In a troop-carrier plane en route to South Korea, impetuous, passionate Harvard grad Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) tells bearded U.N. tough fella Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) something about the disease that for an hour of screen time has been ravaging the planet.
Fassbach's insight turns out to be invaluable for the people trying to find a cure for a virus that, twelve seconds after infection, transforms people into ravenous, mindless flesh-eaters. One might say the same of certain movies as he did of Mother Nature--that a film disguises its weak plot with big action, disguises its two-dimensional characters with big plot points or big actors, etc. That is not the case about with World War Z--in fact, the opposite is true.
'World War Z' thrives on its own imaginative and emotional steam, even if the final product doesn't look quite like the blockbuster some expected. What some might see as weaknesses are in fact its strengths, and the result is a film that brings to tears more often than it elicits a frightened scream.
The story starts with a montage of news clips, most of it meaningless, some mentioning a particular virus. Pundits incite worry and other pundits mock the worriers. Meanwhile, shots of insects are interjected into the slanted opening credits. Ants devour huge beetles. Ants eat each other. It's all a little freaky.
But then we're thrown right into the very human lives of Gerry and Karin Lane (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters, having a normal day in Philadelphia, PA. Dad is called upon to make pancakes for breakfast, Mom asks the older daughter if she's got her inhaler, little daughter hears some words on TV and asks "Daddy, what's martial law?" He answers cleverly "It's like house rules, but for everybody."
The film's greatest strength is established in this sequence, and it sustains the whole film: it is people. Pitt and Enos (a BYU acting alum, at which I shout for joy) try desperately to live normal lives, but it is clear that they have lived difficult things before. Their performances are grounded and understated, and following them around for the first forty minutes just trying to find somewhere safe makes up the most gripping, moving experience I have had in a theater this summer.
I am tempted to tell the whole story, but it begs being experienced. My near-nonexistent understanding of Max Brooks' novel is that it attempted to be a what-if-it-really-happened scenario. It is not supernatural, no aliens are involved. The characters in it, including high-ranking members of the U.N. and U.S. governments, are clueless, cut off, and trying to figure things out with extremely limited resources. It is precisely the natural quality of it that makes it stand apart from other zombie movies.
So what are the other little things that make it good? The zombies do not immediately seem to be that incredible an achievement. In fact, one on one, they are positively mediocre. Just make-upped actors twitching around (though the transformation process, making a helpful human friend into a ravenous foe in a few spastic seconds, is chilling) and shuffling in the normal zombie fashion. Heck, they look like characters out of "Warm Bodies." But it is in groups that they are like insects, swarming in thousands. Shots from the trailer show thousand of ravenous humans climbing on top of each other, trying to get to the top of a huge wall, and hundreds of people leaping onto a bus, making it so heavy that it falls and crushes their friends. This careless, insect abandon contrasts sharply with the character's intimate attachment to each other, leading to the next thing that works.
The film is full of tiny roles. In fact, every role is tiny. The little girls have a few scenes (and they are wonderful and believeable) and Gerry and Karin anchor the entire thing, but the rest of the film hops around from Philly to the Atlantic Ocean to South Korea to Israel to North England and plenty places else.
I wrote in my review about Man of Steel here that human beings weren't portrayed honestly enough. They seemed like idealized caricatures, beautiful people who we didn't want to see die just because they were people. World War Z succeeds brilliantly where Man of Steel failed. A man who at first terrifies us then makes us cry with gratitude when he gives something invaluable to our protagonist. A soldier in South Korea (played with integrity by James Badge Dale, who you may recognize from another movie this summer) (first to know it without looking it up gets points) appears to be another Call-of-Duty playing American dude thrown into incredible circumstances. He's not a terribly honorable man. He's a jerk. But he is as real as they come, and that's what we need as an audience.
I could talk about more people--the Tenth Man in Israel, a girl who Gerry saves and who helps him out later, and others. The film is full of them. Matthew Fox makes a cameo as a helicopter pilot and I'll be surprised if he says five words or even has a shot of his face in the movie.
While 'World War Z' reminded me and will remind you that people matter most, I was struck by something else watching it. I am an actor and many of my good friends are actors, and watching this film I saw actors. But because of the measured reality of the writing and the integrity of the performances, I began to watch people instead.
Film and theater are a shared illusion. The audience must trust all the artists--actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians--in order to truly experience something that will change them. The audience themselves must decide to agree to the illusion, and believe it themselves. It's hard to do that when writers and actors portray life falsely, whether it be through making things too dark or too light, too sexual or too chaste, too complicated or too simple.
It is not easy, and it is not common, but when it happens it affects us. And it may just be that I've seen too many superhero movies this summer, but because of a lot of little things, that's what happened to me when I watched 'World War Z'.