Max Brooks' book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever conceived. It tells the story of an undead outbreak on a truly global scale and the scenarios it presents make for some of the most haunting and hard-core war stories you'll read. It's epic, horrifying and smart. The scale is huge, but the emotions are always intimate. In a word, it's brilliant.
Paramount's big-budget adaptation of World War Z, however, is nothing like the book. The trailers alone made that pretty clear, but having now seen the film, we can confirm that barely anything from Brooks' book made it onto the big screen. That's not really a problem, though. If anything, it being so far removed from the book helps. If it took scenes and just adapted them poorly, it'd be infuriating to fans. But it doesn't even do that. It takes the name, one or two locations, and does its own thing.
Marc Forster's movie has more in common with Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds than WWZ. It shares that same sense of confused shock and awe as it follows one man on a road trip through a violent, unprecedented, world-changing event. Like Tom Cruise's character, Brad Pitt's is a guy who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone around him, allowing him and his family to escape tragedy while the crowds around them descends into chaos. Only in Pitt's case, he's got more professional experience to back it up.
Although the movie is pretty nebulous when it comes to defining what Pitt's old job actually was, it paints the general picture that he used to be a field agent for the UN who is accustomed to living in war zones, talking to strangers, and getting to the bottom of things. He's part researcher, part badass, and that's why his old boss at the UN enlists him to escort their leading virologist on an expedition around the world to trace the outbreak's origin and find a cure. So he says good-bye to his wife and daughters, hops on a plane, and plays detective in a race against time. Oh, and really, really fast zombies.
And all of that is kind of cool, even though it's the exact opposite of the book. It makes for the kind of large-scale destruction that's usually reserved for movies with spaceships in them. It's a welcome change of pace for zombie movies, that's for sure. There's no hiding in farmhouses or long nights in the dark, because there's no time for that stuff.
Is it a grand slam? No. Almost all of the action is filmed with miserable shakey cam and there's rarely any useful sense of geography to what's going on, which means you'd be well advised to not see this in its postconverted 3D format. There's little character definition, and it often feels like the bits that would have added emotional investment were left on the cutting-room floor. Even with those gripes, though, the scenarios are always strong enough to overcome their spotty execution.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying, so long as you don't go in expecting the book, and you don't hold a grudge because it tosses the book right out the window, you'll be in for a different kind of zombie movie. It's not one for hard-core horror fans, but it is one for those who want to spend a few hours this summer in frigid AC watching the world fall apart in a way they haven't quite seen before.