World War Z Monsters University
(M) ★★★★✩ National release
✩✩ F the many threats to civilisation — aliens, planetary collisions, global warming, vampires, monsters, werewolves, dinosaurs — Hollywood’s present favourite is the zombie. Not long ago I reviewed Warm Bodies, Hollywood’s first zombie romcom, with Nicholas Hoult as the pallid heart-throb. Now comes World War Z, the ultimate zombie blockbuster, a dystopian thriller on the grandest scale with some of the scariest images to be seen in a studio crowdpleaser since Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The undead, it seems, are far from dead.
The director is Marc Forster, who gave us the excellent Monster’s Ball and one of the more sombre Bond movies, Quantum of Solace. But World War Z is really Brad Pitt’s film: he’s both co-producer and star, and by all accounts had a big hand in shaping Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay (from a novel by Max Brooks). As Gerry Lane, the guy who saves the world, he gives one of his best performances. The last time we saw him in heroic mould he was Achilles in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. In World War Z he’s a family man living in retirement in Philadelphia until summoned for an epic battle with zombie hordes across the globe.
My regular complaint about apocalyptic disaster movies is the filmmakers rarely allow time for a build-up of tension. Horror and mayhem are upon us from the start. But World War Z begins in agreeably low-key style. Gerry is awakened by his boisterous daughters leaping on to his bed; with his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos), he and his family settle down to breakfast while ominous reports of martial law are heard on the news. The younger daughter wants to know what martial law is and gets a joking reply. Life isn’t exactly normal this morning, but it’s following a familiar pattern. The gridlock in the streets of Philadelphia could be just another traffic jam — until cars start ramming other cars, sirens wail in the background and helicopters appear in the skies. Soon undead bodies are crashing through windscreens and the streets are full of carnage. The sense of dread, of some impending catastrophe, is expertly orchestrated.
It’s a while before anyone actually uses the Z-word. But a few sudden, brief close-ups of zombie faces — blank eyes, withered skin — allow us to draw our own conclusions. There’s early talk of an outbreak of rabies or another epidemic of Spanish flu, but true supernatural horror fans will know something much worse is afoot. Gerry turns out to be a former UN operative and is quickly commandeered by higher authority. In a breathtaking sequence, he’s pursued by ravenous ranks of the undead, whisked by helicopter from the roof of a city building and transported with his family to a US warship in the Atlantic, where the military is co-ordinating a response — any sort of response — to the global crisis.
It’s an ironic thought that Gerry’s experience as a UN agent should be considered a useful weapon in the struggle. The UN hasn’t shown itself to be effective in dealing with recent emergencies in the real world, but perhaps its name is meant to reassure us. And Gerry still has some useful UN contacts. A high Indian source advises him to check out Jerusalem, where the Israelis, apparently tipped off that a threat is on the way, have built a wall to keep out the zombie invaders. The scenes in Jerusalem are the most spectacular in the film. Digital imaging has never given us more horrendous scenes of chaos than it does here, with hordes of zombies attacking the city wall and clambering over piles of their own bodies to scale it. Fortunately they prove vulnerable to flamethrowers and, yes, to good old-fashioned gunfire. It used to be a convention in horror movies that bullets wouldn’t stop zombies, ghosts or vampires, but that rule must have gone by the board.
For most of the film, apart from those early glimpses of undead faces, we never see a zombie in close-up. Forster prefers aerial longshots of swarming crowds. And the effect is to make the zombie invaders appear like real people, rushing about in panic as humans would do in their terror and confusion. Is there a subliminal message here, I wonder? When zombie hordes are being slaughtered, is it possible to see the victims as human, or even (dark thought) to wish they were? Is the film appealing to homicidal lusts and fears?
But I shouldn’t press such thoughts too far. This is Hollywood entertainment after all, and if global disaster movies serve a useful purpose it is to remind us that we share a common humanity, that one day we may be forced to unite against a global threat, whatever form that threat might take.
Anyway, the trail leads to a World Health Organisation biological research facility near Cardiff, of all places, which I took at first to be a cruel reflection on the Welsh. Are the Welsh to blame for the imminent extermination of humanity? Surely not.
But it is from here, it seems, that the deadly virus escaped, and it is here that the only known antidotes are stored under high security — the only trouble being the place is now staffed and guarded by zombies.
The climactic scenes are superbly frightening — so effective that we are ready to overlook the rather glib and improbable nature of the film’s resolution. But Pitt anchors everything with a performance of understated calm and quiet authority. He gets strong support from Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli commando handy with firearms. The world couldn’t be saved by a nicer couple. World War Z may be the best doomsday thriller Hollywood has given us. IF you prefer your monsters cute, cuddly and brightly coloured, the Pixar-Disney studios have come up with their new kids’ animation film, Monsters University, a follow-up to Pixar’s 2001 hit Monsters Inc. That we have waited 12 years for the new film makes for a rather more interesting story than that offered by the screenwriters.
It seems a sequel was in contemplation as long ago as 2005, when Steve Jobs was Pixar’s chief executive, but a management shake-up at Disney after its takeover of Pixar in 2006 led to a change of plan. The screenplay for the original sequel was scrapped, a fresh team of writers was engaged, Don Scanlon was hired to direct, and the sequel became a prequel.
But the characters, though meant to look younger, are still much the same. John Goodman and Billy Crystal again provide the voices for our two monster buddies, ‘‘ Sulley’’ Sullivan and his one-eyed pal Mike Wazowski, who are learning their monster skills at a campus presided over by the formidable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).
The university is a send-up of every posh American institute of higher learning, with some playful digs at notions of academic snobbery and Ivy League social pretension. This is the film’s main source of fun. Sulley and Mike are majoring in scaring (what else?), and it’s no soft option. MU has a motto: ‘‘ We Scare Because We Care’’.
Portraits of distinguished alumni hang in a hall of champions, and pity any student who accidentally disturbs the peace in the reading room, a book-lined mausoleum ruled by a giant octopus. Dean Hardscrabble and the librarian are far more scary than any of the monsters in their charge.
The challenge for the animators and designers has been to come up with a host of grotesquely deformed, subhuman creatures who won’t frighten the target pre-teen audience. The monsters are assembled from an interchangeable range of snouts, fangs, horns, hooves and gaping jaws, with the result that they look like nothing in particular.
Sulley’s toothy smile and fluffy blue-green fur immediately brand him the film’s leading cuddly character, with the one-eyed Mike a kind of wise-cracking fall guy. As a scaring instructor tells his students: ‘‘ I want to see more matted fur and yellow teeth.’’ And so, in a way, do we. The monsters would look more monstrous. In the old days of Disney, witches and ghouls looked like the real thing. Who could imagine The Wizard of Oz without the evil green visage of Margaret Hamilton? She scared kids witless, but we still loved the movie. A pity there was never a sequel.
Brad Pitt, Abigail Hargrove and Mireille Enos in