“World War Z” really shouldn’t be any good at all. A heroic UN field operative played by Brad Pitt saves the planet from a global zombie pandemic? What part of that sentence doesn’t make you snort milk out your nose?
The surprise of this absorbing, frightening genre flick, then, is that what sounds ridiculous on paper turns out to be a gripper on the screen. “World War Z” is epically realized entertainment that feeds on our fears of apocalypse, but it’s just fast enough and smart enough — and, more importantly, human enough — to keep an audience on edge from start to finish. You can (and probably should) pick it apart when it’s over, but while the movie’s playing, it represents the higher craft and better instincts of blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking.
It also doesn’t give you much time to get comfortable. “World War Z” has barely introduced us to Gerry Lane (Pitt) — who has retired from jetting to such hot spots as Liberia and Chechnya so he can spend time with wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) — when a Philadelphia traffic jam turns into a worst-case scenario of zombie assault. The latest fashions in undead behavior: they move terrifyingly fast and swarm like locusts, they clack their jaws like mandibles, and you have 12 seconds after you’re bitten before you “go Zeke.”
After a hellish night in a Newark high rise, the family is picked up by UN chopper and spirited to an aircraft carrier 200 miles off the East Coast. Gerry is dispatched along with a brilliant young doctor (Elyes Gabel) to a US military base in South Korea, where the virus may have originated. And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, since it throws enough curveballs to keep you off balance almost to the end.
The director is Marc Forster, who has made everything from “Monster’s Ball” to “Machine Gun Preacher” to the wan James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace.” If he has a personal style, I have yet to figure it out. The filming of “World War Z” was one of those tortured sagas where umpteen script doctors are brought in, endings get re-shot, budgets balloon, and the whole mess gets written up in Vanity Fair. So maybe it’s an accident that the bits come together into a coherent, nerve-wracking whole. Or maybe somebody on the team had an overarching idea of how to visualize the near-collapse of civilization so that it feels visceral and complete.
Who knows? Maybe it was even Pitt. He outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for the rights to Max Brooks’s 2006 novel (only to toss out all of the book’s plot), produced the film, and moves through the mayhem not as a strutting superhero but a capable and very worried guy with a wife and kids back home. As these things do, “World War Z” leans too hard on Gerry’s ability to come through every crisis and crash semi-intact, but what’s more affecting are the stressed relationships he forges with others as he hopscotches across the continents. They include a fierce Israeli soldier (Daniella Kertesz) and an entire team of quietly freaked out World Health Organization scientists.
Perhaps reflecting the many writers on this broth, “World War Z” is a movie of individual scenes strung together by urgency. That Philadelphia opener convinces us of the magnitude of the disaster, and a sequence in Jerusalem — legions of zombies cresting the walls in an inhuman wave — is a vision of awful beauty. If you’ve ever wondered how to survive a zombie attack on a passenger plane, you’ll find your answer here. And the climactic scene, set in a spooky WHO research facility in Wales, is an effective haunted-house creepshow that finally allows the audience to vent their nervous laughter.
Otherwise, “World War Z” doesn’t hit us over the head with Armageddon but sprints nimbly through it instead, and the approach plays fair by our fears, not to mention our perverse need to see them acted out allegorically onscreen. A few characters are inexplicably dropped along the way and the twist that lets Gerry give humanity a fighting chance plays out too tentatively — blame the reshoots — but, against steep odds, “World War Z” works. And at its best, it’s a zombie movie that celebrates the frail privilege of being alive.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.