The Best of Bad Choices

28 Weeks Later

Run like hell: Robert Carlyle in '28 Weeks Later'In the opening of 28 Weeks Later, Don (Robert Carlyle) faces a dilemma: He can leave his wife to die and run like hell on the off chance that he might outrun the “infected,” or he can stay with her and face a gruesome end.

He runs like hell, and looks back to see his wife attacked.

Was he cowardly? Absolutely, we say. We’d like to imagine that we, in a desperate time, would amend our marriage vows to encompass standing by our spouses even facing brutal, ravenous, red-eyed, blood-vomiting monsters.

But beyond showing an instinct for survival, Don proves to be a quick thinker, recognizing that it’s silly for two people to die when one will do. His decision further means that his two children have a father. The math ain’t pretty, but it’s coolly smart. Faced with two undesirable outcomes, Don makes the right choice.

Or perhaps he’s just yellow. Your call.

This is the movie writ small, laying the groundwork for more impossible choices.

28 Weeks Later was directed and co-written by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, and it’s a disappointment in the sense that it’s not nearly as invigorating as his startlingly rich feature debut, 2001’s Intacto, and it’s not as human and primal as its forebear, the Danny Boyle-directed 28 Days Later.

It becomes more rote and mechanical than I’d have expected given its pedigree, but it’s still strong, even as its plot eventually overwhelms its ideas.

In 28 Weeks Later, Fresnadillo and his co-writers ponder issues of containment. The United States military has come to London to help rebuild after the Rage outbreak that wiped out the population has apparently subsided. Much planning has gone into this mission. On the off chance that this virus shows itself again, victims will be isolated. If it escapes and begins to spread, those infected will be killed. And that’s the worst that can happen.

Right?

Does this feel a touch too familiar?

Horror movies operate forcefully as metaphors for two reasons: We can’t take the monsters seriously in a literal sense, and it’s easier to deal with charged material when it’s been encoded (encoated?) for mass consumption. I thought 28 Days Later suggested that rage (the emotion) was an infectious disease spread through (or activated by?) exposure to violence, even though in the movie Rage is literally a virus.

Most people will grasp the obvious connection between 28 Weeks Later’s infected London and the United States’ occupation of Iraq. The movie does not question the noble goals behind the occupations. It does, however, fault the military’s assumptions and response plans for their lack of insight and foresight. All that’s missing is a premature “Mission Accomplished” banner, although the speed with which London is being repopulated isn’t much different.

But while most people will grasp the comparison to Iraq, I doubt many will follow it to its logical conclusion. The movie’s core premise is that once things start to turn sour in such a volatile environment, you’re fucked. You’re left with no attractive alternatives, and most if not all of the plausible outcomes are variations on grim. The question becomes: Which bad choice do you make?

That’s a cynical and defeatist attitude, but it’s a pragmatic counterweight to the bullshit pronouncements of politicians. You can look for and cling to hope in this situation, but it’s merely a fantasy, the movie argues. If Rage (or an insurgency) cannot be targeted and eliminated — and both are too nimble and infectious for an effective surgical strike — then we must consider the unsavory options. A directed but coarser response would inflict relatively minor collateral damage but has little chance of solving the problem. The nuclear option — literal or figurative — would most certainly eliminate the threat, but at great cost: killing many innocent people and rendering the initial, stated mission moot.

It was folly to assume that people could safely to return to London in the wake of Rage, in other words. And it was folly to assume that a democratic and stable Iraq could blossom in a fractured, U.S.-occupied country where anti-American sentiment runs high. Those are, it seems in retrospect, fair assessments of how the United States military misread the situation in the fictional London of 28 Weeks Later and the real Iraq, if we allow for altruistic intent.

But the movie leaves itself nowhere to go thematically or plot-wise beyond that glib and potentially premature conclusion, and it suffers as a result. The audience checks out as it becomes apparent halfway through the film that, in the writers’ eyes, the war is not winnable. With no possibility of a positive outcome, what’s the point of watching?

There could be, potentially, a rooting interest in the characters, but people are not Fresnadillo’s strength; two features into his career, he looks like a plot and idea man. His biggest misstep in 28 Weeks Later comes when Don, the husband and father from the opening, gets infected once Rage returns. He is a fascinating man — the movie’s only three-dimensional character — and his de facto elimination immediately and justifiably sinks expectations for the remainder of the film.

His importance as a human connection is apparent when his children find their mother, alive. She had survived the attack because of a natural resistance to Rage, so she’s a carrier without showing any symptoms.

That sets the larger story in motion, but the family situation leads to grace notes akin to the heartbreaking moment in 28 Days Later when the protagonist finds a note in his parents’ house imploring him to stay in his coma.

In 28 Weeks Later, Don is forced to explain to his children how their mother is alive when he said he saw her die. He must face his wife and justify what he did. His shame is palpable, although it’s open to interpretation whether it’s rooted in his actions or the fact that he was caught.

These moments are particularly poignant because, considered rationally, he did little wrong.

He made the best of a bad situation, for all the good it did.

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