Thursday, June 20, 2013

A zombie tsunami hits screens

It may not be a zombie classic, but the action-heavy World War Z contains trace elements of smarts.
When the zombies in World War Z twitch and convulse, they look like the kind of awkward geeks who lack either the common sense or decency to stay off dance floors. But unlike the hopelessly arrhythmic or even the creatures in most low-grade zombie movies, these big-bite men and women have gone global: They arrive on screen in swarming hordes, the undead residents of Earth terrorizing the planet in apparently endless waves.

As you may already know from the movie's trailers, World War Z imagines a world in which zombies have become a dangerous infestation, a population explosion of monsters eager to consume those who remain fully human. Think locusts with two legs.

Downplaying the political slant of the Max Brooks novel on which it's based, World War Z emphasizes biological mayhem a la Steven Soderbergh's Contagion . Director Marc Forster's gargantuan mixture of sci-fi and horror tells us that the zombie condition stems from an unexplained virus.

Skeptical viewers may be tempted to think that the movie spreads a virus of its own by indulging in the kind of frenzied, non-stop action that infects the nation's multiplexes during the summer months.

In the case of War War Z, this may not be an entirely bad thing. The movie explores what might happen if an unsuspecting and unprepared populace faced a fast-moving catastrophe. All bets suddenly are off.

The movie -- which stars Brad Pitt -- dishes out agitated bursts of excitement and manages a reasonably neat trick: It makes an entirely preposterous story appear as if possesses a reasonable amount of intelligence.

Pitt portrays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who -- almost from the movie's start -- finds himself on the run from zombies along with his wife (Mirelle Enos) and two daughters. Early scenes in a Philadelphia traffic jam serve up an effectively deadly combination: gridlock and chaos.

Forster gained action experience on Quantum of Solace, after directing movies such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. With World War Z, he takes a globe-hopping approach to a story in which Gerry's former boss (Fana Mokoena) secures the safety of our hero's family by airlifting them off the roof of a Newark tenement to the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Security comes at a price. Gerry's family only can remain on the carrier if he agrees to lead a mission aimed at determining the cause of the zombie-producing virus, thereby enabling scientists to develop a vaccine that will prevent its continued spread.

The movie takes Gerry from early scenes in Philadelphia and Newark to South Korea, Jerusalem and Cardiff, Wales, where the story settles at a laboratory run by the World Health Organization.

Forster does a decent, if not inspired, job with the action, keeping the pacing brisk and not allowing a great deal of time for thought. His greatest achievement involves shots of the zombie masses trying to breach the walls the Israelis have erected around Jerusalem. Evidently, the Israelis were the only people to take the zombie threat seriously from the outset.

There's no show-boating in Pitt's performance, which doesn't need to get much beyond genre efficiency. The supporting cast includes a nice turn from David Morse as a rogue CIA agent. Danielle Kertesz is equally good as an Israeli soldier who joins forces with Gerry as he hopscotches the globe in search of answers.

For the most part, though, World War Z moves so quickly that the performances hardly matter. The movie is at once streamlined and abundant: It serves up more action than plot while depicting a world engulfed by mega-helpings of zombie rot.

Forster also does a nice job whipping up suspense, particularly in the final going when the movie dishes out a more intimate brand of tension. He also serves the blockbuster beast by including at least one buzz-generating bit of action: You've heard of snakes on a plane, try zombies on a plane and you've got the idea.

World War Z leaves us wondering what happened to a couple of characters who disappear without explanation; it also lacks the kind of depth and emotional resonance that would have made it more than a souped-up "B" movie.

But as summer movies go, you could do a lot worse, and probably already have.

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