In post-apocalyptic thriller World War Z, the first evidence that Brad Pitt isn’t just garden variety stay-at-home Dad, Gerry, comes when he and the family encounter a disastrous traffic jam in Philadelphia. At first, it just looks like traffic (even though we know the zombies are coming; we saw the trailer). He and the missus struggle to keep their two daughters calm as the situation clearly escalates to more than fender benders. No sooner has a giant sanitation truck barreled past, mowing down everything in its path, than Brad is back behind the wheel of the family Volvo, chasing the truck, and chasing their possible exit from impending catastrophe. An average station-wagon-driving Dad wouldn’t know to take the wake, but Gerry does. He also uncannily clues in to a discarded children’s toy that counts out loud, instantly honing in on it as a device that handily tells him roughly how long it takes the undead to re-animate (about 10 seconds).
“What’s martial law?” one of the daughters asks Gerry in the quiet opening breakfast scene. “It’s like House Rules, for everybody,” he explains patiently
Is he C.I.A.? Military? Para-Military? Blackwater? A spy? No, he’s just a retired U.N. investigator who’s — rather vaguely and presumably — spent enough time in war zones that we’re meant to infer that he’s a guy who pays attention in a crisis. The family’s shared war zone time has also — presumably — made his long-suffering wife Karin (The Killing‘s Mirelle Enos) cool and capable, as opposed to hysterical. Since the average filmgoer probably doesn’t even know that “U.N. investigator” is even a job (much less what the duties might be), viewers will be free to imagine what skills he might bring to the zombie apocalypse table.
Soon the U.N. is calling with an extraction plan, and with no thanks to their irritatingly uncooperative daughters, Gerry and Karin manage to loot a drugstore for the Albuterol the asthmatic daughter needs (imperiled movie children always need some sort of medication; see also, Signs, Panic Room) and then shelter in place with a compassionate family nearby.
Since their rooftop rescue isn’t til dawn, they must make it through corridors and stairwells infested by zombies and cinematically lit only by the flares Karin thought to steal at the drugstore (she probably didn’t steal equally useful flashlights, because they wouldn’t be nearly as moody and atmospheric for the cinematographer, who clearly saw Seven).
On their trip to the roof, they acquire an extra orphan (who serves no plot purpose other than… well, the pro-adoption Brad Pitt also produced this movie) and learn a few things about the zombie plague (Gerry doesn’t get infected, despite a tight shot of undead blood dripping into his eye), before a helicopter spirits them away to relative safety.
Nobody get comfortable! Their asylum could be short-lived. Once aboard a mobile command post in the Atlantic Ocean, the leaders make it clear that there’s no such thing as a free ride for the reluctant Gerry who just wants to be with his family. He and the SEALs must head off to North Korea and then Jerusalem (which wisely and quickly walled itself off) and then a World Health Organization stop in Wales where Gerry can follow the trail to solve the pandemic.
Along the way, World War Z is several movies, reflecting the work of multiple writers. It starts out as a medical pandemic mystery, along the lines of Outbreak or Contagion, tossed lightly with zombie fare like 28 Days Later. It also has a great plane crash sequence that pays homage to (or borrows from) both Fearless and Alive. Dad must save his family at the end of the world, just like War of the Worlds. It shares common alien thriller tropes with both Alien, and Signs (particularly the part about a child’s illness being key to solving the medical vulnerabilities — that thread just gets dropped halfway in, as if the writer who started it never picked it back up). Political intrigue and religious allegory inform the sequences in both South Korea and Jerusalem. (What happens when a society walls itself off? Zombies climb the walls, like ants! That’s what.) And of course, it treads much of the same ground that Walking Dead does, but in a more blockbuster, less nuanced way. (Walking Dead has years to tell its story, and World War Z only has only 14 hours or so, or that’s how it seems at times).
Gerry asks early on, as soon as he gets to the aircraft carrier, “Is this worldwide? Is anybody doing better than we are?” The pleasure of World War Z lies in the epic scope that allows it to answer that question, beyond the claustrophobic confines of a TV series (even a good one), and beyond the budget of any zombie movie that’s come before it.