28 Weeks Later

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/15/07 16:06:37

"The end is still nigh."
5 stars (Awesome)

Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” remains the best horror film in recent memory, its unyielding sense of dread soaking the viewer to the core in ways few chillers ever do. Even its “upbeat” ending contained an underscore of inescapable doom - were those planes a good sign, or a bad one?

Now comes “28 Weeks Later” (no ellipses this time), which tells us those planes were both. England has been quarantined, the zombie virus eliminated, and after a monumental death toll, the U.S. Army has come to London to begin reconstruction.

By giving us this, the filmmakers greatly expand the scope of the story. The intimate plotting and low budget trickery is replaced by large-scale action and big budget spectacle. (The first film gave us a desolate London merely by filming on a quiet morning; the sequel is forced to use CG effects to create a demolished cityscape.) Yet director/co-writer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (“Intacto”) does something clever here: he refuses to make the spectacle spectacular. He gives us big, bold scenes of death and destruction, but presents them in a way that unsettles, not thrills. In an era where cinematic cities are wiped out by meteors or ice storms or giant robots as a form of entertainment, “28 Weeks Later” is a film that understands that if you kill off a couple million people, it is actually a sad thing. Using John Murphy’s haunting musical score to push his point, Fresnadillo makes these moments of destruction heartbreaking.

Even in the smaller scenes, we are touched more than we are thrilled. In one scene, a key character is infected, becomes a zombie, and starts attacking another key character. Fresnadillo handles this with massive restraint - the zombie attacks wildly, the way zombies do, but the music tells us it is not a moment to be wowed. The screenplay (credited to Fresnadillo, Rowan Joffe, Jesús Olmo, and E.L. Lavigne) is careful to build these characters up as genuine people. We care for them, we cheer for them, we cry for them. When a survivor (Robert Carlyle) is forced to lie to his children about how their mother died (he says he tried to save her; in reality, he fled in fear as zombies invaded their hiding spot), we see a broken man, and we want to tell him he is forgiven.

It is rare for a horror film to put so much effort into the characters. Usually, people are merely pawns of the plot, soulless items for the monster to attack; at best we’ll get a couple of people we sorta care about, just so we can root for their safe escape. In “28 Weeks Later,” as with Boyle’s original, the focus is on the people - which then, naturally, intensifies the terror to wrenching extremes.

There are, surprisingly, no villains here. Of course, the zombies are villains, but zombies are not characters, really (except, of course, for that key character who turns into one and remains an important figure on the story’s periphery, although even then this character is not exactly viewed as a “baddie”). Usually, there are everyday humans that slip into the story and act as an extra threat - often these are scientists or soldiers or cowards gone mad. But here, even when the script pushes the movie into a peculiar allegory for the Iraq war (the impossibility of distinguishing civilians from attackers leads to unspeakable battlefront horror; the American authority over England can be viewed as a wide metaphor for the Bush-Blair relationship; the U.S. military is essentially an occupation force, building their own Green Zone), the U.S. soldiers are not moustache-twirling villains. They live in as much of a grey area as the British civilians that share their safe zone. When the time comes for the soldiers to strike, it is not done with glee, but with heavy regret.

I have not discussed the plot in much detail. This is not to avoid revealing great secrets, but to suggest that the film is not about what happens as it is how. After an opening scene reminding us of the inescapable anxiety of the original film, we slowly regain our emotional footing as a sense of normalcy returns to London, or at least a safe corner of it. Of course the virus has not been contained - there’d be no sequel otherwise - but to reveal how this occurs would be to ignore the simple fact that it does occur. Like all great apocalypse movies, “28 Weeks Later” reminds us that when it comes to the end of the world, well, sorry to bum you out, but there’s no escape.

The final half hour of the film contains an unexpected amount of action, as if on loan from a completely other movie. There are chases upon chases, helicopters and explosions and gore by the bucketful. In clumsier hands, such a shift in gears would have ruined the whole project, but Fresnadillo is wise enough to never let the action get the better of his movie. The reason for the action is not, unlike many other films, the action alone, but as yet another way of delivering an escalating tension.

“28 Weeks Later” ultimately might not be as inventive as the original, but it is no less a great film in its own right. Here is a sequel that takes its predecessor’s ideas and bravely expands on them. It refuses to be merely a dumbed-down rerun. It makes its own moves, goes its own route. This is a brilliant example of a sequel that enhances the overall story, and if there will ever be a “28 Months Later,” we can hope it will be just as smart.

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