dir: Danny Boyle
An amazing film, on a number of levels. The most amazing fact is undeniably the redemption of Danny Boyle and his crew. It’s a touching tale of intellectual rags to riches to rags and then hopefully back to riches. It’s also the kind of story all too common with young ‘cool’ film makers who compete with each other to find new ways of fucking up as their careers progress from the ènfant terrible stage to the illustrious ‘sellout’ stage. Starting off with the low key Shallow Grave, he and his people established themselves as being capable of producing a decent, nasty film with believable characters acting believably nasty towards each other as situations moved from bad to worse.
With Trainspotting these bastards upped the ante substantially, making a film as compelling and, dare I say it, fun as it was repellent. With a soundtrack that became a mainstay on the radio station I listened to and on the stereo at every party, bar and club that I frequented at the time, it was a fiendishly inventive urban nightmare, speaking to the uglier corners of our natures and the natures of people we don’t want to bump into on a Saturday night: it has been continually imitated but seldom matched by a multitude of pretenders in the years that have followed.
Riding on this success Boyle and Co. decided that the word ‘crap’ needed to be redefined. Thus they made A Life Less Ordinary.
Now, A Life Less Ordinary is perhaps not the worst film I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen way too many awful films over the decades for it to win that vaunted title. If we hold that to be true, at the very least I can safely say that A Life Less Ordinary tries really fucking hard and earns its way onto my shitlist. I try to think of a more poorly conceived, poorly realised, utter fucking waste of talent and celluloid, and I can only really think of a handful of films. I could name all of those films, but I won’t. Suffice to say that I would rather watch Pearl Harbor again a thousand times (thus wasting 3000 hours of my life) rather than ever hear of or see A Life Less Ordinary ever again. Honest to god, Pearl Harbor.
Riding the coat tails of that disaster, Danny Boyle went back to television, for a short while, and then tried to earn back his audience and some respect with The Beach. The Beach wasn’t as bad as his last film, but that’s like saying having a perforated ulcer is not as bad as having a tumour: it’s not an ideal state by any stretch of the imagination even if it is ‘better’ only in comparison.
It’s hard to say why The Beach was so ordinary, actually now that I think about it, it’s not really that hard at all: the source material was ordinary at best and pointless at worst. As an adaptation of the Alex Garland novel, I guess it was faithful, but why you’d want to remain faithful to such a toothless slag of a novel is beyond me. Being a mediocre sexed-up version of Lord of the Flies for the pre-Survivor traveller generation, the film ended up being so underdone that it made Leonardo look good by comparison. Honest to god. Leo. Even though he was the worst actor in the movie. I mean he was the worst aspect of the movie as well, but surely at least the people involved should have known better.
Upon hearing rumblings about 28 Days Later when it was still in production, I ashamedly remember thinking “Who really gives a fuck?” I certainly didn’t, as I thought Danny Boyle had shot his load with his first two features, and wasn’t really going to make anything decent ever again. Kind of like the way most bands have two great albums in them, their first two, and then stick around for another decade or so fooling nobody, doing reunion tours and putting out Greatest Hits albums that consist of their one hit single and nine other dire songs.
28 Days Later has reinforced two overarching ideas for me: Danny Boyle is still a talented director supported by a very creative team of people, and smaller budgets can sometimes, irrespective of the seeming illogical contradiction, force people to make better films. I know it doesn’t necessarily make sense, but the overwhelming feeling I get from this film is that the microbudget forced them to be inventive, and to craft an intelligent film instead of resorting to an outright effects-laden bloodbath. I’m guessing that the budget for this film would not have covered the amount of money spent on suntan lotion for Di Caprio on the set of The Beach. In American terms 12 million is practically nothing.
And by default being required to shoot the film on digital video has actually enhanced the film, or at least added to the feel of the film. Despite the ‘bigness’ of the premise the film manages to keep its narrow focus, in terms of looking at a cataclysmic event from the perspective of a small number of people.
The premise itself has to do with survival in a post-apocalyptic type environment. Our hero, Jim, played by Cillian Murphy awakens to find himself practically alone in all of London. He walks the empty streets to the tune of East Hastings by excellent post-rock Scots Mogwai, wondering whether it’s his lack of deodorant, or something he said or did that scared everyone away. At a wall where desperate people have left a ton of messages for each other, and from a flyby newspaper, he works out that something is terribly wrong in the United Kingdom. And we’re not talking about women getting the vote or the proletariat rising up and slaying their feudal masters.
Of course we know what’s happened, because before Jim woke up we got to see a bunch of well-meaning animal liberationists stupidly unleash a plague upon humanity by setting some monkeys free. A man-made disease, all that we learn about it from a scientist is that it is ‘rage’. The chimps, and then the people who get infected basically go berserk and spew blood everywhere, thus infecting more people. Before the treehuggers get into the lab, we see a chimp strapped down to a table being forcefed violent television.
The disease is pure rage, is transferred in blood and saliva, and affects anyone in seconds. Gee, I wonder what allegories someone could make about such a disease? Who knows…
So essentially we have a rage virus that affects the people exposed to it within seconds of contact, turning them into blood-spewing maniacs who also want to get all bitey. Of course the film was marketed as an uptake on the zombie genre, but it’s oh so much more than that.
For one these Infected aren’t after people’s delicious brains or their other sweet meats, they are mindless creatures drawn by insatiable hunger to attack the normals out there. Those attacked that aren’t killed become Infected as well. Kinda like the way Jehovah’s Witnesses try to infect others with their disease. They always seem to launch attacks at my household at the least opportune moment from my point of view, knocking on my door on the weekends at such a time where the full force of a hangover is at supernova brightness.
So the dangerous creatures in this film attack the healthy with the ferocity of Jehovah’s Witnesses on massive amounts of amphetamines. There’s no supernatural or occult aspect to the story, they’re just dangerous, completely intellect-free adversaries. From the looks of London in the opening stages of the film, they haven’t left a lot of people around to argue the point.
Our hero Jim stumbles around aimlessly until he finds himself attacked by the Infected a second time, where two balaclava clad, Molotov cocktail-hefting survivors come to his rescue looking as if they’re ready to either take down a bank or start the revolution, which may or may not be televised. Instead, Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) save Jim’s bony arse and explain what the hell is going on. Don’t get attached to Mark, because his purpose is only to show us how ruthless Selena will get in order to assure her own survival.
The attacks by the Infected are represented in the frenetic action of the camera work. It’s a cheap way of doing it, cheap but effective. Basically their attacks are represented with the sound of someone running very fast, and the snappy edits of extremely shaky and sped up camera work. I know how dodgy it sounds, but when it’s used on the attack at Jim’s parent’s house for the first time, it is surprisingly confronting.
The Infected prefer to come out at night and are attracted by light, apparently. As well Our Hero and new heroine are attracted to the Christmas lights they see atop a tall council estate (the British equivalent of what Americans term “the projects”, and what are called in Australia at least housing commission flats).
Two things come from this sequence: a mission and more normal people for us to care about: Frank (played well by the ever reliable Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Frank
Is a London cabbie who’s tough as nails but friendly and helpful, and willing to do anything to protect his daughter, despite the fact that she is quite annoying. Naturally, I mean it’s not like anyone was going to like him if he hated his daughter or anything.
They embark on a journey to a region north of Manchester after hearing a repeated radio broadcast by members of the army, telling people where to come for protection from the Infected and a cure for the disease.
Though of course it is CGI, the scene where Manchester, all of Manchester is burning in the background of certain shots is amazing. It’s amazing more from a conceptual point of view than from what is represented visually. The idea of a whole city burning, at least to me, is a frightening one. The idea of the city of Manchester burning, one of the largest cities in England, with its history and unique place in modern music, well, it’s simultaneously the best and the worst thing that could happen to the UK.
As they travel through the countryside, we get to see the strange set up of the group as an alternative, momentary family, replicated in the carefree galloping of a family of horses. It’s a sweet scene, but it’s only the eye of the storm as far as the film is concerned.
For when our protagonists find their way to their destination, the film gives us its ultimate message: the Infected aren’t the greatest evil our heroes have to face. There is nothing more fatal and intractable than a person, or a group of people who can justify the evil they visit upon others, dressing up their self-interest as necessity or even as virtue.
The real villains aren’t ravenous zombies hellbent on your destruction, it’s the guy with the gun (figuratively speaking, lest some gun nuts all get itchy trigger fingers at my perceived slight) who can calmly tell you why he’s fucking you over without even the decency to blush.
The story and some of our characters change significantly at this point, as the film’s focus changes as well. It gets downright nastier, which I truly appreciated. I felt, genuinely felt for our people, which is rare. Especially for a film that pretends to be from this genre, because usually in films like this I tend to identify more with the ravenous beasts trying to kill the annoying humans. Because let’s face it, people in general suck. Honestly, it’s true. Even the Dalai Lama agreed with me the last time I was drinking whisky with the guy. He’s a good drinkin’ buddy, but he has an annoying habit of forgetting his wallet or running out of money when it’s his round.
You can look at the film from a number of angles, and nearly all of them satisfy my needs when it comes to enjoying a film. You can look at it as a metaphor for current society, as a straight horror flick, as an allegory for class struggle for the Bolsheviks out there, as a jeremiad for where society could go in the future (which would look uncannily like the past). You could see it as just a compelling examination of what survival truly means, and the sacrifices it entails, and whether survival is worth it if it means sacrificing our basic decency towards each other. The film also beautifully manages to convey this ominous feel to proceedings, which was convincing at least to me. I felt as if the characters could potentially die at any given moment, but not that they should die, which for me is significant.
It can be taken any which way. All I can say is that it satisfied the film-loving needs that I possess way deep down in the subcockles of my tar-filled heart.
All the same I am mindful of just how much many other people of my acquaintance hated this film, some for legitimate reasons, others for reasons that don’t make much sense to me. I specifically remember being in a store that sells imported DVDs a few weeks ago where I unintentionally overheard a guy bitching to the person at the counter about how much he hated the film. I mean he really hated it. I was tempted to ask him why he disliked it so much, and did so, to which he replied “I just fucking hated it. I gave the DVD away an’ all.”
So he wasn’t the most articulate lunatic in the store. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to his opinion, or to be a head of state. All I know is that he’s not alone in his dislike. Many people have said something to me along the lines of “Eh, it didn’t do much for me. And pass the beef jerky.”
It worked for me. I have enjoyed watching it each time I’ve seen it, and get more out of it with each viewing. The performances to me were spot on, the look of the flick succeeded despite the budgetary constraints, or perhaps because of them, and I got a few laughs and plenty of chills out of the experience. I cared about the main characters, especially Jim, and liked the way they contrasted the “survival at all costs” mentality of Selena with the “c’mon, let’s be decent” attitude of Jim. Which turns to shit in the end, naturally, but that’s what I crave in films where complex concepts of ethical behaviour and power dynamics are reduced to zombies going on kill-crazy rampages.
And mostly it restored my faith in humanity, because it made me a believer again. Not in human decency, or anything equally worthless: it made me a born again believer in Danny Boyle and his crew. Jolly good show, chaps. Jolly good show indeed.
8 infected screaming for your flesh out of 10
"He was full of plans. Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive's as good as it gets. " - Selena, 28 Days Later