Marc Forster's 'World War Z' may have little to do with Max Brooks' novel outside of the title and some characters, but for the most part, the blockbuster adaptation remains true to the spirit, concern, and intelligence of the book's premise. For a while, the production seemed at a standstill with setbacks, reshoots, and rewrites threatening to shelve it, pushing its original Christmas release date to summer, and handing writing duties off to Damon Lindelof ('Prometheus') as if out of desperation. With the sort of problems experienced by the filmmakers, raising the budget close to $200 million, you would reasonably expect a disaster on the scale depicted by the film. Shockingly, Forster and his team managed to deliver a reasonably entertaining popcorn flick with some brains.
As in Brooks' novel, our main protagonist Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations investigator, scours the world to uncover the cause behind the planet's frighteningly rapid collapse. Lane follows a paper trail of comments mentioning the word zombie or bizarre outbreaks of rabid-like behavior, interviewing various individuals that have come in close contact with the infected. Wearing a thin scarf or perhaps a keffiyeh around his neck through most of the journey, Pitt, who I believe is also doing his first big-budget Hollywood-style disaster movie, does his best as an everyday family man — as opposed to his usually more eccentric roles. He's believable and a welcome presence amid the chaos as he hopes to find "patient zero" in a worldwide zombie-like pandemic that threatens the survival of the world and his picture-perfect family.
This aspect of the plot is ultimately what I like best — the sheer hysteria and pandemonium of a highly contagious virus being the ultimate ruin of modern civilization. It's a reality that's all too terrifyingly possible, with technology being the unforeseeably perfect means of transportation. Calling the infected "zombies" or "undead" (or "Zeke" as one American soldier in South Korea likes to refer to them) is more out of panic and a convenient tag to something that suddenly sprang out of nowhere in a matter of a couple weeks. Whereas most zombie tales are about the hidden monsters within humans and the often cold methods of survival, the monster igniting the world's end here is an uncontainable, widespread, and highly infectious disease that kills without prejudice or caring about walls.
The human element to the story — thankfully there is one since the film mostly consists of people dying in large quantities — comes largely from Gerry's kids (no, not those kids!) and wife Karin (a distressed, tearful Mireille Enos). This is also particularly important since Pitt spends much of the time acting the gloomy Gus after being made to volunteer his investigative services as recompense for his family being protected by the Navy. Another nice touch is hearing the stories of others coping with the chaos, though we don't get enough of those conversations unfortunately, as it would've lent a great deal of heart and drama to an otherwise grimly dark plot. The Jerusalem scene is an especially inspiring sight as the violent barriers that once divided people crumble in light of a common global enemy while also leading to the film's most harrowing action set piece. It's also the place where Gerry gains a fellow companion in Israeli soldier Segen, played admirably by Daniella Kertesz.
In the thick of the pandemonium and endless running — as well as flying — for survival, 'World War Z' arrives with some level of appreciable intelligence, aspiring to be a thinking person's popcorn action flick with zombies. If the plague of the undead is virus born, then it's only logical to combat it much the same way we have in the past, which doesn't always mean a permanent cure. Forster does well behind the camera, giving such discussions some decent gravitas while mixing in the usual spectacle and visual bombast expected of the summer blockbuster. He also demonstrates a talent for manufacturing some scarily suspenseful moments to keep hearts racing, and the sequence at the W.H.O. research facility, like something directly ripped from 'The Last of Us' video game, is a terrific highlight. In the end, Forster manages good entertainment from a troubled production that could've ended much worse than the film's overtly stirring and inspiring conclusion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment gives 'World War Z' fans three-buying options, each with their own questionable set of issues. The standard 2D Blu-ray, which is under review here, is a combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy. It features the extended unrated cut of the movie only, running at 122 minutes long and adding extra gore, blood and violence to the scenes with zombie attacks. Those wanting the 115-minute, PG-13 theatrical cut will have to settle for the DVD or purchase the 3D combo package. All supplemental material is exclusive to Blu-ray as well.
The Region Free, BD-50 disc sits comfortably on the panel opposite a DVD-9 copy. Both are housed inside a standard blue keepcase with a glossy, lightly-embossed slipcover showing a picture of Brad Pitt walking away from a scene of pandemonium. At startup, viewers can skip over a series of previews before arriving at menu screen with options along the bottom, full-motion clips and music in the background.
Shot with a combination of HD and traditional 35mm cameras, 'World War Z' debuts on Blu-ray with a generally satisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the high-def transfer shows remarkably sharp detailing in buildings, aboard the naval ship and the many city streets with the sequence in Jerusalem being the showstopper of the entire presentation. Fine textures in clothing, hair and the faces of actors are plainly visible at all times with often stunning lifelike clarity. Wrinkles, pores and negligible blemishes of the entire cast are distinct as well, especially during close-ups.
My only gripe is that the video looks unrealistically smooth and sterile with a several instances of softness. This is likely inherent to the source, a common drawback to shooting digitally, creating that unattractive soap-opera effect. Outside of Israel, the cinematography of Ben Seresin appears somewhat subdued and downcast, but contrast is consistently clean and well-balanced, while colors remain accurate, just not richly rendered. Overall brightness levels, however, are less satisfying with a shadows looking a little on the grayish, murky side, but blacks are dark and true. Aside from the unappealing digital look in the photography, the presentation as a whole is still pretty strong and pleasing.
The worldwide zombie-like pandemic puts on a much better and substantial show with a wildly entertaining DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that'll give audio systems a very nice workout. The design is a bit on the front-heavy side, which is nothing to scoff at since the soundstage delivers well-prioritized vocals, revealing every scream, undead shriek and whispered conversation with excellent clarity.
Imaging is broad and expansive with convincing off-screen effects and movement, creating a very engaging wall of sound. The upper ranges are never pushed too far, but dynamics and acoustics are highly-detailed and crisp. Most impressive is an often authoritative low-end that sometimes plummets into the lower depths with wall-rattling, commanding force. Bullets are punchy and responsive, the stomping footsteps of the dead have weight to them, and the blasts of explosions come with a realistic tactile sensation that make the floor and couch vibrate scarily.
Rear activity is generally satisfying with subtle atmospherics that generate an amusingly effective and immersive soundfield. City streets are filled with the cries of crowds scrambling in a frightful panic, helicopters circle the room from high above, and the sound waves from nearby explosions are heard all around. The music of Marco Beltrami utilizes the entire sound system best with richness, fidelity and warmth. With flawless panning creating an often believable environment, the demo-worthy lossless mix is a wonderful pleasure to listen on Blu-ray.
In spite of several problems and delays to the production, Marc Forster and his team manage to deliver good blockbuster entertainment with a decent level of smarts. Starring Brad Pitt as a U.N. investigator hunting for "patient zero" at the height of a worldwide zombie-like pandemic, the film offers some stunning visuals, riveting action, and a few surprisingly suspenseful moments. The video is very good, if sometimes a bit too smooth and digital looking, but the audio presentation is ultimately the real winner here with a satisfying soundfield and commanding bass. Bonus material is exclusive to the Blu-ray. This is recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.