21 June 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: Here There be Monsters

The dawn of another Summer Friday emerges from the horizon, which means it's time again for our Road to a Blockbuster - our weekly look at the commercial, critical, and cultural potential for each big tentpole film that's jostling to become the next big thing. What are the really important films out there - the ones that will reverberate in our culture ten or twenty years down the line? What will we actually still care about and look back on fondly? We're here to assess that "ironic T-Shirt" potential of the big flicks.

This week we see the release of two monster mash movies of very different tones and genres. The first is Pixar's Monster University (2013), an animated prequel to their 2001 feature, Monsters, Inc. The second ghoully flick this weekend is World War Z (2013), the painfully adapted film from the Max Brooks novel of the same name. One features cuddly animated monsters directed towards children, the other features scary fast zombies rolling over each other and hating helicopters - both monsters of a very different ilk. Let's start our analysis with Pixar.

There tend to be a few different levels of Pixar films. At the top are the universally adored flicks like Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Wall-E (2008). Near the bottom is trite garbage like Cars (2006) and...Cars 2 (2011). In this middle are all these pretty good but not necessarily culturally resonant flicks like A Bug's Life (1998), Ratatouille (2007), and UP (2009). I also believe Brave (2012) will one day find its slot here, too. Some arguments could also be made for UP, especially its opening scene, but while that film is insanely good, it didn't really hit a stride with as wide of a population as the four films at the Top did.
Will there be Monster Flip Cup?

Smack in the middle of all this is a sort of forgotten Pixar film called Monsters, Inc. To be honest, I don't think anyone gives a shit about Monsters, Inc. It's a fine film that kind of fleshes out this hidden world of Monsters, almost like what Toy Story does with Toys (although I'm still not clear on all the rules there). A prequel to this film seemed more like a Cars 2 cash grab move than a Toy Story 3 (2010) natural progression and need for finality. Does anyone care how Furry Sulley and Jewish Mike ended up together? I'm not sure this is a story that needed to be told.

Monsters University is getting some OK reviews so far, and I'm sure it's a competently made film, although an 81% Rotten Tomatoes shouldn't really cut it for a studio that was once had one of the more ridiculous streaks of not only good films, but incredible films that were loved by critics, audiences, and wallets. When a 96% rating and $250 million is your average (on mostly original films), you've got to shoot pretty high. My guess is in the entire Pixar schema this ends up as another middle of the pack film that no one really cares about. Maybe Toy Story 2-ish (1999). Can Pixar bounce back with The Good Dinosaur (2014) next year? As long as it becomes an adaptation of Dinosaurs Attack!

That really leads us properly into the next big movie this weekend, World War Z. It's fairly incredible that the Zombie genre keeps finding new ways to spin and mutate itself. In the past decade they've gone from the speedy buggers in 28 Days Later (2003) and Zach Synder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) to the Zombie Comedy-Horror of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), to seemingly every possible riff, from a slowburning television drama (Walking Dead) to the romantic comedy (Warm Bodies [2013]). I've gone into this before, from recounting the past fifty years of history to the trends of the past decade. Those posts were admittedly four years ago, and the genre is still going strong somehow. What more can we pull out of these shuffling dudes?

World War Z seems to finally be zombies hitting the mainstream. There's never really been a big Summer Tentpole Zombie flick starring an A-List Actor (aside from Bill Murray of course...does that count?). It's what happens when a studio throws hundreds of millions of dollars at the genre. Zombie films by their nature are more typically built on cheesy effects and small settings. Just ask George Romero. They tend to be small, isolated horror pics. World War Z is escalating this to a global scale - which has never really been done before. It's more of an action movie than a horror movie - and if its PG-13 rating is any indication, that's exactly what it will be. We're witness to the Zombie Blockbuster.
Monster pile!

So, how will that fare? This may be the biggest movie that Brad Pitt has ever done. Even though he's been central to the marketing, it's not really a typical Brad movie, and his fans may not come out. Then again, everybody loves Brad Pitt, so his fans are actually everywhere. I'm wondering if the mainstream action nature of this thing actually alienates more hardcore zombie fans. After a steady dose of the plodding, hyper-violent, deeply character-driven Walking Dead, I'm not sure that people are actually chomping to get this version of the Apocalypse up on the screen. Yes, both films include zombies, but Walking Dead and World War Z couldn't be more different.

I think this will flop. It certainly won't be a Battleship (2012) kind of flop, but probably more like a Superman Returns (2006) kind of flop, where it actually isn't a flop. As for its cultural success, the book has already made a lot of waves, which makes it difficult for the film to stand out as well, although they are supposedly (and necessarily) very different. What can this movie for the genre that the book hasn't already?

World War Z the novel stood out because of its realistic depiction of the breakdown of society on a global scale that highlighted interconnected events around the world. It's also notable in the genre by the fact that the world actually does bounce back, even if the majority of the population was killed. The World War Z film stands to something similar in showing a more procedural zombie film. A shorthand to describe the film, Zombie Dark Thirty already seems to be popular. It's an interesting proposition that may pay off, especially when so many other Zombie films come and go. Its scale should actually help it because it will be difficult to mimic. To recall an earlier point, though, when this becomes less of a by-the-ropes hide and survive Zombie film and more like a globally-minded procedural will it recall more of a political thriller than an undead gorefest? Or will it survive in its own niche?

All I want is the Battle of Yonkers.

There you have it - two wildly different monster mash flicks for your enjoyment this weekend. Which one will you be seeing?

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