20th Century Fox.
20th Century Fox.
So I’m introducing a dear friend tonight to “28 Days Later” (2002). It is possibly my favorite horror film of all time, maybe even narrowly beating out “Aliens” (1986), “Alien 3” (1992), John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), the Sutherland-tacular 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and George A. Romero’s first three “Dead” films (1968, 1978, 1985). (Whenever “Star Wars” fans refer to their “Holy Trilogy,” I muse inwardly that those last three are its equivalent for zombie horror fans.)
My friend thinks it’s funny that I refer to “28 Days Later” as “my sacred cow.” I’ll be crestfallen if she does not like it, and I told her as much. And that’s weird for me … I usually don’t feel let down when someone doesn’t enjoy the same books, movies or music that I do. Not everything is for everyone. Art would lose its mystique if it weren’t subjective. If all art appealed to all people, it would lose all its appeal altogether.
Part of me feels, unconsciously perhaps, that “28 Days Later” is the kind of film that “redeems” the horror genre (even though no genre needs such redemption — if art is well made or if it affects people, then it’s just fine).
Most comic book fans of my generation can tell you how people can occasionally roll their eyes at their favorite medium. (Comics have far greater mainstream acceptance today than when I started reading them in the 1990’s.) For horror fans, it’s sometimes worse. Horror is a genre that is easily pathologized — and sometimes with good reason, because a portion of what it produces is indeed cheap or exploitative. I wish I could accurately describe for you the looks I’ve gotten when acquaintances find out that I’m a horror fan. They aren’t charitable.
“28 Days Later” and movies like it are so good that they elevate horror to a level that demands respect from the uninitiated. It is an intrinsically excellent film — it just happens to have a sci-f-/horror plot setup and setting. It’s beautifully directed by Danny Boyle, it’s perfectly scored and it’s masterfully performed by its cast — most notably by Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson.
And she was predictably impressed. Here are a few observations that came up for me, about the categorically rewatchable sci-fi/horror movie that keeps on giving. (Yeah, I know I sound overly preoccupied with this movie, and that’s weird, but I’m just really into movies. And John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is the same kind of classic for monster movie fans as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” is for people who like Christmas movies.) [THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.]
1) It was fun watching “The Thing” with someone who was seeing it for the first time. Not only did I have to stifle a chuckle at her cry of “That poor dog!” during the opening credits, but I also watched while she guessed (incorrectly, as most of us did) at which characters had been assimilated by the shape-shifting monster as the story progressed. (I noticed something ironic last night that I couldn’t mention. When MacReady delivers his short “I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me” speech, all of the men he’s addressing are also still human … Unless I’m mistaken, Norris and Palmer are elsewhere.
Which brings me to what at first occurred to me as a … remotely possible plot hole in this otherwise perfect masterpiece. If The Thing truly wants to escape Antarctica and prey upon the rest of the world, it doesn’t need to assimilate (or “Thingify,” as I like to think) everyone in the camp. It only needs to overtake a single human. (This would be the silhouetted figure that the dog first approaches; my money’s on Norris.) Think about it … nobody stationed at Outpost 31 remains at the research station indefinitely. They’d cycle out at the end of a shift of … six months? Eight months? Longer? (And what about vacations and holidays?) Sooner or later, they’d fly home. And, having perfectly replicated a human’s anatomy, The Thing need only sustain itself until that departure by eating the same food the other humans were eating. Then, as soon as it arrived at any other, warmer location on earth, it could attack life in its abundance.
But this morning I realized that my analysis here is faulty. First, the humans were already getting wise to The Thing and its means of procreation — thanks to a pre-diabeetus Wilford Brimley wisely intoning, “That ain’t dog.” Maybe The Thing was smart enough to realize the humans could effectively quarantine it. Second, I am assuming in my criticism that “The Thing” is acting as a single entity. Yet it shouldn’t act that way at all; this is the entire point of MacReady’s “blood test.” While one incarnation of The Thing is safely munching on canned goods disguised as a human, a separate incarnation was sitting in storage, exposed — presumably only until the humans finally realized it needed to be destroyed somehow. That iteration of The Thing needed to attack and duplicate Redding if it wanted to save itself.
2) The Thing actually shouldn’t need to reach civilization in order to begin attacking all life on earth; it only needs to reach the Antarctic coast. If it enters the water and begins assimilating sea life (and why shouldn’t it be able to?), then it’s game over. I said last night that “a fish can travel wherever it wants,” which my friend found pretty funny, but it’s true. A Thingified fish (or its fish-Thing progeny) could arrive at any continental coastline.
3) If The Thing replicates a human perfectly on a cellular level, then … might it be reluctant to kill anyone else, because it would basically be a human? (Obviously, the film’s plot-driving antagonist has no such reluctance, but … still, think about it.) If it perfectly replicates a human brain, right down to its cellular structures and chemistry, then wouldn’t it have a conscience and experience empathy? My friend pointed out the reductionist nature of my question, though — it assumes that conscience and empathy can have only physical origins.
4) The movie’s characters (and most viewers) assume that The Thing is “a lifeform” or an organism. Is it, or is it simply “live” tissue? Somebody on the Internet Movie Database message board pointed out long ago that it’s “just cells,” and that’s … literally true; the film even shows this via crude 80’s-era computer graphic. Is it an “organism” if it is simply tissue that replicates? Or is it no more a “lifeform” than a cancer, or tissue grown in a lab?
5) I honestly opine that the film is perfect, or very nearly so. It is the paragon of sci-fi/horror movies. And I’d put it on par with other films that I hold virtually perfect, like “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Aliens” (1986), “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), “Alien 3” (1992) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001).
6) My friend reaaaally likes Kurt Russell’s hair in this film.
Okay, enough. I’m sorry about this. Hey, at least I’m not obsessing over comics tonight.