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 is destroyed by a virus that turns people into zombies. Brad Pitt plays a New York City family man — a UN peacekeeper turned househusband — 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) 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.
This is massive-scale 3-D 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.
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 Jerusalem to keep the angry, mindless critters out. Lest you think this is an anti-Semitic gag, note the twist: The wall was built only to keep zombies out; healthy humans are welcome to enter.
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. 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.
An actor who's always worth watching, he's a deeply comforting presence, the dad who promises to take care of everything and actually manages to do so. When Gerry decides to go out virus-hunting, 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: "OK, tall, beautiful, tiny adult." Zombies are no match for a man who knows just what to say to a little girl.