World War Z, the new zombie thriller from Marc Forster, starring Brad Pitt, is known around our house as ‘Mireille’s zombie movie.’ Mireille Enos, who I remember with great fondness as a stunningly talented BYU student actress (and who I cast and directed in her first show at BYU, not that I’m name-dropping or anything), is the second lead here, playing Pitt’s wife, Karin. (You may also know her from the AMC TV series The Killing). It’s always a bit of an odd experience seeing people you know in movies. It does take you out of the story a little. You find yourself going ‘wow, she’s great in that scene,’ when you probably should be thinking ‘what’s going to happen with the zombies?’ When Mireille kicked a zombie in the face, it was a very tense scene, but part of me was also going ‘wow, that’s so cool, she got to kick a zombie! Well done! Good kick!’
The movie itself is plenty suspenseful and exciting, as long as you don’t think about it too much. In that respect, it’s just another summer action movie–a plot that makes sense isn’t so important. Essentially, World War Z is like a mash-up of two much better movies: 28 Days Later and Contagion. Brad Pitt plays Gerry, a UN operative with a track record of solving really intractable international problems. Some kind of virus is turning people into zombies. These are the really fast 28 Days Later zombies, and the zombie-virus has an incredibly rapid incubation period–basically ten seconds. (At one point, someone says it takes ten minutes, but we see it work–it’s just seconds). Gerry and Karin and their two daughters are caught in a city (Newark? Ah, poor Cory Booker!) under zombie attack, and the first half-hour of the movie shows their hair-raising last second escapes from various threats. They then get rescued by a US military helicopter, and off they go to a command ship out in the ocean. That’s where the assistant Secretary-General of the UN, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is waiting for them, and decides to send Gerry and a (we’re told) brilliant young virologist Dr. Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) on a trip to find out where the virus came from, to find a cure.
So World War Z‘s a lot like Contagion, except in that movie, when Gwyneth Paltrow infects someone, they just get really sick and die. But in WWZ, when an infected person bites someone, the infected person becomes a zombie, really quickly. You go from 1 to 2 to 4 to 16 zombies. What this means is that, in an enclosed space (an airplane, say), one zombie can turn an entire plane into hundreds of zombies in a matter of minutes.
Another difference; in Contagion, the focus is on a whole bunch of researchers at WHO and the CDC working on the problem from different angles, while we also see various doctors trying to keep people alive. Lots of characters, wide-ranging story. It’s a world-wide pandemic, and the world health community works on it–the movie gives us a sense of that international effort. In WWZ, it’s just Brad Pitt. I desperately hope this isn’t what would happen. I desperately hope that in the event of a real zombie apocalypse, there’d be tons of Brad Pitts jetting around trying to de-zombie-fy the world. I get that it’s a movie, but we’re talking billions of undead spreading their undeadness. This seems to me as a really bad thing. I want lots of people working on it.
But that’s not the main oddity of this actually very odd movie. What struck me is how much trouble the characters in this movie cause themselves by behaving really stupidly. I don’t just mean that they don’t figure things out that they should figure out. I mean the movie is built on moment after moment that should be funny but aren’t, that show the characters making comical blunders, which the movie doesn’t acknowledge as comical. I mean, some of the moments of greatest tension in the movie basically come from someone messing up, sometimes even kind of clownishly.
Remember, the idea is that Pitt is this UN operative, and he’s been tasked with taking this Dr. Fassbach to various hot spots to figure out how to cure this virus, or maybe develop a vaccine. And Pitt’s been given a team of Navy SEALS to provide protection. First stop–a US military base in South Korea, because that seems to be an early infection point. So off they go on this plane, land at the base. Everything’s quiet. Too quiet. Ominously quiet. Suddenly: a zombie attack! Navy SEALS shoot back. And the scientist, the virologist, the one guy who is the entire point of them being there, panics, trips, falls down, and shoots himself dead.
I suppose the fact that I found that funny proves what a sicko I am. But come on. Are we really not supposed to notice the reason for this, uh, absurd plot twist? I mean, we all get this, right? Brad Pitt’s assignment is to help this scientist solve the problem, right? It’s a supporting role. And this is a Brad Pitt action movie! He has to be the one to save the day, solve the problem, defeat the zombies. So this silly (but fatal) banana peel moment for the scientist. Blarg.
It continues. Pitt and Mireille each have phones, and agree to call each other daily. This is great, because Pitt doesn’t seem to have any other way to communicate with the US warship or the UN. You’ve got an agent in the field, an international emergency, the survival of homo sapiens as a species at stake, and everything, all their communications, go through the dude’s wife. I mean, I liked it, because it gave Mireille something to do and she was the main reason I wanted to see the movie. But it did strike me as, uh, implausible. (They also might have given Pitt a battery charger. That might have been nice. I’m not a fan of ‘my phone’s going dead’ plot points. Phones have chargers.)
Anyway, after the scientist dude’s pratfall-death, Brad Pitt carries on with the assignment, because he’s Brad Pitt, and anyway it’s just science, right, not something that needs, like, training or expertise, and anyway he probably also stayed in a Holiday Inn Express the night before. He interviews some of the soldiers at this base, and they tell him the Israelis seem to have sussed out the zombie problem, and maybe that’d be a good place to visit next. But first, they have to refuel the plane. So Pitt and all the soldiers (his SEALS, plus the base guys), all sneak out. The zombies, it seems, respond to noise. They remain dormant, if you’re quiet enough. So Pitt and his SEALS ride off on bicycles. Keeping silent as mice. And that’s the moment Mireille’s character chooses to call her hubby. And the phone rings. Loudly.
And the zombies attack, and there’s a big firefight, and it’s all very exciting. But a few questions occur. Like, wouldn’t you just silence your phone? Turn off the ringer? I turned mine off, and all I was doing was watching a movie, not tip-toeing through a field of dormant deadly zombies.
I mean, Brad Pitt’s the hero, and he’s certainly plenty heroic in this. And he’s Brad Pitt; I love Brad Pitt. He’s a terrific actor, and he’s great in this too. But his character’s supposed to be smart. And he is smart–he figures out the whole ‘how to stop zombies’ question. He saves humanity. But his character does some really dumb stuff too, basic stuff, like not turning off a cell phone ringer.
There’s more. Next, they’re off to Israel, where Mossad has built a big ol’ fence to keep the zombies out. And it’s worked great, and they’re even inviting in refugees, on the sensible premise that anyone who wants to join them means fewer future zombies. But remember, zombies are actuated by noise. They shamble around, mostly, not really getting anywhere, but noise bugs them, and can drive them into a feral attacking frenzy. We know this–we’ve seen it earlier in the movie. Brad Pitt knows this too–he was in the scene where we learned it. So he’s wandering around old Jerusalem with his old Mossad buddy. And a group of refugees break out the microphones and decide it’s time for a music festival! Yay! Triumph of the human spirit sort of thing! And Brad Pitt sees the concert, and looks maybe a trifle worried. But does he say, ‘guys, this is a terrible idea. Ixnay on the usic-may.’ We know, and he knows, and we know he knows that ‘noise=insensate zombie rage.’ So maybe it’s not a good time for Woodstock 3?
This wasn’t treated comically, but it could have been. I found myself wondering what the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost team might have made of this material. I also wondered what the point was. At times early in the movie, Brad and Mireille survive because of the kindness of strangers. Is this movie some kind of commentary on mankind? We are capable of kindness and even nobility, but boy are we also screw-ups? That kind of thing?
Anyway, in Israel, we meet the movie’s new awesome character, Segen, an Israeli soldier, played by an Israeli actress I’ve never heard of, Daniella Kertesz. She’s bitten by a zombie, on the hand, which Pitt quickly chops off, I guess hoping the virus wouldn’t have spread to the rest of her that quickly. Which turns out to be the case. And this unbelievably courageous one-handed female soldier ends up saving the day repeatedly–loved the actress, loved the character. Anyway, she and Pitt barely escape Israel, make it to a World Health Organization hospital in Wales, despite a zombie-fied airplane and subsequent plane crash.
So, they’re in this hospital, where Brad Pitt shows off his typical movie hero recuperation-from-deadly-injuries powers. Anyway, not to give away the plot, but they need to get from a safely barricaded lab to another zombie-patrolled one, looking for a vial. One WHO scientist, plus the Israeli chick, plus Our Hero. Three of them, like, eighty zombies. They have to keep quiet. So why is that the WHO scientist kept doing stuff like kicking soda cans and stepping on crunchy bits of broken glass? Again, it’s a very tense scene, but it could have been funny–they kept turning these essentially comedic tropes into serious dramatic tension. And that’s okay, I guess. But they’re in a fancy lab, the kind of place where lights are programmed with motion sensors, to go on when someone enters a corridor. Couldn’t that have been the thing to set the zombies off? And not turn this scientist into Bozo the Clown?
I’m making it sound like I didn’t like the movie. I did like it. I liked it a lot. I thought it was a good, scary, exciting action adventure movie. I just look at Marc Forster the director, at his track record. Finding Neverland. Stranger than Fiction. The Kite Runner. Terrific director, with some great movies on his resume. But he also did Quantum of Solace, way the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond films. Check him out on IMDB. His record says he’s a guy who does big budget action movies to pay the bills, to free him to do another Stranger than Fiction. I suppose I can respect that. And WWZ was apparently a fairly troubled movie, many re-writes, and a movie detested by fans of the novel it’s based on. (Which I have not read.)
So, I’d say, it’s a pretty entertaining action movie, one that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but which was scary and exciting and sort of oddly comical without meaning to be. And Mireille got to kick a zombie in the face. That’s not a half-bad takeaway.