Novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland apparently has issues with the individual finding a place of security in a nightmarish world. From his novels The Beach, The Tesseract (both of which have been adapted into films) and The Coma to his screenplays done in collaboration with Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and the upcoming Sunshine), chaos looms, whether derived from the collapse of society or arising from within.
In an odd bit of post-preparation, I read The Coma, which had nestled itself quite nicely into my untouched pile for a year or so, after attending the screening of 28 Weeks Later, the follow-up to the Garland/Boyle viral rage-injected zombie thriller.
In 28 Days Later, the virus was produced and studied in a lab until an accident led to an uncontrolled outbreak that wiped out most of England. A bike messenger named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakened from a coma to discover that enraged flesh eaters had taken over. More unsettling, as the movie progressed, he came to realize that the few humans left had lost touch with their civilized natures and succumbed to a more innate rage of their own.
For the sequel, most of the creative team in front of and behind the scenes have stepped out of main roles, but Garland and Boyle remain as producers. Writer/director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) grabs the reins and builds on Garland's premise, fashioning a contemporary military allegory by introducing a U.S.-led force that plans to occupy the rage-infested region and begin repopulation.
His approach is surprisingly subtle, given the potential to bludgeon us with Iraq references. But make no mistake — this regulated effort is doomed to failure, which leads to an explosive command meltdown.
Much like the first film, though, 28 Weeks Later succeeds because it focuses on the people trapped in these situations and the decisions they make. As the story kicks off, a married couple — Don (Robert Carlyle) and Alice (Catherine McCormack), who live among a small group of uninfected — are caught up in an attack. Don flees alone when an opportunity arises and deals with his guilt over leaving Alice behind. Eventually their two children are among those allowed to return as part of the repopulation initiative and he neglects to give the kids the full facts about what happened to their mother. When Alice turns up and is quarantined in a military facility, she proves to be an uninfected carrier of the virus, which leads to the possibility of genetic immunity but also produces a new outbreak.
In 28 Weeks Later, guilt, not rage, takes over and proves to be just as powerful a human urge. And it also signals a mutation or an evolution within the viral strain, one that triggers in the zombies the ability to override their baser instincts. It could be argued, within this post-New Age mindset, that guilt is a higher state on the path to consciousness.
And it has repercussions for the non-zombified waking up in the new world order. Don is jolted by the news of his wife's survival and then undergoes an awakening wherein he gains new life and purpose through his attempts to exorcise his guilt. For him, the movie highlights the internal confrontation between conscience and consciousness. McCormick awakens, first when she initially is reunited with her children after her "death" and again when, in the custody of the U.S. military medical team, she realizes that she is a carrier of the virus. Her use of it is the surest acknowledgement of her fully dawned awareness.
Carl, the protagonist in The Coma, awakens after being severely beaten during a subway incident but quickly realizes that he hasn't completely emerged into full consciousness. At times the book veers dangerously close to the more existential musings of Paul Auster's detective genre re-workings, but Garland keeps the focus immediate. Carl speaks of the language of waking and sleeping — the ascension inherent in waking ("waking up") and the downward spiral of sleep ("falling"). The steps along his journey have no spatial relationship — there is no sense of up or down, forward or backward — but the reader feels and believes in his movement.
Audiences share the same sense with Jim and his small band of survivors in 28 Days Later, as well as with Don, Alice and the rag-tag survivors caught up in the film's chase. The nightmarishly desolate landscape offers an intriguing parallel to Shrek 3 World England of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. The eerie silence and emptiness of these barren cities has historical precedent in England after the German bombings from WWII, which mainstream American audiences can only relate to within the realm of fantasy and nightmares.
In each case, protagonists race through burned-out dream worlds, waking every moment to the fact that this is the only reality — one of death, a waking death. The characters float in a netherworld of emotional chaos.
There is already talk of another installment in this series, and if Garland remains as a guiding force in the franchise, the additional time will matter little. Twenty-eight months later, with the virus spreading across Europe, finally touching American soil, what will we wake up to?
Children of Men left us with hope for the future, but Garland's vision is grim even as it draws us in for a closer look. It's already too late. If only more franchises were as willing to embrace harsher realities, maybe such calls would truly force our slumbering selves to take real action, if only to reach a higher consciousness. Grade: B+