Mon, July 7, 2003
28 Days Later
I went to see 28 Days Later and I was largely unimpressed. I had not planned to write a full review of it because I just wasn't interested in thinking about it for that length of time. However, there are certain movies about which I form an opinion based almost as much on the press the film garners as the film itself. I read an article in "Entertainment Weekly" today which made 28 Days Later one of those.
The film tells the story of a man who awakens in a hospital one day to find that the world is a very different place than the one he left behind. It turns out that a viral epidemic has infected a large segment of the population, turning them into flesh-eating zombies and causing the rest of Britain to evacuate the island. Over the course of the film, he meets up with some survivors of the apocalypse and we all learn something about hope and love and the function of society and the rule of law. (Blahbiddy blah blah. It's a rather compelling concept, but so was Johnny Mnemonic.)
28 Days Later is directed by Danny Boyle who attracted the attention of the film world with the grungy, drug-sodden Trainspotting and went on to direct the memorable, charmingly quirky A Life Less Ordinary and the truly abysmal The Beach. Boyle himself regrets the direction The Beach took, becoming mired as it did in studio politics and devolving into a many-cooks kind of imbroglio. Clearly, his response has been to retreat from studio-based filmmaking and tell his own stories his own way. 28 Days Later was shot for just a few million dollars on digital video. (Ironically, the result is that the mainstream studio system is after him again; Adam Sandler is reportedly pursuing Boyle for a new project.) I went to see 28 Days Later as part of a barter for The Hulk. (In Hollywood, we call this a "lose-lose.") But I also went because occasionally it's good for me to see a movie that I hadn't planned on seeing. It paid off with Capturing The Friedmans and it paid off with The Straight Story. If, however, I had been aware that this film was a transfer from video, I'd have run screaming in the opposite direction. Boyle's decision appears to stem from economics (cheaper cameras, cheaper film and cheaper/easier computerized visual effects) and not any allegiance to that dogmatic Dogme 95 hogwash, but the result is the same. Sure, call me a whore, but I say if you can't make a film look good then you should tell that story in a novel. Or maybe a radio play. I have no patience for ugly filmmaking, especially at today's prices. (Perhaps "Mad" Magazine had it right when they suggested that the ticket price should be a sliding scale based on the budget of the film. We'd pay $17 to see Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with its $170 million budget, but only 80¢ to see the $8 million video zombie movie.)
It's apparent that Boyle rationalized the decision to go video as contributing to the "gritty reality" of the piece. That's another one I don't buy. The opening reel of Saving Private Ryan was gritty and realistic, but it was still watchable. A good director makes decisions about how much hand-held camerawork to use and how to use editing to stifle the motion-sickness it causes. A good director knows when low-key lighting is contributing to mood and when it's degrading an audience's ability to interpret an image. Danny Boyle wouldn't know a good director if one booted him in the ass, and I rather wish one would. Boyle further ratchets up the gritty with screeching, cacophonous sound effects which make the zombies scary but at the same time make the movie unbearable. Also, he has one of those scripts that isn't built well enough to create any real suspense, so he relies on the cheap tricks of grisly gore and startling surprises to try to jolt the audience into forgetting that the film doesn't deliver. The concept of the film is intriguing, but it doesn't lead anywhere interesting and the filmmaking choices range from irksome to downright wrong.
But what really infuriated me was the tone of the "Entertainment Weekly" article, which implied that a) A Life Less Ordinary wasn't any good; and b) Boyle had finally returned to the genius he displayed in Trainspotting. First of all, Trainspotting was entertaining, but Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was much better in the chummy, grimy British indie category. Second, 28 Days Later is a hack attempt at originality, a film that assumes that the sum of a half-dozen counterintuitive directorial decisions is a fascinating new vision rather than just a counterintuitive failure. Every entertainment writer that buys into it is victim to the fallacy that liking something unlikable is "edgy" or "ahead of the crowd" rather than just "wrong." And finally, A Life Less Ordinary was cast brilliantly, directed with originality and flair, and performed with a tongue-in-cheek charm that – if not original – was at least fresh and energetic. It showcased the versatility of Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz; it exuded style from every scene; it featured Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci who are among the most gifted supporting character actors you can get. And it featured a full-fledged musical number set to Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" (a personal favorite) back before the counterintuitive failure Moulin Rouge made musical numbers "cool" again. Any director who shrugs off a master work like A Life Less Ordinary as among his regrettable projects is a director that needs a pickax to the forehead.
It'll be a damn shame if 28 Days Later propels Danny Boyle back into the A-list; a sequel to the Sandra Bullock rehab flick 28 Days would have been better after all. She's cute and it probably would have featured Steve Buscemi.