How Did You Know?
“Movement is life.” So proclaims Gerry (Brad Pitt), trying to convince a frightened father (Ernesto Cantu) to leave his Newark apartment rather than staying put, as authorities have instructed following a worldwide zombie outbreak. The father looks at Gerry, unbelieving, his wife (Vicky Araico) and young son Tomas (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido) watching the exchange in their tiny kitchen. Gerry tries again, urging, “You have a better chance if you come with us.”
That us is Gerry’s wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two young daughters, and for a minute, anyway, Gerry is traveling with them. That he’s soon enough alone—leaving the family in the hands of the government he knows better than to trust—sets up the structure of World War Z, namely, Gerry is simultaneously always moving and the film’s sole constant. As such, he’s the more-or-less solution to the problem posed by Max Brooks’ novel (which is styled as an oral history, without such a constant), as well as an implausible figure, low-key and soulful, vulnerable and repeatedly penetrable, but also unkillable. He sees what others don’t, he acts when he must, and he knows what the plot needs him to know.
Gerry vaguely explains his semi-super-heroism, saying he “used to work in a dangerous place”—a self-description the film fills out with allusions to his job with the UN, in situations ranging from the Liberian Civil War to the Second Chechen War—but the point is, he’s got experience firing all kinds of weapons and piloting planes, fighting hand to hand and speaking multiple languages. When he says move, even when the government says stay, you know he’s right.
This is surely helpful as he’s assigned to investigate the outbreak, to do the work of the CDC and WHO and whatever other institutions don’t quite put the pieces together fast enough, and he has help in this process, too. He communicates throughout the film with Thierry (Fana Mokoena), the UN’s Under-Secretary-General who pulls him back into service even though he’s quit this job to stay home with his girls, and he interviews a range of players with information they can’t know is crucial to the solution, pieces replayed in flashbacks so you can share in Gerry’s thinking and so, in his rightness.
Because you’re sharing, you know that when the father in Newark opts not to go with Gerry, it’s as bad a decision as it can be. It’s also a means to set up World War Z‘s essential pattern, sending Gerry ever forward and ever alone. Following a series of exceptionally harrowing mêlées, in the street in Philadelphia, in a supermarket and then an apartment building in Newark, Gerry does get his family to a safe-ish place, but once Thierry taps him as the human race’s best hope, a gruff US Navy commander (David Andrews) forces Gerry to leave the wife and kids behind with the very authorities he knows not to trust.
That distrust means Gerry spends precious little time consulting with the US military per se, though he does make use of its hardware and transports, making his way in remarkable time around the globe to check a series of potential sources as to the outbreak’s origin. In South Korea, he finds a squad of US soldiers who’ve already nicknamed the enemy (Zekes) as well as an ex-CIA operative (David Morse), locked up at the camp for selling weapons to the North, terminally ornery but still willing to give up another possible source, the Mossad agent Jurgen (Ludi Boeken).
Gerry’s visits to South Korea and Jerusalem, followed by a horrendous zombie-infested plane ride en route to a WHO lab in Cardiff, Wales, perpetuate the film’s structure, all occasions for ferocious, thrillingly choreographed zombie battles. But even as the film is comprised of these set pieces, their differences tell stories of their own, each building on the previous segment, at least as Gerry pieces together the beginning and potential end of the epidemic. This piecing together allows for allusions to generalized histories and ideological maps, including the CIA guy’s observation that the North Koreans ingeniously removed 23 million pairs of teeth in a day to stave off the plague and Jurgen’s note on the Israelis’ predilection for building walls.
That neither of these efforts stops the zombies is foregone, but still, they make clear the many ways that humans repeatedly and relentlessly organize their own defeats. When Gerry voices his surprise that the Israelis are letting people inside Jerusalem, Jurgen offers an impeccable logic, that “Every human being saved is one less zombie to fight.” Such logic remains elusive today, before the zombie apocalypse, of course, but the film’s articulation of it lines up World War Z with so many previous zombie plots, offering cultural and political commentary on, for instance, racism, class warfare, corporate greed, and national fictions.
Another sort of commentary is grounded in Gerry’s affiliation with a young Israeli soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz). Premised on mutual need and desperation, their relationship takes shape as their bodies break down and always, as they keep moving. Segen becomes your stand-in, wondering at Gerry’s rightness but accepting it too. When a zombie bites her arm and he chops it off, they spend half a moment looking at one another, both utterly horrified and untrusting.
She survives, they move on, and a few scenes later they share another brief exchange, when Segen, still not undead, asks, “How did you know?” Gerry has no answer, because, well, because he’s in a zombie movie and the rules always change. “I didn’t,” he confesses. But you did. No matter the narrative nonsense and the gargantuan action, the perpetual movement and the life and the death, World War Z structures what you know pretty much as you’d expect. But even as it’s built on conventions, it makes sure you know that, too.