The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 28, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Z' a spectacle, but characters disposable

JOPLIN, Mo. — There is a lot that $190 million can buy you in a movie. Hordes of zombies scaling walls, multiple locations across the world to help bolster global box office showings and even a dashing leading man to help establish a future franchise.

All of these things are delivered by "World War Z." But it appears that one thing that money, as well as five screenwriters and massive reshoots, can't buy is character development, and that quickly becomes an issue.

"Z" is the story of a virus that has spread throughout the world, creating legions of zombies who are quickly overrunning all corners of the globe. Air travel has helped facilitate the spread of the epidemic (thank you, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"), and thus no one is safe and no area is untouched.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry, a vaguely sketched-out UN employee who has some undetermined job. But he was once a warrior in the field, having dealt with hostage situations and other stuff. It is quickly determined that he is the only living human who will be able to find the source of the plague and help lead humanity to a cure.

So he is dispatched to various parts of the world to try to track down Patient Zero, all the while fending off wave after wave of mindless, ravenous creatures (it is unfortunate that Congress didn't get credited for inspiration).

When you're dealing with a movie about millions of undead swarming the world and devastating mankind, with but a handful of holdouts putting up a fight, you probably want to be able to distinguish between the personalities of said undead and the heroes opposing them.

"Z" opts instead to create characters that are just as disposable as the zombies they are killing, distancing the viewer from them and eliminating any chance of developing an emotional attachment to any of them. This is a problem, especially when your star and producer is Pitt.

The stars of the film aren't actually the humans, but the special effects. So little care and effort go into developing the "stars" of the film that they are rendered completely disposable.

You have Gerry and his wife, some redheaded lady. There's his youngest daughter Ñ Whiny, I think her name is Ñ and then his oldest daughter, Asthma Girl. Truthfully, it doesn't matter the names of his family members, because they are only distinguishable by one trait each, and they disappear for 90 percent of the movie.

Likewise, the people that Gerry encounters along the way are quickly forgotten. The only one who continues to travel with him is a female Israeli soldier who is bitten, then has her hand lopped off to stop the spread of the zombie germs. (I really wish I had known this tactic in the second grade. I could have avoided years of painful cooties treatments.)

So, what is left is a movie that is as mindless as the creatures it portrays. Not that this is entirely negative.

There are some great set pieces throughout, and the zombies are genuinely scary in parts (and somewhat laughable in others, because of poor decisions in sound effects). There is a good deal of suspense as well.

The movie went through several delays, including a complete reshoot of the final act of the film, which certainly made it more audience (and sequel) friendly. That lack of cohesion, as well as the visions of many different screenwriters being melded into one script, could easily have contributed to the weaknesses of the film.

But what the film sacrifices in development it compensates for in overall spectacle. The signature shot of the zombies scaling the walls of Jerusalem is still a scary image, and the ease with which the plague spreads and decimates the world's population is as terrifying as the creatures themselves.

Fans of the source book are quick to point out the deviations from the written page, but that is to be expected to an extent, and the end result has a lot of fun.

"World War Z" works well as a popcorn movie. It requires no investment, and it will easily be forgotten when the next special effects heavy flick hits the screen, but it is an entertaining way to burn off two hours without any real thinking. You won't care about those fighting for their lives, but really, don't you have enough to worry about already?

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