Scenes from the Global War on Whatever
And so as the world seemingly renews its dedication to taking itself straight to hell, even our horror movies suddenly seem less like mere entertainments and more like real-life fever dreams, reflecting back to us our own ugliness, our own shock at how everything has reeled out of control, our own arrogance in thinking that we can control the deep complexity of everyday chaos.
Call it 28 Weeks Later, but it’s the five years on from the horrifying 28 Days Later that have made all the difference: we are all immeasurably more anxious and on edge post-Katrina, mired in Iraq, nervous about tainted spinach and poisoned pet food and dying honeybees and April heat waves (as our friends in Europe just endured). And all that gnawing fear and nervous unease is roiling through this chillingly matter-of-fact nightmare of a movie, like a CNN breaking-news report that just hasn’t broken yet.
It’s six months after the Rage virus has been eradicated in England, or so humanity’s overblown sense of superiority over sneaky and capricious Nature is quick to believe: as if something so inherently, depressingly human as anger-gone-viral could ever be destroyed. The last of the ferocious, mindless Rage zombies has long since died of starvation in the quarantined U.K., and now a NATO force has moved in to start the massive cleanup — burning millions of bodies, for starters — and prepare the way for British refugees to start returning home.
There’s no messing around in the snappish, clipped pace director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo takes up, taking over from 28 Days Later’s Danny Boyle (though Boyle remains onboard as a producer). Folks start arriving home in “District One,” a safe zone established on the Isle of Dogs in London. Engineer Don (Robert Carlyle: Eragon, The Beach), who survived the Rage plague in ways that haunt his sleep, meets his kids (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) as they return from Spain, where they’d been fortunate enough to be vacationing when infection broke out; the family reunion is uneasy. Army doctor Scarlet (Rose Byrne: The Dead Girl, Marie Antoinette) is deeply troubled about what she’s seeing in the blood samples in her microscope. American soldier Doyle (Jeremy Renner: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, S.W.A.T.) is uncomfortable with this strange duty babysitting returnees in this desolate city.
Oh, didn’t I mention? That NATO force is headed up by the American military, and Fresnadillo (who also cowrote the script with a handful of other writers) doesn’t beat around the bush — or around the Bush — with his potent imagery of American uniforms swaggering through a foreign city, and later — as everything starts going to hell, the Rage virus springs up again, and containment measures must be taken — shooting wildly and randomly into crowds of civilians. Now, this is not an anti-American thing but a cold, bald recognition of the terrible fact that distinguishing between friendlies and enemies is not so easy as perhaps it used to be (especially when the battleground is one of our own engineering), whether in a Rage-plagued London where running people may be either escaping mad zombies or mad zombies themselves, or in an England in which the young men who turn bus-and-subway-bomber are the young men who live next door, or, you know, elsewhere. The desperate unknowableness of whom to trust, and the sad authenticity of how fragile trust is to begin with, and how we so typically are the cause of its loss: this takes even more devious twists here, 28 Weeks Later, than it did in the first film. Five years later, this is a bleak cinematic likeness of what is, I suspect, our most potent of contemporary suspicions: that to give in to compassion, to humanity, to love is a death sentence.
For among Fresnadillo’s startling, all-too-familiar imagery — soldiers with gun in airports; the utter eeriness of major city deserted and garbage-strewn — is what may be the most unsettling moment of the film. It’s a kiss, a simple kiss, one of the most ironically compelling screen kisses ever: in this world of blood-and-saliva-borne infection, it becomes a thing of horror, taking away the most simple, most necessary comfort we can take when the world goes to hell. It’s the most dreadful, most unforgettable moment in a dread-inspiring, haunting film.