UN­DEAD DREAD

World War Z Mon­sters Univer­sity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

(M) ★★★★✩ National re­lease

National re­lease

O(G) ★★

✩✩ 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.

World War Z

Brad Pitt, Abi­gail Har­grove and Mireille Enos in

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