Blockbuster Diary, Part Nine: "World War Z"

Blockbuster Diary, Part Nine: "World War Z"
Brad Pitt plays a retired United Nations employee attempting to stop a zombie plague in "World War Z."
(© 2013 Paramount Pictures)

Even though it was based on Max Brooks’s massively successful bestseller and starred Brad Pitt, Hollywood wasn’t expecting “World War Z” to have a strong debut at the box office. While it didn’t finish in the top spot — that belonged to Disney and Pixar’s “Monsters U,” the sequel to “Monsters Inc.” — the film was the highest grossing live action film of the weekend. In making $66 million, it surpassed projections for the weekend by over $10 million. But rival studio suits reveled in every troubling development of the $190 million film (a figure many believe to be much higher), and were ready, and excited, to pronounce Marc Forster’s film a colossal flop. That doesn’t appear to be the case, though, because while the film is yet to make back cost, it may yet turn out to be a modest success.

Every year there’s a high profile film that’s labeled a disaster before it even comes out — “World War Z” had the misfortune of owning that label for the past 12 months. A quick rundown of some of the issues faced by the film on its journey to theaters (check out this great Vanity Fair article for a more in-depth look): It started shooting without a finished script (in addition to going through several writers); nearly immediately exceeded its original $125 million budget; had a large number of props seized by counter terrorism forces in Hungary; entirely scrapped a tremendously expensive closing scene that was filmed in Budapest; delayed release by six months; Pitt (who also produced the film) and Forster may or may not have stopped talking to each other and, at nearly the last second, brought in Damon Lindelof to come up with a new ending and try to make sense of what footage Forster had. Yeah, I’d say that qualifies as a troubled production. Despite all that, the film somehow comes together.

I’ve already written about rehash fatigue and it’s impossible to ignore in a summer that’s seen the release of “Iron Man 3,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “The Hangover Part III,” and “Man of Steel.” Granted, plenty of people have read Brooks’s book and seen a zombie film, but “World War Z” presents a new concept. The film, which focuses on a small group of survivors in search for a cure from a zombie plague that has struck the whole world, deviates from the novel dramatically (Pitt’s character, Gerry Neal, is new to the movie), and it shows a level of ambition unusual for the zombie genre. This is a globe trotting action adventure that showcases Pitt’s former U.N. contractor traveling between Philadelphia, a military base in South Korea, Jerusalem, Cardiff, and Nova Scotia in an attempt to save humanity and reunite with his family. Zombie films tend to be small scale gore fests, but the filmmakers had their eyes set on an epic here.

It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a compelling two hours of ample thrills and action. It’s refreshing to see a hero who is abnormally resourceful and lucky, yet still comes off as human. Gerry isn’t an everyman — as other characters tell us, he’s handled himself in the worst of war zones — but faced with hordes of zombies he reacts as any of us would: he’s completely terrified. He’s also aware of how little he can do in the face of one horror after another, but his bravery won’t let that stop him. The film features an ending that’s been called “soft,” but which I found to be powerful. The key to defeating the plague, which for the entirety of the movie had seemed insurmountable, is obtained through a selfless, singular action. It’s dramatically scaled down from the scrapped ending, ditching large-scale action and pyrotechnics for something much more subtle. It’s not what you expect from a blockbuster, and that’s a very good thing.

Like the studios and most people I talked to, I expected “World War Z” to be a bust. But with expectations so low, it has managed to maintain some sense of dignity. At the very least it seems to have avoided becoming a laughing stock. It’s not a great film, but it goes about its business in a very un-blockbuster-y way. In a summer where every film is doing the same thing, we applaud it for being different.

“World War Z”

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof (with a story by Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena

Opening Gross: $66 million