‘World War Z’ tries to make zombies serious

Don't worry: Brad Pitt won't do anything fun with that axe in Marc Forster's PG-13 zombie film "World War Z." Credit: Jaap Buitendijk
Don’t worry: Brad Pitt won’t do anything fun with that axe in Marc Forster’s PG-13 zombie film “World War Z.”
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

‘World War Z’
Director: Marc Forster
Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Humanity doesn’t need a serious, prestige zombie movie, with big stars and a PG-13 rating that tastefully elides chomping and flesh tearing. The existence of the $200 million, Brad Pitt-starring, bloodless and goreless “World War Z” implies that something like “Dawn of the Dead” (the George Romero original, one must add) isn’t serious. It is — as well as funny, satirical, nerve-jangling and, perhaps best of all, resourceful, conveying worldwide calamity with only four characters and a mall. “World War Z” is none of these things, and it’s only serious in the sense that no one smiles or has any fun.

One of the funniest actors on the planet when properly prodded, Pitt is in super-grave mode as a retired UN investigator with a special set of vague skills that help him overcome any and all obstacles. After heroically pulling his family from an outbreak of zombies (the annoying fast kind, natch), he’s blackmailed by the government into shlepping around the world, searching, perhaps fruitlessly, for the origin and — who knows? — the cure.

Max Brooks’ source isn’t a continuous story but a series of oral histories that, like the Romero films that birthed the genre, consider the practical and ethical issues of society trying to survive the undead. Notoriously plagued with problems, from infancy through hectic reshoots, the film version streamlines it into a globetrotter that allows the audience to watch multiple cities felled by rampaging, hungry manbeasts. These scenes lack the horror (or at least the property damage) of the leveled metropolises in “The Avengers” and “Man of Steel,” and while complaining about a lack of urban carnage might seem misguided, when the film pulls out from a besieged Philadelphia for a panoramic shot it seems too early, having not yet reached the required levels of apocalyptic awe.

Admittedly — and even considering a bizarre section in which our heroes investigate a potential Jewish plot — this is a serviceable, modest thriller, if one that always seems theoretically rather than viscerally engaging. Director Marc Forster previously did the impossible by making a Bond movie (“Quantum of Solace”) not just bad but boring. (He also made a dull film with the title “Machine Gun Preacher.”) His timing, as ever, is always a touch off; he’s a bit too sleepy and allergic to wit. When Peter Capaldi, the profanity-monster Malcolm Tucker of “The Thick of It” and “In the Loop,” swings by late in, it’s a given he’ll get nothing to do because that would be entertaining. The film rallies at the end, with some clever, quiet sneaking through a zombie-laden lab. But this is a film hubristically afraid to offend.


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