Over the weekend, I watched Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later again for the first time since its original theatrical release. With a couple of years perspective, I enjoyed it a lot more the second time around.
Which isn't to say that I didn't like it back in 2007. I did - a lot. But this time, I could watch it without endlessly comparing it to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Back then, I penalised Fresnadillo's movie for not being sufficiently scary, and for amping up the action and big-scale splatter. But that's just not fair. 28 Weeks Later has plenty of good scares, from the superb pre-title sequence showing a small group of survivors in a remote boarded-up house suddenly overwhelmed by the infected, to the moment when the inevitable cycle of infection ramps up all over again with one fateful kiss, to a treacherous walk down a stalled escalator in a pitch-black tube station, decomposing corpses slick and crunchy underfoot.
There are definite parallels here between the claustrophobic simplicity of 28 Days Later (and Ridley Scott's Alien) and the tooled-up militarism and firepower of 28 Weeks Later (and James Cameron's Aliens). The same song played with different instruments, and there's nothing wrong with that, because it's all about the execution. Whilst the first chapter in both series focus more on anticipation and tension, guile and smarts and hiding in the shadows, the second installments shift approach slightly to things that explode or ignite or crash and go "Boom". Interestingly, though, for all the mounting shell-casings and rising pyres of flame in 28 Weeks Later, the element that makes it all work is the family that finds itself torn apart, put back together and then rent asunder all over again over the course of the movie. Without that, it would just be another Living versus Dead knock-down drag-out (albeit one done with a lot of style and well-judged gore).
The true horror of 28 Weeks Later isn't the rampaging infected let loose on London once again. It's the tragic inevitability of the moment when the American military realises that everyone has to die in an attempt to contain the outbreak - infected and living alike. A decision which is even more devastating once it fails.
The aerial shots of an abandoned London are just as starkly beautiful as they are in Boyle's movie. No clusters of pigeons in the sky. No swirls of smoke from the buildings. No streams of traffic crossing the capital. And no people. Yes, I know that someone in an effects house probably spent hours digitally removing all signs of life from aerial footage, but that doesn't make it any less striking.
And the street level shots of London are equally gorgeous, with every street corner marked not only with overturned cars and dark stains, but towering mounds of bright yellow refuse sacks full of diseased body parts awaiting disposal and incineration. (Yes, I am aware that I just described piles of corpses as "gorgeous"...)
Cillian Murphy spent the first half hour of 28 Days Later making a mental adjustment adapting to the post-apocalyptic world that disintegrated whilst he was comatose in a central London hospital, and the rest of the film redefining himself in order to survive in a new world. Here, the destructive guilt Robert Carlyle has been carrying for 28 weeks is the catalyst that starts the cycle of arterial blood spurts and mouthfuls of torn flesh all over again. Both actors display a different flavour of muted numb acceptance, and Carlyle is astonishingly good. No amount of cold clinical military logic can compete with the gnawing emotions of a shattered man.
Back in 2007, I hadn't seen The Wire yet, and The Hurt Locker didn't exist, so this time I was looking at Idris Elba and Jeremy Renner with different eyes. Disappointingly, the role of a stiff unyielding commanding officer isn't much of a stretch for the man who essayed the complex and ambitious Stringer Bell. But I couldn't help looking at Renner's character and imagining him as Kathryn Bigelow's daredevil Sergeant James and thinking that, after coping bravely and recklessly with all those unexploded IEDs in Iraq, he's still unprepared for the chaos of London's blood-vomiting infected.
iMDB teases that the long-rumoured 28 Months Later may finally become a reality. If it does eventually run bleeding and screeching to the big screen, it's got a lot to live up to. Here's hoping it's no Alien³.