Apocalypse by the Numbers: 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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12 Monkeys

In this somber and moody film, we see Bruce Willis prowling the frozen anduninhabited streets of Philadelphia searching for specimens. It is 2035 and thehuman race has been nearly exterminated by a virus unleashed almost four decadesearlier. The survivors live in underground warrens. Willis is a convict who hasvolunteered to go to the surface in search of specimens, with the goal ofobtaining a sample of the original virus so a cure can be developed.

Humanity may be down but is definitely not out, because the survivors havetime travel. When Willis shows a certain aptitude for his work, he is persuadedto volunteer for time travel back to the start of the plague. His mission is topinpoint the origin of the plague and bring back a specimen of the virus if hecan, or at least pave the way for others. But Willis is sent too far back, andbetween his disorientation and unbelievable story, he is hospitalized as insane.But soon he's retrieved from an impregnable room by his handlers, much to themystification of the hospital staff.

Willis pops back and forth in time, eventually turning up in so manyimprobable times and places that he convinces the psychiatrist who examined himin the hospital that he is what he says he is. Together they narrow the sourceto a geneticist and his son. We're led to suspect the plague is either theresult of the father's research or of the son and his activist friendscommitting a mass animal liberation from labs and zoos. Meanwhile Willis keepsreliving his own memories of the plague, and particularly the sight of a manbeing killed at the airport shortly before the plague begins.

One of the limitations of the time travel is that Willis cannot modify thepast, and that contributes to the pervading melancholy of the film. WhateverWillis does, five billion people will die. Although this postulate eliminatesmost of the worst paradoxes of time travel, merely being in the pastchanges it. He displaces air, breathes oxygen that otherwise would have gonesomewhere else, talks to people that otherwise would never have met him. WhenWillis begins to feel compelled to save the psychiatrist, his handlers warn himthat if he deviates from his mission, they will kill her themselves.

It turns out that the mass animal liberation is only a sideshow. Thegeneticist's assistant has the virus and is planning to travel around the world by jetto spread it. As he collected his ticket, about as thick as a Tom Clancypaperback and including stops in Beijing, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro, I foundmyself thinking that after a plane odyssey like that, inhaling a deadly viruswould probably be a relief. Willis rushes airport security to reach him and isshot by a guard. The man he has been seeing killed in flashbacks is himself. Butas the assistant boards the plane, his seatmate is Willis' chief handler. Clearly,they will eventually succeed in obtaining the virus.

This film managed to garner some of the weirdest reviews ever, and one of theweirdest was Corey S. Powell's in Scientific American (April, 1996, p.110-111). He asserts "12 Monkeys paints a picture of science runamok,"  "the surviving humans huddle underground, ruled by a BigBrother technological elite," and accuses the film of "grimlyimplicating science as the cause of, or the product of, insanity."

Every so often I see reviews so off the wall they make me wonder whether thereviewer saw the same film I did. How in the world Powell got those messagesfrom this film defies logic. Yes, the underground society is technological.Whether it's "Big Brother" is hard to tell; Willis is a convictso we would expect to see him treated in an authoritarian manner, and therewon't be a lot of privacy in those underground catacombs in any case. As for"science run amok," if anything, the film depicts anti-sciencerun amok. The virus is unleashed, remember, not by the military or by anaccidental leak from a research lab, but deliberately by eco-militants.

28 Days Later

A thinking man’s zombie movie. How’s that for a contradiction in terms? Agroup of animal rights activists (again!) invades a British research lab and unwittinglyreleases Rage, a super-lethal virus. In short order they become its firstvictims. Rage afflicts those infected with it with near-instantaneous dementia,projectile vomiting of blood, and uncontrollable aggression. I did wonder howanyone who vomited blood so prodigiously could survive for very long. I alsowondered why such a lethal virus was being studied under such lackadaisicalsecurity, since Britain has some of the most ultra-secure bio-war research labson the planet.

Fade to a black screen reading “28 days later.” Jim, a bicycle courierhurt in a traffic accident, wakes from a coma to find himself alone in ahospital room. I found myself wondering why IV’s that weren’t attended for amonth hadn’t gotten severely infected, and why he wasn’t suffering fromacute dehydration and malnutrition. I’ve yet to see an IV bag capable ofsupporting a patient for a month. But Jim disconnects himself and goes out insearch of anyone else. He finds the hospital and all of London deserted.Newspapers and wall posters hint of growing disaster, but he never stops to readanything. Given that he’s disoriented, that may be understandable, but if Iwoke up and found the end of the world had happened, I’d make it my firstpriority to find out what had happened. In particular, if I found a newspaperwith the banner headline “Evacuation,” I’d read it to find out whereeveryone had evacuated to. But not knowing what had gone on, he stumbles into achurch full of sleeping people and wakes them up. They are infected with Rageand Jim finds himself running for his life. He’s saved by two healthysurvivors, Mark and Selena, who take him back to their shelter. Again, if I werein that situation and found two survivors who knew what was going on, I’d picktheir brains until they bled. We do learn that people infected with Rage comeout at night and hide in daylight. They’re not the Undead, but the Infected,dying and mindless, and are just as killable as anyone else. Also, Selena tellshim, the day before all broadcasting stopped, there were reports of infection inParis and New York.

This disease acts so fast that it’s a bit hard to imagine how it couldcross the Atlantic. An already infected person wouldn’t be able to get on aplane. (Sir, may I see your boarding pass? Growl, snarl, slash, chomp. It wouldbe like passing the Tasmanian Devil through security.) The incubation period isso short that anyone with the virus would be insane before the plane took off.(Although that often happens to ordinary passengers too. Maybe air rage reachedthe point that Rage cases weren’t noticed.) If the disease broke out inflight, the plane would either crash, be shot down, or be ruthlessly quarantinedif not destroyed if it did somehow land.

Next day, Jim insists on seeing what happened to his parents. He, Mark andSelena reach his home, where he finds his parents took overdoses of sleepingpills. At least, Mark and Selena tell him, they died peacefully. By that time it’stoo late to get back to the shelter so they spend the night in Jim’s house.During the night Jim makes an ill-advised sortie by candle light and the lightattracts Infected, who invade the house. In the melee, Mark is infected himselfand Selena dispatches him graphically with a machete. She tells Jim that whensomeone gets infected, he has ten to twenty seconds to react before the infectedperson attacks, and he’d better kill the infected person regardless who it is.Jim realizes to his horror that some of the slain Infected are his formerneighbors.

The next day, Mark and Selena discover more survivors. Frank and his teenagedaughter Hannah are holed up in a barricaded high-rise. Using a hand-crankedemergency radio (they really exist) Frank picks up a message from an armydetachment near Manchester. After some debate, the four decide that staying inLondon is untenable and pack for Manchester. On the way, the first decision iswhether to attempt a tunnel under the Thames. Jim, showing that he’s learning,suggests a less direct route over a bridge in broad daylight, something not toohard in London, where there are bridges every half mile or so. For that matter,why cross the Thames at all? Why not head out to the beltway around London? Butthey opt for the tunnel, have a flat, and rather than drive the remaining fiftyyards or so to daylight, stop and change the flat in the tunnel. They are, ofcourse, almost overrun by Infected before they do. At least they could get atthe spare. If it were my car, I’d just have to surrender and get eaten.

The drive to Manchester is uneventful and here’s one of the biggestproblems I saw in the film. I expect the end of the world to be messy,especially if it involves mass homicidal insanity. This is England, the countrythat raised soccer hooliganism to an art form. Yet the expressways areabsolutely empty. There are no abandoned vehicles, no gridlock as panickycitizens fled. Where are the feral dogs and cats feeding on the plague victims?One poignant scene shows the survivors driving past a wind farm, the blades still turningflawlessly after their builders are gone. They find Manchester itself in flames.No smoke, just flames. There are some smudges of gray in the sky, and that’sit. I had a ‘72 Vega that produced more smoke than that. This could have beena truly powerful scene. Instead, the smoke has the borderline visibility andlack of menace of Hulk Hogan’s mustache.

They locate the army post, only to find it abandoned. Frank accidentally getsinfected by a drop of blood from a corpse and his last rational act is to warnhis daughter away. Before Jim and Selena can react, Frank is killed by asoldier. Jim, Selena and Hannah are taken to the army camp, now located in anabandoned manor house. The soldiers had relocated here for safety after the firedrove Infected out of Manchester into the countryside. We never find out how thefire started, but with a city full of homicidally insane people, it’s hardly asurprise that one did, and of course there would be nobody to put it out.

There’s something a bit weird about these soldiers. There are eightsoldiers commanded by a rather effeminate major, nine if you count the infectedsoldier chained in the yard. The hapless soldier got infected, but instead ofbeing killed was merely knocked unconscious. The major has decided to takeadvantage of this piece of luck (good for him, bad for the soldier) to study theplague, and especially to see how long it takes for plague victims to die.More questions: why don’t the Infected turn on each other as well? And what dothey eat? If they’re cannibals, it could take a very long time for them tostarve, but maybe the plague eventually will kill them. More important, what dothey drink? Dehydration will kill them before starvation.

But the soldiers are getting desperate. They have no idea how long the plaguewill last or how many survivors there are. In particular they have no idea ifthere are any women left, and thus whether the human race has a future at all.Now I’ve served with British soldiers and I have more respect for them than tothink their discipline would collapse so completely in only a month. Nobody inthe film seems to have heard of a short wave radio or ham radio. Maybe I couldunderstand that in the civilians, but at least one of the soldiers should know.Is the plague really global, or did say, Hawaii, or Guam, or New Zealand, or theFalkland Islands manage to block air transport in time to avoid infection?

The major found one of his soldiers about to commit suicide and ratherunwisely promised to find women for them, a promise that Selena and Hannahunwittingly fulfill. When Jim learns of the major’s plans, he tries to escapewith Selena and Hannah only to be knocked out by the soldiers. When a sergeantintervenes, he too is overpowered. Next morning Jim and the sergeant are marchedout to the body disposal area for execution, but while the guards argue aboutkilling the sergeant, Jim escapes. While hiding in the woods he sees a jetcontrail and realizes there is still some surviving order in the world. He luresthe soldiers back to the checkpoint, kills one and leaves their vehicle disabledso the rest are at the mercy of the Infected. Then he goes back to the manorhouse and frees the infected soldier, who promptly goes after his erstwhilecomrades still at the house. In the melee, Jim, Selena and Hannah escape but themajor, the last survivor, shoots Jim before being dispatched himself by theInfected.

We see a black screen reading “28 days later,” just like the start of thefilm. Selena, who had been a chemist (pharmacist, to Americans), has nursed Jimback to health from his near fatal wound. The Infected are in the last stages ofstarvation and too feeble to be a danger. Jim, Hannah and Selena lay out a hugesignal on the ground as a reconnaissance jet flies over the house at treetoplevel.

Despite quibbles over some holes in the plot, this is a good, intelligentfilm, a worthy addition to the horror film canon. The characters are more thanflat cartoon cutouts. In contrast with the regrettable tendency of many films(Star Trek: First Contact being a notorious case) of playing young blackheroines as assertive to the point of abrasiveness, Selena is tough,self-reliant, and also appealing. The device of a virus eliminates thesupernatural mumbo-jumbo or vague appeals to “toxic waste” that other zombiefilms employ.


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Created 24 July, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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