-type 28 Days Later rage-filled monsters. One of the pleasures of Brooks's novel was his believable take on how countries like North Korea and Israel would respond to a global zombie pandemic. The film version of these national reactions, on the other hand, is literally incredible.
Now, to be fair, Brooks's novel was a Studs Terkel-like oral history with at least a dozen different tales interwoven together. Without a protagonist, it would have been an extremely difficult movie adaptation if done faithfully -- and I doubt anyone would pay multiplex prices to see 32 Short Films about the Comparative Politics of Zombies. So it's completely unfair to judge this film based solely on this criteria.
However, even if you're looking to see a zombie flick where you don't have to think much, the movie is a bit brain-dead. The zombie genre has its own conventions, and World War Z follows some of them. Ten minutes in, for example, society has pretty much broken down. The decision to make the zombies manic sprinters does lead to some decent panicked mob scenes in Philadelphia and Jerusalem, and will make any viewer a bit more squeamish about plane travel.
The thing is, zombie movies have to be at least a little bit interested in, you know, the living dead -- and World War Z is deeply uninterested in its MacGuffin. The film fails to offer a consistent logic of how the undead infection spreads. No major character turns into a flesh-eating ghoul. Indeed, these zombies don't seem all that interested in eating people. Mostly, they cock their heads violently, emit odd noises, and try to break through glass windows. In other words, they act and sound like angry birds -- and not the fun, addictive kind either.
Of course, what's really interesting about zombie films is how humans react to the living dead. Usually, the misanthropic answer is "not well." Early on, World War Z has a looting scene that touches on these issues, with people brandishing guns to secure supplies and attacking other humans -- but that passes quickly. After that, practically every character with a speaking part acts in a noble, forthright, and earnest manner. There's very little in the way of humans displaying greed, malevolence, or stupidity in World War Z, which is what makes the zombie genre so misanthropic. Liberal internationalists who value the United Nations or World Health Organization (WHO) will find the movie uplifting -- especially when you see the U.N. and U.S. flags flying next to each other in the "U.N. Atlantic Fleet," according to the film. Unfortunately, such a heavy dose of do-gooding leeches the narrative of any compelling conflict. As the film progressed, the only drama I felt was whether Mireille Enos could get through a scene without pursing her lips in a disapproving manner.