Destruction is scary, but not half as scary as the act of rebuilding, the moment of looking at the random, jagged pieces you've got left and wondering how the hell you're going to fit them together. In Marc Forster's World War Z, the world as we know it — or even as we don't really know it — is destroyed by a virus that turns people into zombies. Within 12 seconds of being bitten by an infected host, any human will turn into a twisted, soulless creature with cloudy, heroin-addict eyes, motivated only by a ravenous need to hunt down and tear into healthy flesh. Brad Pitt plays a New York City family man — a UN peacekeeper turned househusband, if you can imagine such a thing — who strives to protect his family from these fearsome drones, at first by sticking close but later by leaving them. The best way to save them, he realizes, is to serve the greater good and find the source of the killer virus.
It's all pretty noble, and if nothing else, World War Z shows off some horrifically effective filmmaking: An early sequence, in which Pitt's Gerry figures out something has gone terribly wrong as he's driving his wife (Mireille Enos, of Big Love and The Killing) and two generically adorable daughters from here to there in Manhattan, is that rare evocation of chaos that isn't chaotic itself. Shot and edited with chilling clarity, it shows us vehicles colliding in seconds that feel like eons, or vice-versa; metal crumples like paper and glass shatters as if invested with demonic life.
But Forster's meticulousness — coupled with ample excuses to blow stuff up — isn't enough to turn World War Z into one of those class-A end-of-everything movies that leaves you feeling just a little bit queasy, momentarily uncertain of your own small place in this unmanageable world. The picture is suitably solemn, but it's never mournful, at least not in the manner of, say, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later, the superb follow-up to Danny Boyle's good-enough 28 Days Later. Maybe that's because 28 Weeks Later isn't about a world being destroyed but one that's trying to start back up and just can't. Fresnadillo's film rings instead with a terrifying yet vaguely cozy end-of-the-world feeling, a vibe straight out of John Wyndam's half-disconsolate, half-optimistic '50s apocalyptic novel Day of the Triffids.
That kind of subtlety is probably too much to expect from World War Z. This is massive-scale 3D filmmaking, and in that context, some of it works like gangbusters. Early in the movie, Gerry's family finds both terror and small acts of kindness in a Newark supermarket-turned-free-for-all: Forster films the sequence so we feel the weight and meaning of both the horror and the humanity. And the human-to-zombie transformation itself is pretty scary, beginning with a clattery death twitch and ending with a superhuman surge that launches the newly zombified individual into action. (These are fast zombies, not the slow kind, and you really want to be able to outrun them.)
The picture tangles with some potentially fascinating geopolitical ideas, too. Most of the world was unprepared for this disastrous zombie invasion, but Israel saw the whole thing coming and built a giant wall around the city of Jersualem to keep the angry, mindless critters out. Lest you think this is an anti-Semitic gag along the lines of those nutso "Jewish leaders sent a memo out on the morning of 9/11 to tell all Jews to stay home from work that day" theories, note the twist: The wall was built only to keep zombies out; healthy humans are welcome to enter, a marked contrast from the way Gerry's own employer, the U.S. government, treats its own citizens during the crisis.
But World War Z doesn't really know what to do with those larger philosophical ideas. Forster moves the action forward deftly scene by scene, yet the movie ends up feeling sprawling and empty, a "zombies invaded the world and all I got was a lousy T-shirt" enterprise. In fact, World War Z may be an object lesson in the importance of paying attention to small-scale filmmaking within the framework of big-budget wizardry. Because in the end, all that matters in World War Z is Brad Pitt.
Pitt was at one time the sexiest man alive, or something like that. But he has evolved into an actor who's always worth watching, having turned casualness into a discernible, potent style. In World War Z, he's a deeply comforting presence, the dad who promises to take care of everything — everything! — and actually manages to do so. I can think of few contemporary actors, sex symbols or otherwise, who have played fathers — particularly fathers of daughters — without veering into sentimental quicksand. When Gerry decides to go out virus-hunting, leaving his family in the allegedly safe hands of the U.S. military, he kisses one of his little girls goodbye, bringing as much relaxed grace to the gesture as any anxious, zombie-fearing father could. He calls her "babydoll," a nickname she says she doesn't like — she's not a baby. Quick on his feet, he comes back with the right response: "Okay, tall, beautiful, tiny adult." Those are the words he leaves her with before going off to save the world. Zombies are no match for a man who knows just what to say to a little girl.