Monday, May 21, 2007

28 Weeks Later: Zombies In Iraq

I didn’t actually start this blog to write movie reviews but since I’m not finding a critique of 28 Weeks Later that I agree with, I might as well write my own.

I was a huge fan of the first movie, 28 Days Later, partially because it appealed to my interest in post-apocalyptic fiction. But where 28 Days Later was ultimately optimistic about humanity, the sequel is not. And I think the difference is the Iraq War.


I think of this more of a movie critique rathan than a review, so I will pretty much discuss the major plot points. Read no further unless you want to be spoiled...

In 28 Weeks Later the movie is one giant metaphor for the Iraq War. And yet as much as the metaphor is obvious, the movie never really follows in a direction I wanted it to go. I wanted to shout “don’t just crib from the Iraq War, goddamn it! Own it.” But the movie is just dabbling in war images, its stealing from the war without having anything interesting to say about it. In fact this ended up being a much smaller picture than I thought it was going to be. I felt like the director just squandered what could have been a much richer movie.

So the movie picks up roughly six months after the first one left off with the Americans “reclaiming” a small section of London which they very unsubtly call “The Green Zone.” They are reclaiming it in the sense that Americans (and some kind of international force, but it clearly an American-lead enterprise) are fixing London for the British to move back in. (In a huge bit of irony, the American commander is played by British Idris Elba, but who is best known for playing a Baltimore street thug on The Wire. One day I want to see Elba act in his real voice, but I digress…)

It seems like this is a perfect set up for an exploration on American occupation of a foreign nation. Considering how much the U.K. and America has in common, the screenwriter could have used this to explore whether anyone likes an occupation, even the gentlest, and even when your occupiers speak your language and share many customs.

But other than calling it “The Green Zone” the movie isn’t really interested in exploring occupation as a theme.

Part of the reason 28 Days Later (and its sequel) work visually is their realistic, faux documentary feeling. You completely “buy” the premise of the zombification and hence can sympathize with the moral dilemma of the characters. If you have a disease that spreads and kills as fast as the “rage” diseases does than is it morally justified in killing the innocent to prevent an even worse tragedy of the disease spreading to Europe?

Again, this is ripe fruit, but the movie isn’t all that interested in biting. In fact if anything I think the movie sympathizes with the Americans’ perspective. Elba’s character is not as big a part as I thought it was going to be. I spent the entire movie waiting for him to have to face his moral choices. (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, take your pick which American commander he should resemble.) You can make an argument he had no choice, but the movie isn’t interested in provoking that discussion because he’s barely a character.

Maybe my disappointment is that I wanted a thoughtful movie with action and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo wanted to make ersatz Alfonso Cuarón. Or maybe Children of Men has just set a new standard of expectation how a movie can combine philosophy, action and faux documentary style.

It’s a zombie movie which means its a horror movie. In one scene the citizens are herded by the Americans into a subway station. I wasn’t entirely certain if that was done to protect them or to round them up to kill them (I guess if you are going to liquid why wait for the civilians to become zombies).

In any case, instead one of the infected gets access to the crowd which panics and runs outside. At first the Americans are told to shoot only zombies, but quickly (and you get to see the sniper’s perspective on this) the infected and the clean run together. Since the soldiers can’t tell who is their enemy and who is their friend, they are told to shoot indiscriminately.

One soldier, played by Jeremy Renner (who I couldn’t figure out what I recognized him from until I saw he was on the L.A. season of “The It Factor”), makes the moral choice that he couldn’t shoot civilians anymore and bails.

But the movie makes a bad choice here. The rest of the movie involves one long chase where the main protagonists, the children, are running to safety with their protectors—who keep getting killed off. It might have been more interesting to follow the movie from the American commander’s perspective. We’ve seen before how a small band of survivors try to fight off a horde of zombies (in fact we watch it again in the first 10 minutes of the movie). But what would it be like if you are a well-armed militia? What exactly is their motivation? Renner’s soldier’s choice is easy. There’s no real reason to kill the innocent unless you know they are infected. In fact in several scenes you see the army shooting people driving in cars which had me thinking “Since when do zombies drive cars? Why bother killing the innocent on purpose?”

Of course there can be justifications for such behavior, everything from bloodlust to cold-hearted calculation. But I would have liked that to be part of the story not just part of the action.

If the movie had followed the Americans’ perspective instead of following the children the plot could have asked the audience what would you do in their shoes? Do you kill everyone and save your troops? Do you try to save as many civilians as you can? Do you kill everyone but then realize within the civilian population is the key to ending the plague. (Oooh the irony of killing the solution to your problem with your overly aggressive tactics!) The movie asks questions about personal cowardice, but not about the kind of cowardice that goes beyond sheer fear for of the individual. When a man runs away and leaves his wife to die is one thing, but when a militia commander decides to fuck over everyone is something else. Or it could have been.

Ultimately I think I hated the movie for the same reason I hated Alien 3. This movie ends on a total downer that ultimately undermines what good feeling I had about the first. In fact the first movie had four different endings (not just two) and each time the director Danny Boyle kept changing it to become more optimistic. I watched the DVD commentary for 28 Days Later and Boyle and writer Alex Garland said they didn’t change the ending(s) out of a Hollywood need for happy endings. They did it because the test audiences came out of the movie feeling battered.

There are some people who like nihilistic movies whose only viewpoint is that people are ugly and the world is ugly. Maybe if I thought the director put actual thought into developing that viewpoint, at least that could be justified. But 28 Weeks Later’s ending seems less to rest on the concept that the director had something he wanted to share than it was just a cool to show zombies running at the Eifel tower.


Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed "28 days later"

now I have to go see the I can read your critique...

do you know how much self control I'm showing by not reading the spoilers??


Anonymous said...

well...I saw it. And for some blatent cross promotion, read my review.

true, there weren't many moral dilemas, possibly, because the last part of the movie happened very fast. There was only time for people to react, not to contemplate the implications. For instance, when the civilians were fleeing the basement, it was less than five minutes from "target the infected" to "kill them all".

Just 'cuz there was a safe green zone in the movie, doesn't make it an Iraq metaphore. Things went bad in Black Hawk down, and that was in the desert with muslims, and that movie wasn't a Iraq metaphore.

I don't see the General as a stand in for the GWBush team. He didn't give press conferences saying everything was great. It didn't appear he was decieving the public. He had faith in his plan, and when asked by a subordinate "what if" he responded as a soldier does by saying the threat will be destroyed.

I think the movie is about in a worse-case scenario, how the most innocent mistakes can lead to catastrophe. We all along are cheering for the kids to escape, because they're kids, but also, as the doctor points out, they could be the cure. Only, at the end, we can figure that they made it to France, they got away, and presumably from that, they spread the Rage to Europe.

Anonymous said...

I so rarely agree with your movie reviews, but this one finally said what was wrong with this movie that I couldn't put my finger on. (Other than: it was just a zombie movie! The first movie was more!) I also was struck by the scene in which they were killing people driving cars, and said "Zombies don't drive cars! Why would they do that?!" and my friend said "Did you miss the part where they were trying to kill EVERYTHING?" Where does just following orders end and thinking begin? Why were the soldiers incapable of thinking logically, and deciding that, despite their orders, those people trying to escape were clearly uninfected (Zombies don't push-start cars!) and should not be exterminated? Why am I still at work typing this on a Friday night?

The most interesting thing about this movie, to me, was that it seemed to present a little snapshot of how people feel about Americans, specifically of our military occupations. The Americans were fairly well organized heroes, but they were also crass and all about the weapons and explosions. It may or may not have been specifically about Iraq, but it was obliquely about Iraq, because it was, in a way, about America's general relationship to the rest of the world.

But also, it was just a zombie movie.