Thursday, 24 January 2008

Film review: 28 Weeks Later

Although this blog will primarily focus on speculative fiction and authors of the genre, I watch a lot of films and so the odd film review will slip in now and again.
When 28 Days Later was released back in 2002, it breathed some fresh air into the zombie genre. On first appearance it looked much the same as previous zombie movies; a band of survivors struggling to stay alive in a world now filled with the living dead. Except 28 Days Later was different.

It wasn't the 'zombies' that took centre stage. Sure, the 'infected' as they are referred to in the film, are pretty terrifying. Yet it is the horror of a post-apocalyptic United Kingdom that took real prominence. The amazing shots of a deserted London were both beautiful and harrowing at the same time. It was these scenes that generated the real fear. If a real virus broke out that caused the world we know to end, this is what the aftermath would look like. The gritty, visceral production just added to the realism and, subsequently, to the horror of it all. There was no cheap supernatural terror here, which is why the film is so powerful. It depicts the results of what happens when science goes too far. This is the real power of the film: a nightmare future that could realistically happen.

Of course, it doesn't matter how well the setting is portrayed - if the plot and characters are crap then the film will suffer. Fortunately the plot held up well (albeit with a weaker final third) and the characters had real depth. The script managed somehow to insert moments of humour without ruining the overall effect (in fact, the only threat to the atmosphere was the actress that played Hannah, whose acting could give you splinters). In short, 28 Days was a triumph - a relatively low-budget British film that managed to be utterly harrowing and dispense with one or two cliché s along the way.

So when news of a sequel - 28 Weeks Later - surfaced, I was pretty excited. Then I saw the trailer and thought it was...ok. But not what I expected. For a start the focus seemed more on action and big explosions, which was exactly the opposite of the first. Still, I kept an open mind. I didn't actually manage to see the film at the cinema (I rather dumbly forgot to attend the viewing that I had free tickets for) but finally picked it up on DVD. And finally, I got around to watching it.

The story to 28 Weeks starts - yes, you guessed it - 28 weeks after the first film ends. Under the supervision of the American army, survivors that fled abroad are now being returned to London, to a 'safe zone.' The infected are all dead, we are told. The war against infection has been won. It's safe. But of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The infection returns and the Americans lose control. The film then follows a young boy and his older sister as they try to make their way to safety amidst the carnage.

28 Weeks starts promisingly with a scene set during the original infection, where a group of survivors - hiding in a boarded up farmhouse - try to continue life as normal. They sit down to dinner. They open a bottle of wine. There is small talk. It's extremely unsettling and for me is the most unnerving part of the film; the idea that the whole country - perhaps the world - has gone to hell and all these people can do is try and block it out and act as if everything is normal. This is the closest 28 Weeks gets to the atmosphere of the first film. Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes the film slowly goes downhill.

Too much of the film takes place in the ‘safe zone’ - a kind of hybrid military/civilian compound. When the action does move outside into London, night has fallen and so we don’t get to see much scenery. There is precious little of the haunting footage of a deserted London that made the first film so effective.

Secondly the characters are just not as engaging as those from the first film. Jim and Serena, the main protagonists from 28 Days, had real depth: Serena was resourceful and brutally pragmatic, yet her steely exterior hid a kind personality. Jim overcame his early emotional fragility to risk everything to save his companions. Together, with Hannah, they were merely survivors, yet they formed a bond that made them more like family.

Tammy and Andy, the two main protagonists in 28 Weeks, are family: they are brother and sister. But there’s no real connection there, their closeness never really surfaces. The most interesting character is Don, their father, who hides a terrible secret but crumbles when the past comes back to haunt him. Don aside, the rest of the characters are disappointingly flat. The American soldiers in particular could have just been snatched from any random Hollywood film.

Speaking of Hollywood, although 28 Weeks is a British film, like its predecessor, the plot could have been ripped straight from a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster: brother and sister try to escape a city full of crazies, enlisting help along their sadly one-dimensional way. A strength of the first film was that you couldn’t see where it was going, or how it would end. 28 Weeks is in this regard far more predictable. The plot is a lot more action-orientated, perhaps to make it more mainstream. Again, a strength of 28 Days was the focus on the characters, whereas the focus in 28 Weeks is on the big explosions and the chase scenes.

There are some weak moments in the plot as well, for example Tammy and Andy’s decision to sneak out of the safe zone to visit their old family home just seems so unlikely and is little more than a plot convenience. There are good moments however: their trip into the underground for example is particularly unnerving, and ‘the helicopter scene’ is pretty cool. And, to the script-writers’ credit, the explanation for how the infection returns is completely credible and not just some cheap crap.

28 Weeks Later isn’t a bad film. It’s entertaining and manages to give the odd scare, but the overall effect falls short of the benchmark set by the first film. Hopefully, the third film - 28 Months Later (no, seriously) - which allegedly will be set in Russia, will restore the series to its former horrifying glory.


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