May 26, 2007

28 Weeks Later

28 Weeks Later is crafty enough at what it does. The problem is that what it does is not very much. Over its 99 minute running time — I left the theater shocked that was that long, so very little happened under such relentless pacing — we barely meet, much less understand any of the characters. Their journey is relatively brief, covering little geographic territory over a fair miniscule period of time.

The film begins around the time of the first film, in a house full of strangers totally boarded up against outside eyes. Owned by an elderly couple, the house has become a sanctuary for a handful of uninfected. We see things through the eyes of Don and Alice. We learn very little them — I had to look up their names afterward — except that they're married with children who are far away and safe from the outbreak. As the survivors sit down and prepare to eat, a young boy pounds on their door and is let in. His commotion alerts the infected to the presence of human life in the apparently abandoned country home, and Don is soon forced to choose between saving his wife and fleeing. He chooses the latter.

We jump forward a few months to 28 weeks after the initial outbreak. The infected, having exhausted their pool of victims, have long since died of starvation. American-led NATO troops have started cautiously repopulating London. Don's children are among the first British expatriates arriving for resettlement. Andy is precocious and shares his mother's mismatched Kate Bosworth-esque eyes. Tammy is an attractive, blond haired blue-eyed teenager, almost excessively British in speech and appearance. It should not spoil anyone's experience to know that the two children manage to circumvent the American military's carefully laid out restrictions, nor that an unforeseen element triggers a new outbreak of the virus.

We follow Andy and Tammy (their guilt-ridden father otherwise sidelined early on in the tale) with a group of survivors that is quickly whittled down to two AWOL members of the American military: Doyle, a sympathetic sniper that abandons his post after being ordered to target innocent civilians and Scarlet, a medical officer who believes the children might hold the key to developing a vaccine against the virus.

At no point on their journey do we learn much else about any of them; They are separated mainly by physical characteristics. Scarlet is a brunette so we can tell her apart from Tammy. Doyle is separated from Andy by his taller stature, shorter hair and ever prominent army fatigues.

Despite the lack of any satisfying narrative or character development, the film does have its strengths. The depiction of a perfectly preserved London more devastated than if it had been hit by an atomic bomb is more than a little unsettling. The film uses stillness and silence in a way that few horror movies have the time or patience for any more; very few of the scares rely on pounding bass or a sudden prelude of shrill strings. One scene in particular, in which infected and uninfected alike pour out of a breached containment zone as overwhelmed snipers try to pick off the former from within a fast-moving and panic-stricken crowd of the latter, captures a particularly gripping horror. I could not help but imagine what it'd be like on the ground as seemingly random bodies were torn to shreds by gunfire all around me.

Even with horrors like that, though, the scenario faced by our protagonists would still seem much better than the circumstances of the original outbreak. Instead of the millions of infected presumably roaming around during the original outbreak, these characters should only have to deal with the mere hundreds that had both returned to the country and survived the original slaughter. The film compensates for the lack of infected by making the American military the primary antagonist. Their all-out offensive to wipe out every molecule of the virus pins the survivors into tight corners where, with the exception of one scene brightly lit and out in the open, the infected attack in ones and twos.

The portrayal of the military is a convenient parallel to current world opinion. At the same time, the two soldiers guiding Andy and Tammy to safety are "be all you can be" personified: noble, selfless, and unerringly competent.

The lack of plot doesn't prove to be a big problem. Even the lack of anything engrossing or enlightening about these strangers' lives proves to be neither surprising nor fatal to the movie's objective. But it is disappointing that by the end, after hundreds have been infected and/or killed and a large section of London has been obliterated, so little within our microcosm has changed. The blonde daughter is still pretty to look at and the boy with the mismatched eyes is still creepily precocious. Not much changes from when they start running to when they stop, on either a micro nor macro level. The set pieces can be counted on one hand, and the creepy deathly perfectly preserved stillness has been replaced by a burned out, smoked out, bombed out wasteland. And finally, when all is said and done the film cheats us out of a proper third act with gimmicky horror movie ending that feels perfunctory rather than shocking. (**½)

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