Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris
or a while now, I’ve been trying to ascertain my thoughts on the general nature of British movies (or possibly just mainstream ones) of the last ten years or so, specifically on what I dislike about almost all of them, and I’ve finally got somewhere with it. Almost all of them define themselves very strongly as British, and do so by highlighting certain perceived or stereotypical national characteristics that bother me. What’s crucial is that they present these negative traits in a celebratory manner, or as positive, or at least as broadly likeable. The East End wide-boy caricatures of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; the endearingly nervous, bumbling Hugh Grant and his fellow eccentrics in Four Weddings and a Funeral; the hideous comedy of embarrassment found whenever Rowan Atkinson appears on screen; even the comparably real characters from Stephen Daldry’s mostly excellent Billy Elliot; all of these are definitively British, in that they’re clearly not from anywhere else... but it’s a stereotyped and fictionalised representation. The danger is, of course, that this fiction will influence people’s perception of this country, about which there are more than enough misconceptions already. And, more importantly, all these traditional stereotypes of Britishness are ones I can only see as negative and even harmful. I have no idea if this is noticeable to anyone outside the UK, or if anyone would care. But it matters to me.
So 28 Days Later, the new (well, new in the US; over here, it was released last November) movie from Danny Boyle, is, above all, a glorious exception to this rule. Not surprising, when considering the director’s history as the most prominent British filmmaker to avoid the stereotyping mentioned in the first paragraph. While most famous for Trainspotting, I’m of the opinion that his finest film is Shallow Grave, a taut, fast-paced, suspenseful thriller, ingeniously plotted and making use of genuinely funny black humour. This latest movie was written by Alex Garland, whose novel, The Beach, was adapted by Boyle in 2000; while thematically confused, it prominently demonstrated Boyle’s great talent, especially his characteristic visual flair and exceptional use of music. What’s more, 28 Days Later coincides with a slight resurgence in British horror films of late. The key word, admittedly, is “slight”, since most notable have been the reasonably imaginative but unexceptional US / UK co-production My Little Eye, and the repulsive Dog Soldiers, a hideous and celebratory distillation of testosterone-fuelled lad culture backed up by endless clichés; but it’s a relatively promising direction. But to celebrate a movie for being better than some other, mostly average movies would be frankly stupid. 28 Days Later asks not to be judged as a British film, but as a film, and on those terms it’s a success, although far from an unqualified one.
But far from being embarrassed of its nationality, Boyle’s film is recognisably British, more authentically so than anything that plays it up. The movie is set 28 days after a laboratory-created virus, Rage, has ravaged the whole of the UK; the virus essentially turns people into living zombies, whose only desire is to attack, and who, being living rather than the living dead, are not unwieldy and slow, but move with single-minded purpose. We are introduced to Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle messenger who wakes up after a month convalescing in hospital; he has been unconscious throughout the spread of the virus, and must learn how to survive in this new world. This apocalyptic scenario is played out against a recognisable background of iconic locations and corporate logos. While it could be argued that the level of product placement is excessive, I’d say that not only is it realistic – try walking around London without seeing endless billboards and Costa Coffee stores and so on – but it skilfully brings home the immediacy of the situation, and just what has been lost. Although particularly relevant for those like me who are familiar with the city, it nonetheless works as a general metropolitan setting. The characters are also identifiable and plausible. The company of soldiers led by Christopher Eccleston as Major Henry West, are very true to life – trust me on this one – and their bottled-up masculinity is not celebrated, but portrayed as sex-starved, laddish thuggery, and immediately outlined as potentially threatening. Okay, there are a number of stock characters; there’s likeable but slightly pathetic father Frank, his distraught, silent daughter, Hannah, and the aforementioned soldiers. But only Selena, the self-reliant and ruthless black woman who leads the small group of survivors, seems dangerously close to a walking cliché; and even then, a far more welcome British stereotype than usual.
Boyle’s decision to shoot with digital video was partially to cut costs, and to make setting up shots easier and quicker; the early scenes of Jim wandering around a totally deserted London had to be filmed in a window of about five minutes each day at around dawn. But the picture quality gives the movie’s images an urban atmosphere and a certain documentary feel. This is backed up by camera placement; there are several wide views of the city, almost as if seen from surveillance cameras, and otherwise casual, naturalistic cinematography. Those aforementioned scenes of the abandoned city are disquieting and atmospheric, perfectly scored by an extract from Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings.” The practical decision to shoot at dawn also gives the film a hazy, dewy look, remarkably suited to a post-apocalyptic setting. Soon enough, Jim is attacked by a group of the infected; as soon as they appear, both here and throughout the movie, there’s a sudden switch to shaky camerawork and rapid, disorienting editing. These scenes exude genuine chaos; they eschew a coherent communication of events in favour of expressing the panicked rush and confusion behind the characters’ actions. It’s possibly the one movie ever where such techniques are welcome; very occasionally, it’s too difficult to even get the gist of what’s happening, but mostly, it’s an effective depiction of the overwhelming terror of uncertainty and possible instant death.
For about an hour, the movie continues on this path of juxtaposition of quiet reflection with sudden, jarring shifts into violent attacks. The film’s rules are revealed early on; because the virus’ incubation period is so short (between ten and twenty seconds), sudden, ruthless action becomes necessary for survival, exemplified by Selena’s ability to kill “in a heartbeat”. Sometimes, the ever-present danger is thrillingly conveyed by shocking moments when attacks come without any warning. However, the structure on occasions seems suited to the videogame Resident Evil; calm, some exposition, AAAAGH! ZOMBIES!, and repeat.
But the quiet reflection is frequently intelligent, elegiac, and genuinely touching. Increasingly, you see that Selena’s ruthlessness, her decision to avoid emotional involvement, is a tactic adopted to ease survival, to stop her from becoming affected at the ever-present threat and reality of death. Initially, she is adamant that “plans are pointless; staying alive’s as good as it gets.” But later on, observing Frank and Hannah, she starts to think that there’s something more. This sounds horribly cloying, but, perhaps thanks to the naturalistic acting, it simply isn’t. The characters cling to symbols of the world they’ve lost; early on, Jim quibbles over which soft drink to have, and later, there’s a great scene in a deserted convenience store. To the sound of Grandaddy’s “A.M. 180”, they run about spinning shopping trolleys along, picking out choice supplies, and generally pretending that it’s 28 days earlier. And some sequences, which might be too overdone for some, seemed to me to be unimpeachably, hauntingly beautiful. I don’t want to mention the best of them, as it involves a plot spoiler, but others include a hazy, glimmering shot of the countryside as Jim blankly waves his arm from the car – tinged with sadness because it means the motorway they’re driving on has no other traffic – and a view of horses galloping along an implausibly green field, as Hannah asks, “D’you think they’re infected?” The descriptions will suggest cloyingness, but there’s unfailingly a constant hard-edged knowledge that everyone is dead.
Unfortunately, there’s a downturn in quality in the last half an hour or so. The plausibly presented soldiers are initially used well, and there are some dramatic and exciting scenes. Eccleston is, as ever, excellent as Major West, whose actions are plausible and stem from character. So it’s hard to define exactly what goes wrong. Part of it is the one unconvincing soldier, definitely a lazy Brit stereotype, who at one point even calls someone a muppet – a joltingly wrong Guy Ritchie-ism. And part of it is that eventually, everything becomes so grim, so horrible, so worn down, that it’s almost not worth caring about. Outside of this there are other notable problems. Dialogue is occasionally truly appalling, especially when delivered by Megan Burns, wooden and unconvincing as Hannah – although this strangely has a certain charm in its own way. While not exactly a criticism, it’s worth noting that the movie is exceptionally derivative; I’ve avoided comparisons, but there are obvious similarities to The Day of the Triffids, numerous George A. Romero movies, The Omega Man, and so on. Finally, Jim is essentially a cipher, complete with the most generic name available. His total ignorance of the situation allows exposition to be easily worked in, and Cillian Murphy’s portrayal brings some humour to the film, but little more.
But even despite all this, 28 Days Later is an excellent movie. It’s a visceral, horrifying, chilling and scarily thrilling zombie flick; it’s a downbeat, mournful portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Britain; it has worthwhile things to say about the nature of hope and survival; and it’s genuinely, memorably moving. It highlights Danny Boyle’s skills as a director, and presents evidence of previously unseen talents. And one final point: having now seen the movie both at the cinema and on DVD, I can confirm my suspicion that it’s very definitely worth seeing this on the cinema screen. This strongly visual film is greatly augmented by the larger tableau, the chaotic actions scenes given greater immediacy, and the atmosphere of the lost world heightened when you’re surrounded by it.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2003-09-01