Saturday, April 15, 2006

All the Rage

28 DAYS LATER… (2002)

Unlike the loping creatures in the films of George A. Romero, the ‘infected’ of 28 DAYS LATER… are a blur. Possessing a body-snatcher like screech, they are ravenous predators, who kill for no reason but to spread disease. Their fast-moving and savage nature is similar to the zombies portrayed in Umberto Lenzi’s delirious Italian film NIGHTMARE CITY.

DIRECTED by Danny Boyle and written by novelist Alex Garland, 28 DAYS LATER… is a release of definite indie-film sensibility, a piece of punk-rock movie making that is quintessentially British, sneeringly aggressive, but hauntingly poetic. Shot on DV, this virus/post-Apocalyptic hybrid sees animal rights activists release a chimpanzee which carries an engineered plague, ‘Rage’. 28 days later, comatose motorbike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes in an abandoned London hospital and discovers the city empty but for vicious bands of ‘infected’, whose bite or blood spray spreads the disease, and a few toughened survivors. After hearing a radio broadcast professing to have the answer to the plague, Jim sets out with hardboiled pharmacist Selina (Naomie Harris), taxi driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), to travel North. Eventually finding the source of the signal, a refuge run by Major West (Christopher Eccleston) in a requisitioned country house, Jim and Selina discover that merely surviving isn’t enough.

Once outside of London the film’s palette changes, mixing the enduring features of England – a ruined abbey, a 15th century cottage, and the stately home - with scenes of claustrophobic horror traditionally associated with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Murphy’s performance is charming and oddly ethereal, outstanding in the violent finale, while Harris treads an instinctive line between tough posturing and tender protectiveness. Eccleston, heading the gun-toting shreds of devastated authority, swallows his borderline-psychotic role with ease, while Gleeson and Burns’ father/daughter relationship lends ballast. Shooting in digital video suitably captures a coldly clinical style, picking up every drop of rain and eruption of blood. The fast editing and tight framing add a raw brutality to the spasmodic violence, an adrenalised energy which creates particularly strong effects when showing the jarring, slashing movements of ‘infected’, and in the scene where Selina dispatches newly-infected Mark (Noah Huntley) with a machete.

Cillian Murphy wakes up to find London an empty
maze of wreckage and useless landmarks.

The power of the film is not that it hasn’t been done before, but that it hasn’t been done recently. Floating in 28 DAYS LATER… are lasting cultural artefacts, thoughtful re-imaginings of familiar themes and images explored in British science fiction. Waking in a deserted hospital (The Day of the Triffids), a sequence hinging on a flood of rats (James Herbert), a distrust of laboratories (DOOM WATCH), and the question of if everyone is dead what’s the point in living (THE SURVIVORS), all represent a throwback to fantasy formulae of yore. Furthermore, the depopulated London strikes a chord with an embedded psyche by everything from The War of the Worlds to DOCTOR WHO - THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH. Consequently, the film acts as a spiritual successor to these streams, but is given a tense post-millennial edge by Boyle’s stripped-down visual aesthetic.

Containing an evocative soundtrack of both peace and rock-guitar fury - a dichotomy that is fitting for a film obsessed with anger and the quest for calm - 28 DAYS LATER… also taps into millennial fears about chemical warfare and viral outbreaks. Released at the onset of the SARS panic, it is also a reflection of our increasingly stressful social interactions, employing the ‘infected’ as a metaphor for the breakdown of our behaviour towards one another. The film suggests that anger has become the defining emotional response in capitalist societies; ‘Rage’ is not an abstract monster, or based on the usual factors that cause violence such as race, religion or gender. Rather, it is a social condition that has no defining boundaries, a new kind of intolerance that is in all of us.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Daleks and the Nazis


THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH mirrors the Nazi Britain of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's IT HAPPENED HERE.

THE arrival of the Daleks has often been cited, with some justification, as the development that sealed DOCTOR WHO’s success. Malicious mutants encased in armoured machinery, Daleks are perfect little Hitler’s, ordering, exterminating and ranting in unison. Strictly cyborgs, the Daleks blend opposite extremes of science fiction menace: a regimented, hard outer shell, with a seething, tentacled inner creature. The most fundamental feature of Dalek psychology is an unquestioned belief in their superiority; other species are either to be killed immediately, or enslaved and then destroyed later once they are no longer necessary.

In their debut story THE MUTANTS, the Daleks were portrayed as a paranoid yet complex race. In THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH, The Doctor (William Hartnell) must now face a full-blown galactic menace, the Daleks establishing a huge mine in Bedfordshire, in order to remove the Earth’s core and replace it with a drive system to pilot the planet around the galaxy. More a ‘Dalek Invasion of the Home Counties’, the story is still one of the most nihilistic and iconic of the Time Lord’s tales. This six-parter also signalled the start of Dalekmania, but arguably may well have been the point where DOCTOR WHO turned from a limited-run children’s tea-time series with educational intent, into a national institution. The images of a shattered London and its environs are stark, and the collapse of civilisation is portrayed like the result of a World War II air raid. To further the WWII slant, the story can be seen as a "what if…" depiction of Nazi occupation, an appropriate re-emphasis for a race of xenophobes like the Daleks. With the resistance group clearly modelled on the patriots who resisted the Wehrmacht in occupied Europe, Terry Nation’s scripts essentially equate the story with this notion. The black Dalek of the mining camp is referred to as the ‘commandant’, and the extermination of all humans is their ‘final solution’. As if to ensure that nobody misses the point, one scene has the Daleks raise their sucker arms in a Nazi salute.

Davros and his creations. GENESIS OF THE DALEKS showed that the series was developing an appreciation of moral issues, reflecting Baker’s Doctor being more liberal and indecisive. Yet the intensity of the violence and high body count prompted angry letters to the Radio Times, and attracted the attention of clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

In GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, Nation revisits early Dalek history, elaborating (and contradicting) backstory in THE MUTANTS. Gritty and uncompromising, it pushed the show to its creative boundaries in every sphere of production, as well as introducing Davros (Michael Wisher), the deranged and disfigured chief scientist whose genetic experiments gave rise to the Daleks. A megalomaniac who demonstrates a cruel eloquence and cunning lacking from the belligerent creatures he spawned, rarely has a DOCTOR WHO villain been given such depth, and been played with such bravado. Obsessed with the racial supremacy of his creations, Davros takes the Darwinian idea that evolution favours the strongest, modifying embryos to eliminate the weaknesses of conscience and pity. The Doctor (Tom Baker)’s dilemma is whether destroying the Daleks – an act of genocide – makes him as immoral as the Daleks themselves.