It's modern-day Philadelphia, and we join an all-white, all-American, two-girls-and-a-teddy-bear family during their morning commute. Routine chatter turns to nervousness as traffic halts and several motorcycle cops zip past. Out of nowhere, a runaway truck plows through the adjacent lane of cars. Next, a flood of people stagger into the street, weaving through the scores of honking vehicles, running from…something, but what exactly? As the camera whisks from the panicked family to daddy's darting eyes to an enraged, zombified man slowly turning crazy, you'll get shivers of undead classics like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. By blending intimate family terror with city-wide mayhem almost impossibly well, director Marc Forster doesn't let you take your first breath until 30 minutes into the film.
Forster slows the pace as our heroes take refuge on a (top secret?) aircraft carrier 200 miles off the coast of New York. Here, we receive all the obligatory zombie movie tropes. A gray-haired military official tells us the global epidemic is "worse than we think." An Ivy-league-educated wonder boy steps forward, determined to solve the crisis. We get a scientific explanation for the pandemic, and it almost makes sense. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, dad, reluctant hero) refuses to leave his family, then agrees to leave his family. Granted, it's all fairly familiar stuff, but it's done so efficiently and skillfully you'll excuse Forster for his indulgences. Watching World War Z is like ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks after sampling a handful of local, poorly-run coffee houses. There may be nothing new, but damn if it isn't reliable.
The film commits two of its few missteps as Lane and his head of hair depart from Nondescript Crisis Aircraft Carrier 1. First, we lose almost all contact with Lane's family, his wife and daughters reduced to half a dozen snippets of anxious hugging and worried phone calls. Though you'll miss the two girls first (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove, as capable as they are cute), it's Lane's wife Karin (Mirielle Enos) whom you'll be pining for by the film's conclusion. Her tenacity—peppered with flickers of sheer dread—brings an emotional range to the movie largely missing from its latter half. By the film's final act, I would have bought a second ticket just to see Enos raid the aircraft carrier's cafeteria for a bowl of Frosted Flakes, let alone join Pitt in his zombie-slaughtering shenanigans.
Brad could have used a bit of help, too, as his hopscotch of an international journey commits World War Z's second crime. Like a classic Bond film, the movie yanks our hero from North Korea to Jerusalem to Wales, providing Brad a few stunning locales to match his gorgeous locks. Unlike Bond, however, Lane isn't chasing an international criminal or preventing a high-profile assassination; he's simply conducting face-to-face interviews with a few science majors. In World War Z, the US military can calculate the global death rate in seconds, yet appear incapable of logging into Skype.
Fortunately, you won't mind the silliness once Brad truly gets to be Brad. Though he plays a perfectly competent worried father, Pitt's star power shines brightest under pressure, as Lane's cool resolve anchors all the chaos around him. Happily, Forster knows when to play a strong hand, leveraging his leading man's screen-arresting gaze for the three or four most crucial narrative revelations. When the action slows (just a bit) and the camera spins toward Brad, his face fierce with concentration, World War Z ascends to popcorn blockbuster nirvana. Keep an eye out for a late moment involving Brad, a vending machine, and a bit of exaggerated camerawork. An instant summer classic.
World War Z ends with a faux-profound voiceover that's probably a little too serious for its own good. It's too bad, because Forster and Pitt achieve a near-perfect rhythm in the film's penultimate scene, mixing suspense, satisfying stakes, and even a touch of humor. Curmudgeons might wish the film were more transporting, more incisive in its social commentary, or at the very least, more serious in raising questions about the fate of the human race. But the movie's unexceptional final seconds are a reminder of what this truly is: a zombie movie starring Brad Pitt. That World War Z ascends to the heights it does, even if sporadically, is somewhat remarkable. That's something to celebrate.