Disasters bring out the best and the worst in people. You can step up to the moment and be a Hero, the guy who helps the crippled lady down the burning staircase. Or you can be the Villain, the guy who muscles women and children out of the lifeboat. In this decade we’ve been feeling a little closer to disaster than usual in this country, and I think we all wonder whether we’d be the Hero or the Villain when the time was upon us. In movies the lead is always the Hero, while the heel is always easy to call a mile away. 28 Weeks Later, the useless sequel to Danny Boyle’s minor-key wonder from four years ago, opens with a lead who quickly turns out to be the Villain, and it’s exhilarating.
The film opens during the events of the last movie, but removed from those characters; Robert Carlyle and his wife, played by former Mel Gibson love interest Catherine McCormack, are holed up in a country home with some other people, just trying to survive the rage plague that is wiping out England. Through some heavy handed exposition (during a dinner prep scene that is bizarrely scored with ominous, scary music – are we supposed to be concerned about potential ptomaine poisoning?) we learn that the couple have two children who were luckily out of country when the infection began. But the happy hideaway doesn’t last long – a lone young boy (running from the town of Sandford, by the way, a locale that gave the whole theater a chuckle) arrives looking for sanctuary, and the infected are hot on his heels. Chaos ensues and, when tested by the hand of fate, the once and future Begbie proves he’s useless in a jam, as he leaves his wife and the young boy behind to be noshed by the neighbors.
This is an intriguing premise, I naively thought. An apocalyptic horror movie about survivor guilt, a film that explores what it’s like to be a not-that-bad man who makes a weak decision at the ultimate moment in his life. We all want to be the Hero, but deep down we all fear we’re going to be just like Carlyle, leaving our loved ones behind for a remote chance at safety. In most movies these characters are weasels, despicable human trash, but 28 Weeks Later seems to be interested in exactly the sort of character who usually ends up as zombie fodder.
Do not be fooled. 28 Weeks Later starts strong, but it quickly disavows any potential it may have had as a dramatic piece and veers directly into inanity, eschewing character, tension or plot for a chase scene that lasts for maybe 45 minutes. After the prologue text tells us what happened next, how the infected starved to death after a few weeks, and about how NATO and US forces moved into England and began clearing out the millions of corpses. 28 weeks after the outbreak (or the end of the first movie, I’m not entirely clear, but it doesn’t really matter), Britons who escaped the plague or were overseas have begun to come home. Reconstruction is happening, and the returners are settled on the Isle of Dogs, in the middle of the Thames, a defensible position should the infection, which seems to have burned itself out, return.
The two kids introduced over dinner making have come home, and they are reunited with Daddy Begbie, who’s now a big muckety muck in the resettlement. There are military types everywhere, and the whole group lives under a laid back martial law. But happiness isn’t destined to last in a horror movie, and when the reunited kids sneak off the Isle of Dogs to revisit their old home they make a terrible discovery – their mother isn’t dead, but has been holed up alone and deranged in the attic. At this point 28 Weeks Later is like Carlyle at the beginning of the film, given the choice between a heroic course of action that would involve the flawed man dealing with his mistake and a cowardly course of action where the mother is actually a Typhoid Mary of rage, a carrier who shows no symptoms but who restarts the plague in the secure area. Guess which way they go.
The rest of the film is one crushing disappointment after another. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who made his name with the Spanish thriller Intacto, occasionally emerges from the muck of incoherent camerawork to showcase a sharp and exciting visual sense, but usually our eyes are left grasping for purchase in deep, deep close ups where the camera shakes with the subtlety of a massive temblor. His reliance on shaking the camera and quick cutting sinks what could have been an incredible set piece – survivors are herded into a containment zone (ie, locked in a garage – you would think the military had better back up plans than this) and an infected gets in (actually, it’s a specific infected – more on that later). Packed in the small space, most can’t get away as the rage virus, which turns victims into savage zombies in seconds, rushes through the crowd like a wildfire in a dry valley. This should have been intense and horrifying, but it’s instead confusing and irritating.
Other set pieces come one after another as the film briefly gets jiggy with meaning (the US army is ordered to exterminate everyone on the Isle of Dogs, even the non-infected. There’s some sort of statement about the military and foreign policy here, but the film is unwilling to work up a thesis of any sort. It’s bad to shoot civilians, I guess. Here’s a cookie, movie) and then abandons all thought for a series of chases and narrow escapes and cheap jump scare after cheap jump scare. Jeremy Renner finally escapes the Creepy Guy role he’s been stuck in since Dahmer to play a sniper who can’t bring himself to kill innocents, and so he tries to help a small band of survivors – including our plucky kids! – escape. Luckily his sniper training involves stuff like Outrunning a Fireball (the single most important action hero skill), since that’s the sort of obstacles our heroes run in to.
28 Days Later worked for me because it was about people. The film wasn’t about their intense, horrifying battle against rage-infected zombies but their intense battle to remain civilized in a world gone to hell. In that film survival wasn’t just making it through everything intact, it held a deeper meaning of retaining essential humanity. 28 Days Later had scares and excitement, but it also had a core. 28 Weeks Later rejects any core right up front and moves on to a series of hollow spectacles: the firebombing of the Isle of Dogs that makes the centerpiece of the advertisements and trailers, a horde of infected against helicopter blades in a scene that was done better in Grindhouse (a film where that sort of absurdity fit), various and numbing scenes of racing away from the galloping ghouls. In 28 Days Later when Brendan Gleeson gets that drop of blood in his eyes you’re not just tense in anticipation of the outbreak of violence, you’re heartbroken because he was a character you liked. 28 Weeks Later is filled with barely there characters who grow on you slightly less than the average Red Shirt on Star Trek, and they’re around to serve the same purpose, but more graphically.
To some extent Fresnadillo and his studio bosses get around that by hiring good, recognizable actors: Idris Elba is a powerful figure, even in a role that requires him to do nothing and then disappear halfway through the movie. Jeremy Renner gives good creepy in other films because he’s playing against his heartland looks that he uses here. Before he’s utterly wasted by a script that has no time for human drama, Robert Carlyle is incredibly effective casting. Of course, some of the casting is disastrous, especially Rose Byrne as a military scientist who I wouldn’t trust to prescribe me Advil, let alone unlock the secrets of rage immunity from someone’s blood.
There are two things that show how debased this sequel is from the original. One is a spoiler, so let’s do that first, in the inviso-text: Instead of dealing with the personal ramifications of what Carlyle has done in the prologue, the movie makes him the first of the new infected, and then turns him into a silly bogeyman who stalks his children across most of London. Again and again he pops up until he gets into a climactic battle with his offspring. His final reappearance, meant to be a shocking reveal, brought waves of laughter in my theater. It’s the zombie movie equivalent of Jaws: The Revenge, where the shark follows Roy Scheider’s family down to the Bahamas.
The other symptom of the sickness deep inside 28 Weeks Later (I call this sickness Aliens-itis, an illness that convinces filmmakers sequels must always be pumped up action versions of the original) are the empty streets of London. In 28 Days Later the empty streets are a mindblowing reveal, a grim dreamscape of desolation. In 28 Weeks Later the same empty streets are a cool shot, a little bit of set design that the film goes back to again and again and again. By the end of the movie the already diminished impact of the dead city has completely dried up and blown away. That’s sad, because in twenty years the image people will have of 28 Days Later is a confused and frightened Cillian Murphy wandering suddenly alien streets, while the image they’ll have of 28 Weeks Later is a big series of computer generated explosions.