Bringing a Machete to a Gun Fight
Danny Boyles thriller 28 Days Later has a great End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It vibe, a lovely reductio ad absurdum of the honest nihilism that Boyle wrestled with in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. The absurdist struggle to hold onto values that are often also liabilities holds together long enough to make for a satisfying nightmare until the epilogue, which (by exposing a logical plot hole) defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Our protagonist is Jim, who wakes up in a hospital from a coma 28 days after a man-made plague escapes a British laboratory and brings about the End of Civilization. For a few hours (15 minutes of film time), Jim wanders a near-deserted London, puzzling at the creepy signs of the collapse (the audience has a fair idea of preceding events, having been treated to a prologue in which animal rights activists liberate a group of plague-ridden chimpanzees, only to become the plagues first victims and carriers). While Jim is grappling with this mystery, we indulge our imaginations in filling in four weeks of spreading carnage and horror.
Inevitably, Jim encounters plague carriers (called the "Infected"), but is quickly rescued by a pair of non-Infected survivors, Mark and Selena, who bring Jim (and us) up to speed on how Infection works and how it disintegrated society. A single drop of Infected blood in any orifice (mouth, nose, eye, ear, open wound) is sufficient to transmit the disease. In less than thirty seconds after transmission, an Infected person enters into a permanent mindless rage, clawing, biting, and vomiting blood on everyone they see (it is never explained why Infected dont seem to attack each other). The speed of the spread of Infection apparently took everyone by surprise, and one survivor tells a harrowing tale of being caught in a crowd trying to flee the city and watching as Infection spread among the swarming mass (insert your own soccer-spectator-trampling joke here). Before the power grid failed and radio broadcasts ceased, there were reports of Infection in Paris and New York.
Understandably resisting the survivors tale, Jim insists on visiting his parents house, only to find them dead of a sleeping pill overdose and clutching a suicide note addressed to their comatose son ("Dont wake up."). Jims lack of survival skills soon results in Selena having to kill the newly-Infected Mark, and Selena warns Jim his life isnt any less cheap, thus setting up the primary conflict of the story: Jims plangent humanism vs. Selenas pragmatic survivalism.
Jim and Selena proceed to encounter a father-daughter pair, Frank and Hannah, and Major West, leader of possibly the last remnant of civilization. The dialogue is smart and retains the dark humor for which Boyle is renowned (somehow, the prospect of the entire city of Manchester burning to the ground escapes approving comment), and the horror-movie-people-acting-like-idiots incidents are kept to a minimum (of course, the survivors are ill-served by Britains strong gun-control policies).
Boyles film (from a script by Alex Garland) dutifully provides the alternating exhilaration and depression that traditionally accompany the End of the World. We have the Gleeful Looting Scene and the Theres-No-Point-To-It-All Monologue. I suppose theres a Old World/New World dichotomy in the portrayal of attempts to rebuild society as doomed, but I was too bemused by the thoughtfulness of Major Wests crew of apocalyptic paladins to notice it.
It was the least depraved of the latter, Sgt. Farrell, who pointed out something that I should have noticed had I not been too busy enjoying the vision of the population of England transformed into homicidal maniacs. Farrell is provoked by the arrival of the survivors (two of whom are the first females to find Wests redoubt) into slowly giving voice to his dissent from Wests interpretation of their mission in "the new situation." Farrell knows that Infection could not have spread beyond Britain, and that all they have to do is hole up until all the Infected starve to death. Unfortunately, West is too possessed by his role as The Last Man to keep his men from taking Lifeboat Ethics a bit too far.
The flaw in the plot of 28 Days Later is that Infection, while scary, doesnt spread like any other disease. Almost instantly after transmission, an Infected person becomes incapable of operating a vehicle, a telephone, or a can-opener. Infected people are instantly identifiable as such less than a minute after contracting the disease. The only advantages of Infection are speed and surprise, but unlike carriers of smallpox, tuberculosis, or bubonic plague, Infected people cannot transport themselves across water* and cannot convince others to help them do so. As the Infected are largely pedestrians, I have a hard time imagining Infection spreading much beyond London (perhaps a few Infected were able to board BritRail trains).
* What about the Chunnel? Boyles film is silent on many pertinent details, including whether any Infected were able to pass the Chunnel. My interpretation: after the Mad Cow scare, both the Brits and the Frogs wired the Chunnel with Semtex, which they promptly blew before you could say "Creutzfeldt-Jacob."
Infection would be much easier to spread if incubation took at least 12 hours. Not only would this allow people to unwittingly carry it to the far reaches of the globe, it would afford Boyle the opportunity to show scenes of loved ones forced to kill the recently Infected (or those they only suspect of being Infected) while they are not yet mindless. Alternately, people who believe themselves to be Infected (without any clinical test to be sure) would have to decide whether to kill themselves before they pose a risk to others. This is a familiar trope from vampire/werewolf movies, but it would have added some needed depth to the character conflicts in 28 Days Later.
Even if we grant that the entire island of Britain had been overrun by hordes of the Infected, the notion that there was no way to contact the unInfected world is simply ludicrous. Yet the dozen survivors that Boyle shows us have resigned themselves to precisely that. When Jim finally realizes that there is hope for rescue from the outside world, then the tragedy of global apocalypse is reduced to the farce of local barbarism. At that point, I was reminded of one charitable interpretation of Waterworld: instead of the entire world being submerged by the rising oceans, the only flood victims were narcissistic Californians who were too clueless to find the rest of humanity.
Despite this deflation of the basic premise ("Now that youre dead, what are you going to do with your life?"), I certainly enjoyed the first 75 minutes of the film. I even grooved a bit on the predictable irony of unInfected survivors in the films climax behaving just as mindlessly violently as the Infected hordes. In the end, I wound up imagining it as the closest well ever come to having a film adaptation of Frank Herberts The White Plague, which also takes place largely in the British Isles. The End of the World will always retain an element of adolescent fantasy, and 28 Days Later keeps its characters appropriately arrested. Jim clearly wants us to choose life, but no amount of growing up will entirely erase the indignity of what West (or is it David?) calls "giving into destructive competitive urges."
Copyright © 2003 by Eric Scharf. All rights reserved.