World War Z doesn’t really fit in with Brad Pitt’s filmography. He might be one of the most famous and instantly recognizable human beings in the history of eyesight, but Pitt has mostly avoided the summer-blockbuster game. The last time he headlined big-budget PG-13 action films was 2004’s Troy and 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith — and even in those films, Pitt’s characters weren’t exactly typical heroes. (Achilles was a prideful douche rocket; Mr. Smith was a cheerful sociopath hunting down his own wife.)

It would be easy to assume that World War Z was a mercenary effort for Pitt: A big action movie intended to garnish his movie star credibility, in between decidedly less commercial ventures like Killing Them Softly or 12 Years a Slave. But Pitt was extremely active behind the scenes on Z. His production company, Plan B, secured the rights to Max Brooks’ novel in 2007, and spent years/millions developing the movie with a parade of screenwriters. Pitt himself told EW’s Geoff Boucher that he initially imagined World War Z as a thinky political blockbuster. Those elements mostly disappeared in rewrites and reshoots — along with pretty much every trace of the original novel — and the end result is an extremely bizarre (albeit entertaining) mishmashterpiece, a road movie that turns into a globetrotting thriller that becomes a digital-effects bonanza before suddenly taking a left turn into flat-out horror.

The movie just doesn’t really make sense: The lead characters are constantly getting on planes to fly places, mostly because this is the kind of movie where people fly places. However, if you read between the lines, the plot of World War Z is actually very clear-cut. It is the story of Brad Pitt, famous celebrity and family man.

Consider. The film begins with Brad Pitt trying to live the life of a normal family man with his wife and children. But they are immediately besieged by a horde of terrifying drooling creatures who thirst for their blood. (In this metaphor, consider zombies as a stand-in for the paparazzi — or, more likely, a stand-in for anyone who clicks on a link just because the name “Brad Pitt” is in the headline.) It’s clear that Pitt and his family cannot return to their normal home; they need to live in a safe place, removed from the rest of the world. So they go to a safe place — in the movie, it’s the UN’s command center onboard a ship. (Along the way, they adopt a war orphan.)

Problem: Pitt needs to sing for his supper. In order to keep his family safe, he will need to go back to work. And what, exactly, is his job? The movie is hilariously unclear about the specific nature of Pitt’s employment: He is a “UN Investigator,” which means he has basic weapons training and a history of going into cool places and doing cool things . This is, coincidentally, the exact job description of the typical Hollywood action star. And much like a Hollywood star, Pitt travels around the world flanked by an entourage of security personnel whose entire job appears to be keeping the huddled masses of zombies/autograph seekers away from their boss. (Spoilers from here.)

I’m joking, but not really. Pitt flies to Korea with a scientist who is explicitly said to be the only hope for mankind. In a typical movie, the bulk of the plot would be about Pitt keeping the scientist out of trouble; in this movie, the scientist accidentally shoots himself almost immediately. From there, the movie essentially becomes a portrait of Brad Pitt Flying Places And Talking To People. And every time Pitt lands somewhere, bad things happen. In Korea, several soldiers die getting him off and on a plane. In Jerusalem, everything appears to be going just fine…but the second Pitt walks up to the giant Zombie Wall, a flood of zombies build a giant zombie anthill in order to get in. This is, more or less, exactly what you imagine Brad Pitt’s life is like: The second he gets off the plane anywhere, the airport needs to double their security and people begin climbing electric fences. (Pitt spends the movie looking like an Us Weekly paparazzi photo spread: Perfect mussed hair, five-day scruff, cargo pants.)

I worry that I sound like I’m criticizing the guy, but I’m not; part of what makes World War Z so interesting is that the hero is so resolutely passive. Gerry Lane — even his name sounds made-up, like a pseudonym a famous person leaves at the front desk of a hotel — is tasked with “saving the world,” but all he really does is go places and watch things happen. The whole big twist of the movie — indeed, the movie’s sole actual plot point — is predicated on Gerry being the only person on earth who pays attention to things. Somehow, despite the fact that he’s not scientifically trained — or indeed, trained in anything besides the kind of survival skills you pick up when the studio hires an ex-soldier to show you how to hold a gun correctly — he realizes that zombies aren’t attacking anyone with a terminal illness. You could argue that this makes Gerry a kind of metaphorical filmmaker; you could also argue that Gerry is the Action Movie Protagonist reduced to near-abstraction, a guy who stars in a movie because a movie needs a guy to star in it.

(Meanwhile, when it appears that Pitt is dead, his family is forced to leave the safety zone of the ship and is sent packing to Nova Scotia. This is treated like a terrible tragedy, largely because it appears that they have been downgraded from “Luxury Safe Zone” to “Middle-Class Safe Zone.”)

By this point in the movie, Pitt has once again swapped entourages: He brings an Israeli soldier along with him on the plane, who then becomes his bodyguard mostly because she doesn’t seem to have anything else to do. Indeed, besides Pitt, nobody in World War Z seems to have a family. But the film is the opposite of egotistical; all Pitt/Gerry wants to do is go back to his family, but the entire world keeps on insisting that he do his job. Thus the final act of World War Z, when Pitt leads his final entourage through a horde of zombies in order to Solve The Thing, whatever it is. The ultimate climax of the movie sees Pitt injecting himself with a terrible disease; importantly, he does this on camera, performing for the entourage who wait patiently for him in the control room.

And, in a summer filled with blockbusters where the climax involves collapsing skyscrapers, the ultimate success moment in World War Z is quite the opposite. Brad Pitt walks down a hallway crowded with drooling brain-dead creatures. The creatures turn, run towards him — and run right by him. It’s the ultimate dream of the besieged Hollywood star — the ability to walk around freely, without fear that a crazy person will bother your children or try to snag a piece of your wife’s clothing. Or to quote Greta Garbo: “I want to be left alone.”

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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World War Z
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes