Tuesday, May 15, 2007
28 Weeks Later is the most pleasant surprise so far this year. What could have easily been a cheap rush job with a vague resemblance to its predecessor is instead a zombie (movie that both honors and expands upon the first film. It's the rare horror sequel that can stand on its own, returning to the undead-ravaged London of 28 Days Later to tell a story that, while not flawless, is remarkably ambitious and literate. It's also incredibly dark, particularly for a studio sequel - while the first film ends on an optimistic note, 28 Weeks Later is concerned with the collapse of civilization on a microcosmic level (the breakdown of the family), and from its stunning opening sequence through the last shot, it's as uncompromisingly cynical as George A. Romero's landmark Dead movies.
The film opens on a seemingly familiar note, with married couple Alice (Catherine McCormack) and Don (Robert Carlyle) hiding out in the English countryside with a group of fellow survivors. But as soon as we start to settle into the story, it takes a violent left turn. The screenplay (co-written by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) is remarkable for the surprises it contains; the twists in 28 Weeks Later are character-driven, as the protagonists are capable of fear, weakness and deception while still invoking our sympathies. The tension in the film comes not just from the threat of the rage-infected masses, but from our shifting loyalties with the characters. After a series of title cards covering the passage of time, the film cuts ahead - well, you know - as an England occupied by the US Army begins the process of rebuilding and refugees, including Don and Alice's kids, Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (the awesomely-named Mackintosh Muggleton). As things inevitably turn to shit, the film becomes a disturbingly effective argument against occupation as a means of fighting terrorism because, moral and political considerations aside, it just doesn't work. A Film Freak Central reader asked critic Walter Chaw if everything has to be about Iraq; the answer is no, but nearly everything is. And 28 Weeks Later is a condemnation of America's post-9/11 hysterical idiocy that is as sharp and potent as only a genre film can be.
The film admittedly loses a bit of steam when its focus shifts to two Americans, a sniper named Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and Major Scarlet (Rose Byrne), a medical officer determined to get the kids to safety for reasons that echo Children of Men. Both actors are fine, but their characters are vehicles of the plot and lack the same depth that the other characters share (Aliens, which this film has been frequently compared to, is superior because it creates real relationships between its Marines that amplify our emotional investment). That said, the second half of 28 Weeks Later is as tense and unrelenting as any film in recent memory. While the first film was shot digitally, Fresnadillo chooses to shift ably between 35mm, super 16 and DV - even the very texture of the film is unreliable. He also proves to be one of the handful of filmmakers who knows how to employ rapid cuts and shaky, fragmented images in order to evoke a sense of disorientation rather than simply being disorienting. The empty streets of London, which are briefly employed for their adventurous quality early on, become dark and oppressive, culminating in an underground sequence that is as effectively claustrophobic as the scene in The Silence of the Lambs that it references. There's a recurring image in the film of a rifle's telescope serving as a means of voyeurism; the same unstable relationship between seeing and destroying motivates the film's scares.
A friend from work complained that the film's near-nihilism is a betrayal of 28 Days Later's final note of hope. Usually, I'd be inclined to agree - Children of Men, for instance, wouldn't be nearly as powerful without its final images. But horror movies are another story; the best horror filmmakers are the ones who are willing to unflinchingly follow through with an enactment of our worst fears, and Fresnadillo puts himself near the head of the class on that count. There are problems with 28 Weeks Later - a line about the virus not crossing species blithely overlooks the start of the first film, and there's a recurring role for a rage-infected character that makes as little sense as the shark's trip to the Bahamas in Jaws: The Revenge. But as a longtime horror fan who has to wade through so much disposable, middle-of-the-road fodder destined to collect dust on Blockbuster shelves, it's a delight to see the makers of 28 Weeks Later try to actually say something with their zombie sequel. And it's good to have a reminder that there are filmmakers with genuine vision, even in the places one least expects to find them.