Friday, February 20, 2009

28 Days Later -- rage, survival and hope

Director: Danny Boyle, 2002.

Boyle portrayed the psychological disintegration of one man (Christopher Eccleston) in his first film Shallow Grave. Here he presents the psychological disintegration of a whole nation and its apocalyptic consequence in this modern zombie movie.

The film starts with some animal rights activists breaking into a lab full of caged chimps. Discovered by one of the scientists he pleads with them not to release the animals since they have been infected with a virus that causes psychotic rage. Being idealists, they disbelieve the scientist to their and England's detriment.

28 days later Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow in Batman Begins) wakes up in a hospital bed naked and remembering nothing but a bike accident. Slowly he comes to realize there is no one there. The hospital is abandoned. Going outside he finds London abandoned empty and silent. he stumbles into a church he discovers a pile of dead bodies and a few living people. But these are barely people; they are irrational blood-crazed creatures seeking the living.

Meeting Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), they save him from these zombies and then explain that England has been overrun by a plague and there are few survivors. Living has taken on a different meaning: "Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets." If the virus, carried in blood or body fluids, gets to you there are only 10 seconds before you become crazed and enraged.

The first act presents the disaster and the hero, Jim. Boyle chooses to use digital video cameras instead of film to capture the grittiness and emptiness of the post-apocalyptic urban landscape. And it works very effectively. There is a sense of immediacy in the filming which adds to the tension, giving us a "survivors eye" view.

28 Days Later is a tense chiller more than a horror movie. It has enough pace to keep the questions in check. But it never answers the question of why Jim was the only patient left in the hospital. Where did the others go? And why did the zombies not get to him, trapped as he was in bed with tubes and medical equipment constraining him? Moreover, where did all the corpses of the dead go? London was mostly devoid of the dead. And what happened to the rest of the world? Although, this question is left purposefully vague to allow a sequel. second act brings Selena and Jim into contact with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). They are literally imprisoned in their apartment waiting for other survivors to find them. They have heard of a cure, but it is 200 miles north, a journey they would not make on their own. Taking his London taxi, they travel to the army compound that apparently has the cure. En route, Jim has to kill one of the infected. This is his "rite of passage" into this new kind of living.

In the final act, Jim, Selena and Hannah are brought into the country house turned into a fortified compound. But these normal army soldiers are not quite what they seem. Led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), they may not have the infection but they are not philanthropic. They have a pragmatic purpose indeed for summoning survivors. Zombies outside the gates, enemies within, Jim finds himself having to choose a careful course of action. and West are an interesting study in contrasts. Jim is at first naive ("What do you mean there's no government? There's always a government, they're in a bunker or a plane somewhere"), looking for someone to pass the buck to. West is cynical, it's just people killing people as it always is and always will be. Jim's transition from denial to acceptance occurs when he himself kills. Killing is nothing new to West. Jim, the hero, is chivalric, especially in the castle, where chivalry usually has its home. He wants to protect his two friends. West is pragmatic in his command. he wants to protect his men.

Boyle rejected the normal notions of the zombie genre, the living dead eating the living, to focus on the current generation's fear of diseases, such as Ebola. The rage virus didn't leave its victims dead physically, but psychologically. Once infected there remains no trace of the original person. All that remains is a homicidal maniac, dripping and spewing blood.
Rage, too, is a key issue that Boyle wants to address. This uncontrollable rage is a metaphor for the societal problem of rage and anger prevalent today. We see it evidenced in the anger that surfaces from the frustrations of impersonality and inequity. It is on the nightly news in the form of road rage, with drivers shooting other drivers. Anger itself is a legitimate emotion but how it is manifested can be righteous or sinful. Jesus became angry in a righteous sense when he entered the Temple in Jerusalem and saw the grounds turned into a marketplace of corruption (Matt. 21:12-13). In his anger, he overturned tables, forced the moneylenders out of the grounds, even using a whip to make this happen (Jn. 2:13-17). Yet, there is an anger that is sinful. Paul says, "In your anger do not sin" (Eph. 4:26). Then he goes further and declares, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger" (Eph. 4:31). Anger must not master us.

Ultimately, though, the issue at the heart of this film is that of survival at what cost. Boyle rips away the veneer of civilization to show what is in the heart of humanity. The zombies may be rage-filled psychopaths, but their humanity is gone, taken by the virus. The living, on the other hand, display the savagery of true human nature. Even Jim transforms into a killer. When the chips are down it is kill or be killed. Survival is a primal instinct. But would we kill a human, not a zombie, in the name of survival? This is a picture of the darkness of the human heart in even the best of men (Jer. 17:9).

Like Trainspotting, though, Boyle ends with a ray of hope. There is a glint of redemption in the choices Jim makes in the final conflict. Though he will kill to save himself, he will not become like the soldiers, worse than the zombies, in their blatant sinful actions. He chooses a sacrificial path, one seeking others over self. Grace is present even in the midst of desperation. And grace inspires hope.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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