28 Days Later (Netherlands/United Kingdom/United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The end of the world has always simultaneously fascinated and repulsed human beings. No less an authority than the Bible devotes entire books to the last days. And, since almost the beginning of science fiction, the apocalypse has been a popular subject. In fact, one of the most common science fiction subgenres (which gained popularity during the early Cold War era of the 1950s) is that of the post-apocalyptic survivor - an individual who lives through some kind of catastrophe (often a nuclear war) and must make his way through the hostile environment that exists in its wake.

Danny Boyle, the director of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, has brought his off-center perspective to this story. Armed with a screenplay written by Alex Garland, Boyle's vision of humanity's twilight has mankind wiped out not by fire, brimstone, and nuclear fallout, but by disease. The living are divided into two categories: the infected, who are more like mindless zombies than human beings, and the survivalists, who eschew making plans, realizing that "staying alive is as good as it gets." The allegorical nature of the movie is impossible to miss. And Boyle touches upon such potentially weighty matters as the fundamental difference between man and beast, and whether human beings are natural killers.

The movie opens with a brief prologue that explains the start of the plague (a misguided group of animals' rights activists release contaminated monkeys), then jumps ahead 28 days to a drastically changed world. Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens in an empty hospital where he has been laid up, unconscious, since before the calamity struck. Befuddled and disbelieving, he staggers into the streets and finds London to be deserted. When he is attacked by one of the infected – a slavering, red-eyed, feral human being whose only desire is to draw blood, his life is saved by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). They inform him of what has happened, and, after it sinks in, Jim decides to visit his parents' house. Selena and Mark accompany him. Soon, the humans are joined by a middle-aged man, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), and they elect to seek out a group of soldiers, led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), who claim to have the answer to the infection.

The first half of 28 Days Later is a road movie, as Jim and his companions make their way from London to Manchester using deserted highways and facing nearly constant attacks from roving bands of the infected. The second half is a more straightforward action/adventure. The film contains one significant twist, and Boyle adeptly blends elements of horror and drama with the science fiction. In fact, one of the things that sets this movie apart from many similar cinematic endeavors is its focus on characters rather than action. The movie develops Jim, Selena, Frank, and Hannah into believable individuals. The situation is crafted in a way that seems almost plausible, and, once it establishes the rules, never cheats. The film's "villains" have credible reasons for acting as they do, and the ending doesn't feel cheap or false.

When Boyle wants to shock us, he has no trouble doing so. There's a little of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) here. Several scenes in which the infected attack are genuinely creepy. One sequence in particular - in which Jim and Frank race to change a tire while a band of infected relentlessly approach - generates as much tension as any other 2003 motion picture. This is followed in short order by an effective character building sequence in which the protagonists enjoy a picnic while ruminating about what, if anything, the future might hold. Suddenly, Jim and Selena have become aware that the mantra of "just survive" is not enough.

I enjoyed 28 Days Later, although I would be the first to admit that it doesn't do much that's radical. It's better than most post-apocalypse stories because it cares as much about the characters and their circumstances as with developing battles and action sequences. Three of the primary actors - Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Megan Burns - are mostly unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The two recognizable faces - Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston - are character actors, not stars. Yet, perhaps because of the relative anonymity of the performers, the ensemble works.

28 Days Later is dark, the video quality is dubious (it was shot on digital video to curtail cost and provide a grittier look), and the subject matter is familiar. But the filmmakers counter these questionable qualities with solid performances, an intelligent script, and sure-handed direction. The result is a movie that kept me involved from start to finish.

28 Days Later (Netherlands/United Kingdom/United States, 2003)

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Christopher Eccleston
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music: John Murphy
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2003-06-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1