Sunday, May 13, 2007

Review - 28 Weeks Later

Danny Boyle's 2002 hit 28 Days Later was a film which was undone by the brilliance of its own opening act. When Cillian Murphy awoke in an abandoned hospital and wandered out on to the empty London streets it was almost as if he was the last man on earth. There was a special thrill to be had from seeing Murphy walking past Centre Point or strolling through Piccadilly Circus and not seeing another soul; 28 Days Later achieved the considerable task of allowing us to see a familiar city in a new way. So it was perhaps inevitable that the subsequent action - with an increasingly small group of survivors fighting against hordes of the undead - would disappoint. It gradually settled for a conventional 'Us vs. Them' face-off which was a whole lot less interesting than those haunting early sequences.

28 Weeks Later is the kind of sequel which usually sets alarm bells ringing - a film without the stars or the director of the original film - and sadly it justifiers those fears, being a lazy rehash of the first film which comes armed with a bigger budget but has no real intelligence or originality behind it. We get to see more of empty London and a number of bigger, louder action sequences, but the film can't buy the kind of novelty value and raw energy which gave Boyle's film its occasional impact.

The story picks up a short time after the original film ended. There are still a few survivors holed up in the English countryside, with one such group headed by Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack). This couple have made the best of a bad situation, securely boarded inside a cottage while the Rage-infected monsters still roam around on the outside. Their idyll is interrupted by a young boy banging desperately on the door - he has escaped from his own zombiefied parents - and he is quickly followed by a large bunch of Infected who burst through the house's makeshift barricades. The sequence escalates nicely, building to an effective "what would you do?" situation, and there's a great helicopter shot of Carlyle feeling across the fields, with hordes of Infected appearing on the horizon, but this smartly-constructed opening does also display one of 28 Weeks Later's biggest flaws.

Directing duties on this instalment have gone to Spaniard Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, responsible for 2001's flashy-but-stupid Intacto, and in these early sequences he shows a worrying inability to handle fast-paced action set-pieces in a coherent manner. When the zombies attack Carlyle and his companions in the film's opening, Fresnadillo responds by shaking the camera as wildly as possible while his editors cut rapidly between assailant and victim. This approach can work well when utilised for close-combat scenes, as Paul Greengrass proved with The Bourne Supremacy, but with the messier encounters of 28 Weeks Later it's often hard to see who is doing what to whom. There's no sense of impact or spatial awareness, and the lack of bite - if you'll excuse the pun - on display in these scenes is an issue which will crop up throughout the picture.

Anyway, after that energetic introduction the film jumps forward 28 weeks to detail the repopulation attempt which is being led by US armed forces. We are told that the last remnants of the virus have now been destroyed, and the Docklands area has been designated as a safe zone, into which the first few thousand refugees will be assimilated. Among these returning Brits there are two kids, Andy and Tammy (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots), and they're delighted to be reunited with their father Don, the sole survivor (he thinks) of the attack we witnessed at the film's start. Everyone is feeling pretty optimistic about their new life in a London which is slowly being rebuilt; everyone, that is, except for medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne). She thinks the repopulation effort has been mounted a little too hastily, considering they don't fully understand the virus yet, but her doubts are shouted down because otherwise we wouldn't have much of a movie.

Of course, the virus hasn't gone away and - after an extraordinarily stupid plot development - the Infected are soon rampaging through the streets, just like old times. With the US forces realising that they have completely lost control of the situation, they decide on a mass extermination which will get rid of everyone in London whether they carry the Rage virus or not. The US presence in the film, making a situation worse when they claimed to have it under control, could be seen as offering a kind of satirical slant on the film, but it's only of the most fleeting and shallow kind. The film then narrows its focus to a small band of survivors, including Scarlet, the two children, and a friendly US marine (Jeremy Renner) as they try to escape the city before their time runs out.

28 Weeks Later does kick along at a fair pace, pushing its characters through one scrape with death after another, but as slick as it all is, the film never really makes us care. It offers a few short, sharp shocks, but the effect is negligible, with the characters all too thinly-developed to have any sort of emotional pull on the viewer. Rose Byrne has a lovely pair of mournful eyes but no real depth, Jeremy Renner's gung-ho marine is pretty uninspired, and the performances from the two children are only average. Robert Carlyle gives the film's best performance in the first half hour, but the decision to turn him into some sort of ├╝ber-zombie is a disastrous one which - in conjunction with the inconsistent behaviour of the Infected - damages the film's credibility.

During 28 Weeks Later's better moments, Fresnadillo stages some fine set-pieces, utilising this sequel's greater budget to gives us a couple neat sequences on an impressive scale. There's a tremendous bird's-eye view of London being firebombed which is a rather beautiful effect, and a later chemical attack on the city sees an ominous white cloud of noxious gas making its way around Westminster's streets. The film also has a little fun with a helicopter massacre which is daft but fun to watch - recalling the grand guignol of Peter Jackson's Braindead - and a creepy journey through the underground, with only a night-vision scope to see through, is well staged.

But these are mere episodes, strung together in the most basic way, and there's no real build-up of tension or fear as the actors are plunged into various awkward situations. 28 Weeks Later only offers cheap thrills; it doesn't add anything to the original film, just resurrects it with everything turned up to 11. There's a really nasty impulse driving many of the film's murders, with an early scene of eye-gouging seeming particularly excessive, and the fog of nihilism which descends on the film's climactic half hour deprives us of anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. The conclusion does, however, set the scene for yet another instalment in this series, with the virus finding its way across the Channel to France; presumably we'll find out what happens next in 28 Months Later. This redundant sequel is a thoroughly mediocre piece of filmmaking but, like a Rage-infected monster, it looks like the franchise is going to run and run.