Sunday, July 1, 2007

28 Weeks Later / ***1/2 (2007)

The zombie movie is a silly but stimulating beast, a popular sub-genre in horror that has survived, evolved and outlasted many of its counterparts for as long as movies of this nature have been popular on the big screen. Those who acknowledge it as such would also be more than happy to stress the fact that the cinematic undead developed a lot more potential after they were discovered by George A. Romero, the director who, in 1968, took a nearly childish premise and used it as a platform for things no one would have ever expected of the material: that is, thought-provoking (and relevant) social and political commentary. Many an avid filmmaker have made great efforts, have sought various avenues, in their attempts to capture the success – or better still, the resonance – or the director’s notorious and on-going series of “Dead” films, but almost none have ever quite tapped into the safely-guarded chutzpah that continues to tower over all his would-be successors. Many still fail to realize that the key rests not in zombies themselves, but rather in the well-executed atmospheres that envelop them. Isolated, the flesh-eating undead make notoriously uninteresting characters; but surround them in a premise and narrative that tap into human feeling and psychological unrest, and an audience will have no problem projecting genuine fears onto them. Before Romero, stories about the undead were the stuff of B-movies, and zombies were just their visual distractions.

One would have to assume this exactly the attitude that director Danny Boyle employed when he set out to make “28 Days Later,” arguably the best film to be born from the idea of bloodthirsty human villains in a while. Calculated and powerful in the way it makes statements about the nature of humanity in the face of tragedy, it was one of those elusive endeavors that completely snuck up on you without warning – the context of its ideas revitalized the perception of Romero imitators, and it blurred the lines separating the flashy and fun from the realistic and raw. It is an utterly captivating experience of a movie, brave and unashamed in the way it pulls its antagonists into our reality and erases virtually every cliché that comes with them in the process. Boyle’s zombies were not zombies at all; they were people, still alive and still breathing, infected by a pathogen in the blood that robbed them of their reasoning and made them rabid in both appearance and behavior. The mere sight of them sends a chill to the spine, their way of chasing and hunting utterly horrific. To imagine being the prey in this situation is an agonizing feat, as watching the uninfected struggle to survive is difficult in itself; they sneak, run and do their best to put barriers between themselves and their fallen counterparts, but in the back of their minds we know they are wondering if it is even worth it to maintain themselves in a world that has already seemingly succumbed to an irreversible outbreak.

To hear “28 Weeks Later” tell it, the initial outbreak that occurs on the British mainland in Boyle’s now-classic horror film was perhaps not nearly as widespread as originally suggested, otherwise the characters in the follow-up would be far from thinking that it’s time to repopulate the territory. But there they are, investigating every nook and cranny of the British Isles 28 weeks after the infection, confident that the victims of the Rage virus have perished from starvation. The deepest corners are inspected, cleansed of all traces of atrocity. Parameters around a specific section of London are erected, and uninfected people from areas across the globe set up residence in an isolated space of the city to help jumpstart the recovery process. The idea foreshadows great peril and disaster for those in a horror movie, but the intrigue of this franchise is that it doesn’t look at itself as horror and the characters don’t consider themselves anything more than human – and it is, after all, part of human instinct to simply rebuild from the rubble of prior catastrophe.

The movie is a catalyst to revisiting the same things that terrified us about Boyle’s endeavor. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo does not go the expected Hollywood route with a follow-up to a rather small British flick here; he ignores the opportunity to gloss the concept and keeps the laws of this ill-fated universe within the same constraints as before, allowing little room for there to be any kind of miscalculation in the way the story deserves to develop. Just as one has to have the right attitude about a zombie movie, so must he or she also have the same attitude about sequels –in order to satisfy the expectation, you do not erase history or even attempt to rewrite it when there is room for further study. Fresnadillo acknowledges those sentiments and has created a picture here that is not unlike James Cameron’s “Aliens” in the way that it expands on a universe without detracting from the past; the movie is bleak to the core, cold and merciless in the way it delivers the material, and completely unafraid to challenge the concept to even further possibilities than before. But the most distinguishing difference between it and the first lies in the attitude – whereas “Days” saw some slight optimism for humanity through all the chaos, “Weeks” abandons any trace of hope it has in characters prevailing for the better. It is cynical, nihilistic and unflinching as a result, and by the end we are left with a feeling that is the direct equivalent of being kicked in the gut by a weightlifter on steroids. Does that make it better than its predecessor? Not quite, but it is just as lasting.

The opening sequence arguable goes down as one of the most unnerving solitary moments I have seen on celluloid. Somewhere in the English countryside, around the same time the first movie ends, a group of survivors from the devastating effects of the Rage virus have confined themselves in an old farmhouse. They talk in whispers, live by candlelight, creak cautiously by windows boarded up to block outside view, and wait patiently for help to eventually come along. Adding to the unsettling quiet of their predicament, a moment comes when a child’s pleas for help reach their doorstep, and the group of individuals is forced to, for a split second, undermine their own safety in this self-made prison to save the life of an innocent boy running from those who mean to harm him. Was it a wise decision? In that moment, yes; but hindsight often has a way of proving us otherwise, and before they know it, these few lasting survivors come face-to-face with the very enemy that they have attempted to shield themselves from over the past several weeks. All of this plays out in a scene of swift but graphic complexity, in which a heart-pounding chase ensues and the victims have less than split seconds to react in their ongoing attempts to somehow avoid this imminent disaster that surrounds them. It is such a blatant and unflinching assault on our senses that the sensation of dread lasts long into the material that follows.

28 weeks following initial outbreak, the movie tells us, military forces have given the green light for government to begin repopulating “safe zones” in London. Specifically, their first outing under this plan consists of a small space of the city restructured for safe but guarded living; dubbed “District One,” it represents a London of new, the first part of a complete overhaul of the city which will depend on air-tight security, balanced and competent authority, high-tech observation and residents who obey rules no matter how strict they may seem. Such regulations exist not for the sake of seeming fascist or totalitarian, but more for the sake of maintaining safe living in an area still filled with uncertainty. The warnings, however, do tend to fall on deaf ears, and when two teens wander away from the safety of their new home and into old London in order to retrieve belongings from their original place of residence, they plant the seeds of a scenario that, in the case of a horror film, can only lead to more tragedy, more bloodshed, and more mayhem. But the characters in the first movie at least had somewhere to run; if you unleash the same virus in a space where there is nowhere to run because of a physical parameter lock-down, how in the world do you save yourself?

The central conflict involves a family of four: Don (Robert Carlyle), Alice (Catherine McCormack) and their two children Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton). Part of the repopulation of London, Don recalls to his two children the now-familiar tale of how he and his wife, who is presumed dead, both hid themselves in the countryside to avoid infection, but were eventually forced to flee when their farmhouse was overrun by victims of the virus. The children, naturally, sneak outside the borders of District One because, well, they want to retrieve valued possessions before the old areas of London are demolished by the military. But what do they find there in addition to priceless trinkets and memories? Their own mother, still alive and disoriented, barricaded in the attic. Her survival greatly baffles the scientists and military officials of District One who take her into their custody, but their bewilderment is eventually muted by an even grizzlier discovery: Alice is, in fact, a carrier of the Rage virus. Even more surprisingly, its effects have not taken control of her body; rather, they have been delayed, or stalled, by a rare genetic mutation that, from the perspective of an inquisitive doctor (Rose Byrne), may be a key into developing some kind of antidote to the pathogen should it ever come back into contact with humankind… which, of course, is only a matter of time.

The script, penned by four writers, does an astounding job of overlaying slow but calculated narrative build-up with convincing character motivations; never for a split second do we believe that people are behaving unnaturally to situations or that something is being executed in a manner that only benefits an audience’s anticipation. Just as convincing are the performances by many of the lead stars, notably Poots and Muggleton, as children who have been wrought into an inescapable catastrophe that may or may not have everything to do with their own parents. Above all else, the message that “28 Weeks Later” conveys is the one that helped elevate its predecessor to a certain unique and unmatched status, which is that humanity often regresses in the face of complete and utter devastation on the part of their very own. Boyle allowed the theory to absolve itself of unfinished business by the end of “28 Days Later,” but Fresnadillo has relit the torch in a way that is not only upsetting, but rather brilliant and unique in the way it realizes just how much of this premise remains unmapped. This Rage virus is a beast of ungodly proportions, horrifying and unsettling in every imaginable way, but it is a profound tool in the attempt to understand the behaviors and actions that make us who we are. Walking away from this endeavor leaves us worn out mentally and physically, somewhat depressed and very much disturbed, but at the same time we discover more about ourselves as individuals, about us as a society, and about the nature of humanity in its ability to either repeat history or learn from it. Like its predecessor, “28 Weeks Later” is a triumph on both the visual and the psychological scale, and one that is not so easily forgotten afterwards.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2007; Rated R for strong violence and gore, language and some sexuality/nudity; Running Time: 99 Minutes

Catherine McCormack: Alice
Robert Carlyle: Don
Amanda Walker: Sally
Shahid Ahmed: Jacob
Garfield Morgan: Geoff
Emily Beecham: Karen

Produced by Bernard Bellew, Danny Boyle, Alex Garland, Enrique López Lavigne, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich; Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo; Written by Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Jesús Olmo and E.L. Lavigne

No comments: