My hopes were much higher than my expectations concerning 28 Weeks Later, which I figured would be somewhere between "tepid cash-in" and "almost as good as the first one."
On balance, I think it's not entirely fair to compare this film with 28 Days Later, for they seek to do different things, but if I had to - really, absolutely had to - I might actually have to admit that the sequel is the better film. I'm not going to belabor that, but I had to get it out there.
Casting aside issues of relative quality, 28 Weeks Later works first and above all because it is amazingly goddamn brutal. In the good way, assuming that you recognize the existence of the "good kind of brutality." What I mean to say is that this is a film which does not present a sanitized depiction of dark events, nor is it a film that delights in putting its characters through hell for our "entertainment." It is a film in which the characters suffer through great agonies and the audience is made to feel sympathetic agony in response. As I've mentioned, many times, I find this to be the highest goal of the horror film, especially in the days of pornographic violence that we currently find ourselves in. 28 Weeks Later is easily the best horror film I've seen since The Descent, and for many of the same reasons: it is about adult issues that it treats with intelligence and sensitivity, and it gains most of its horrific effect by subjecting evil upon legitimate humans, and not cardboard standees in the shape of lusty young people.
Now, what this newfound infatuation with raw brutality means is that the eye-popping style of 28 Days Later is largely abandoned, and replaced by mere eye-popping. Ultimately, I think I'm glad of it; although I loved Danny Boyle's work in the first film, I can always re-watch the first film. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is Boyle's hand-picked replacement; but he is not Boyle, and he treats the material with a much different hand. Where the first film had poetically terrifying moments of light and dark set against a soundtrack of quavering art-rock, the sequel goes for frantic editing and Wagnerian techno. It is a grander film, which is not inherently the same as "better"; I mean that it is more direct and intense of an experience, an opera to the first film's chamber music. It is story of social apocalypse, and while that was the setting of the original, it was not the story, which was much more personal and intimate.
I suppose that's my cue to actually go ahead and take a look at the story in the new film: 28 weeks after the rage virus first got into the population of Great Britain, turning nearly the entire population into hyper-violent cannibals, London has been occupied by American soldiers operating out of a "Green Zone" (satire, much?) where they hope to bring some sort of stability to the area and permit the survivors of the outbreak to return and repopulate. Despite the fact that the infected have all been dead for some five and a half weeks, a single carrier still lives, and manages to spread the disease back into the Green Zone, where the Americans, not prepared for any sort of real combat, freak out, kill civilians, make a general hash out of things and end up having to firebomb the city to stop the enemy (no really: satire, much?).
Focus in a little bit tighter: this is the story of Don (Robert Carlyle), who watched his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) get taken by the infected days after the epidemic started; and of his children Tam (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) who were out of the country at the time of the virus. Don is haunted by images of his wife's apparent demise, and he is shortly haunted by a bit more when it turns out she was only kind of infected, and that is all I shall say about that, for the story very quickly goes places that are twisty.
Eventually, the story goes places that are very typical, although very well-executed, but that is not what I'd like to talk about. I'd like to talk about the ways in which Weeks is an apparent inversion of Days on almost every level. The first film was about survival: it centers on a young man who managed to not die for four weeks despite being abandoned in a coma, it concerns him and a fluctuating band of compatriots running away for no clearer reason other than the knowledge that here is extremely dangerous, and there can't be any worse. This concludes in a happy ending, in which the virtuous are mostly alive (and I do hate to bring that up, I know that neither Boyle nor screenwriter Alex Garland were very keen on it).
After the opening scene, set during the first week of the plague, the new film has a first act that is mostly about peace and rebuilding and family; upon establishing this theme, Fresnadillo and his writers tear it down in a most violent and shocking shift of tone that reminded me of nothing less than Psycho in the way that it completely interrupted the flow of the movie and essentially restarts everything from square one. 28 Weeks Later is not about survival, it is about the end of the world, and the ending reinforces that, while making 28 Months Later a virtual certainty (and how that film will be anything other than a "these are fast zombies!"* retread of Land of the Dead, I have no idea).
Shorter: the visions that stick in your mind after the first film are of Cillian Murphy wandering around an abandoned city; after the second, you are likelier to think of snipers gunning down civilians, or explosions blossoming throughout the streets of the city. Destruction, not isolation. The first film is a study of one man in an insane world, the second film is a study of that insane world falling apart.
There's no reason that this story should be pleasant, and that's why the horrific levels of violence in the film are so important. This film is hard to watch, scarier and more visceral than anything I've seen in a long while, and goddamned if that isn't exactly the way it should be. It's the end of the world as we know it, folks. It does not feel fine.