Saturday, June 22, 2013

World War Z

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced the adrenaline rush of anticipation for a movie that I had for “World War Z.” I didn’t give it much thought over dinner, but as I entered the theater and donned my 3-D specs, that Magic Mountain feeling came over me. This could be intense.

And, I’m delighted to report, it is! You definitely get that “What the FUCK?!” moment very early, when what’s happening (if anything) isn’t yet clear to Brad Pitt’s Jerry Lane or his wife and daughters, and the first few attacks are glimpsed only obliquely. The lack of information serves to heighten the panic and dread. Within minutes (and I love that the movie doesn’t stand on ceremony; it’s 100 minutes of hard-driving, straight-ahead action), the attacks are anything but oblique. 

A handful of moments, several of them quiet, stick out: Jerry, who retired from his unspecified but obviously important information-gathering job with the U.N., drives his family to Newark, where a helicopter will take them to an aircraft carrier that’s one of the few totally safe places in the world. They stop in a supermarket, where pandemonium has broken out. Jerry kills a man who attacks his wife, and a cop marches toward him. Jerry puts his hands up in surrender, but the cop walks right by him; he’s just there to loot the pharmacy.

After they make it to the aircraft carrier, Jerry’s old boss asks him to help them find what’s causing this global pandemic. He declines. His commander tells him to reconsider; the spots on the carrier are for essential personnel only, and thousands of people who thought they were important 24 hours ago are clamoring to fill the bunk beds where his wife and daughters lie sleeping. (Later, when circumstances render others non-essential, we see the looks on the faces of the families being forcibly “relocated” off the carrier.)

Pitt’s worldwide travel – “movement is life” becomes his motto – at one point takes him to Israel, which has erected a massive wall to keep the undead out. There’s a sense of calm amidst the storm, but when the zombies manage to scale the wall and hurl themselves down, it’s (to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael’s review of “Casualties of War”) the supreme violation. You experience the sensation of abject terror. Safety is a fantasy.

The CGI effects in this film are nothing less than award-worthy; they create an absolutely credible world of cities left desolate, of swarming hordes of gnashing, hurtling zombies. The material involving Pitt’s family is probably the weakest link, but director Marc Forster smartly keeps it to a minimum. (There’s one very funny scene in which Pitt’s team attempts to refuel their plane silently at a Korean airbase – noise stimulates the zombies – and, having forgotten to silence his cell phone, his wife calls him at that exact moment. It’s one of those times where he must later pretend he didn’t want to wring her neck.)

Like a roller coaster, the thrill of “World War Z” wears off quickly after the lights come up. But for what it is – a modern movie-star vehicle – it’s great fun. It re-establishes Pitt as an actor who can open a big-budget movie playing an Everyman figure. Imagine that: Brad Pitt represents all of us. Who could complain about that?

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