Where we offer you Row Three programming if we owned a Rep Cinema
New Millennial Infection
Contagion – 8:00pm
The Bay – 10:00pm
28 Weeks Later – midnight
One primal fear which has replaced the threat of nuclear war (and possibly terrorism) as something to keep a person awake at night in this new century is the constant threat of would-be pandemics. We beat The Bubonic Plague in the late middle ages, Tuberculosis and Polio in the 19th century, Cholera and Spanish Flu in the 20th century, but new super-diseases constantly emerge in both reality and the public consciousness. Of course, this collection of previous centuries worth of viral outbreaks are orders of magnitude worse than the deaths caused by West Nile, H1N1 and SARS – particularly when you consider the proportion of the human population affected and that the number of people on earth was significantly smaller prior to the onset of the 20th century.
Prior to the late 1990s, there was no 24 hour news coverage or internet to feed the fear. Even in the 1970s the Mayor of fictional Amity Island in Jaws knew that the spread of fear (and panic) was always equal to or worse than the ‘Shark in the Water’. From the days of the Irwin Allen disaster movie, we’ve seen large scale panic in the face of big disasters, but there is something far more effective with the current crop of infection horror films. An aim for realism, body fluids and the medicine of desperation practiced to stay on top of something that is in most cases impossible to contain. Here are three films all from the last 5 years that, if you were to program them at a rep cinema triple bill, would do a fine job of creating an escalation of pure panic and brackish body fluids.
This is a film that begins at “Day 2” after the birth of a highly contagious virus that, by day 40 or so, becomes a full blown pandemic. It opens with Gwyneth Paltrow negotiating an extramarital affair having just landed from Hong Kong with a stopover in Chicago before proceeding to Minneapolis. What she thinks is a rough patch of jetlag (or a headache from the previous evenings cocktails in a Macau casino) will leave her dead by the end of the first reel. Steven Soderbergh structures the narrative to give an overview of the spread and reaction to the disease on as many vectors as possible: The Center for Disease Control in Washington, The World Health Organization in Hong Kong, Paltrow’s family in Minneapolis, a young commuter in London as well as a morally compromised amateur journalist in San Francisco. But the real, far more psychologically devious, focus of his camera is on just how many things we touch in public spaces – particularly urban ones. And regardless of public or private interaction, just how many times we touch our own face, as unconscious as blinking, every single minute. Everyday mundane spaces such as public transit and everyday occurrences such as trips to the supermarket and restaurant meetings are pictured – literally at one point as an investigator looks at Paltrow’s movements across the security footage of that Macau casino – as connective diagrams that narrow things down to less than six degrees of separation for those who travel in the modern world. The storytelling may be brisk in execution, but remains savvy enough to work the human angles along with the societal ones; scientists that resist the stranglehold of bureaucracy, a man who just wants to bury his deceased wife and son in the family plot, a bureaucrat privy to key information using it to help give his spouse a leg up on a quarantine and a blogger who is not above ginning up a fake herbal remedy to massive profits before the government comes up with and sanctions an FDA approved medical vaccine. Mixed in are quite convincing lime-lined mass graves, body disposal fires and perhaps the most realistic autopsy ever shown in a fiction film. The prolific director juggles enough characters, interconnected storylines, and ethical conundrums to justify a 10 hour season (or three) of upscale television, and yet Contagion retains coherence and even depth in a scant 104 minutes. It was also the best pure horror film of 2011.
Undoubtedly icky, but curiously sterile, Barry Levinson’s found-footage creature-feature owes as much to Jaws as it does to Erin Brockovich. Yet its distancing collection of security camera, cellphone, home video and local news reporting provide the numbness you get from watching a live-unfolding story play out on cable news. The perfect storm of societal neglect and natural spontaneity sees a cocktail of nuclear contamination, mountains of chickenshit run-off and a particularly warm summer cut short the July 4th celebrations of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland with a proliferation of a nasty brand of parasite, one that eats the victim from without and within. Just as we take clean water for granted as much as business opportunity with minimal regulation, The Bay is savage at punishing the innocent and simple townsfolk with body lesions, boils and particularly nasty looking ‘lice-of-the-sea’ that are worthy of David Cronenberg. And yet, the commitment to found footage tropes and a painfully linear narrative kind of leaves this one feeling a bit middling – hence its place in the middle of this triple bill. Maybe it was due to the self-conscious narrator who felt like a sour doppelgänger of Ellen Page, or perhaps the changes in footage, aspect ratio and “Am I framed correctly?” tailings that someone assembling this as a “Loose Change” style conspiracy video most certainly would have omitted not having to prove its amateur credentials. You cannot fault the commitment to a certain style too much however, as the overall effect mimics a modern media malaise, even as small town of ‘anywhere-America’ is literally torn apart.
28 Weeks Later…
A high energy, thematically rich and violent as hell horror film as there ever was, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s follow up to Danny Boyle’s game-changing 28 Days Later… abandons the digivideo last-man-in-Londontown aesthetic for a grainy rich film envelope. Opening in a candle-lit but fully boarded up estate where Don, his wife Alice, along with the home owners and other strays, are bunkered down against the Rage infection that started with the first film. Things rapidly go to hell after they unboard the door to let in a frightened and starving child (and his dozen odd infected pursuers) leaving most of the residents killed and Don running for his life across an open field full of sprinting infected. In one of dozens of signature visual moments, Alice communicates her shock at his betrayal, with the sharpest of ‘spousal stares’ even as she protectively clutches the surrogate young boy. Don who is completely wigged out, yet still manages to process some guilt gets away by water. A cut to the eponymous 28 Weeks Later… leaves the audience to catch their breath from the bravura opening scene that boils Romero’s Night of the Living dead down to its pure essentials while spiking it with pure adrenaline and acute sonic effectiveness (my lord, that bit of music is marvelously re-purposed from Boyle’s film!). Don is now a maintenance man in the ‘Green Zone’ as NATO and the US military attempt to repopulate London after all the infected died of starvation. His children join him from Spain, as they were on a field trip and avoided the initial nightmare of Britain’s fall (the English Channel managed to save the rest of the world), but had to wait more than six months to rejoin their father as the first young folks allowed back in the country. Offering why kids probably shouldn’t be allowed in a quarantined colony such as this, it takes only to the next day until the kids sneak off and attempt to retrieve some of their stuff from their house in an uncleansed part of the city.
What follows is shocking, perhaps the most violently bloody film of recent years (suck it Evil Dead and Martyrs) that somehow manages to function as a family drama and an example of the worst quarantine protocol every devised by a military body. Many people complain about why the Code-Red ordered by Idris Elba’s yankee General involves hoarding all the civilians into an underground parking-lot and cutting the power, but really, it is step one in a containment abattoir. The moment that someone is infected, Elba’s character is resigned to the fact that everyone non-military is to be executed. Shifting gears a third time, the film film becomes a foot chase from the infected as well as weapons of mass destruction – a stunner of a urban fire-scorch and a haunting white fog of poison gas. As Don and Alice exit the picture, a new pair of foster parents take over stewardship of the children: Rose Byrne (the chief army medical researcher) spots the boys genetic makeup as a potential longterm cure to the Rage virus and takes over as surrogate mom while a Pre-Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner is a sharpshooter that doesn’t believe in his orders when they involve murdering panicked civvies. 28 Weeks Later… lays waste to the hubris of man coming in to shape a place still fresh from upheaval (many read the film as an allegory to the US in post-invasion Baghdad). It lays waste to the notion that a disease can easily be stamped out, and that cures are temporary at best. And it keeps a morbid focus on the failed family unit perched on the edge of the abyss, and still struggling with past failure. This film is a nasty itch that one cant help but scratch, and scratch often.