Apocalypse by the Numbers: 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later

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

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

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

Willis pops back and forth in time, eventually turning up in so many improbable 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 source to a geneticist and his son. We're led to suspect the plague is either the result of the father's research or of the son and his activist friends committing a mass animal liberation from labs and zoos. Meanwhile Willis keeps reliving his own memories of the plague, and particularly the sight of a man being killed at the airport shortly before the plague begins.

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

It turns out that the mass animal liberation is only a sideshow. The geneticist's assistant has the virus and is planning to travel around the world by jet to spread it. As he collected his ticket, about as thick as a Tom Clancy paperback and including stops in Beijing, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro, I found myself thinking that after a plane odyssey like that, inhaling a deadly virus would probably be a relief. Willis rushes airport security to reach him and is shot by a guard. The man he has been seeing killed in flashbacks is himself. But as 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 the weirdest was Corey S. Powell's in Scientific American (April, 1996, p.110-111). He asserts "12 Monkeys paints a picture of science run amok,"  "the surviving humans huddle underground, ruled by a Big Brother technological elite," and accuses the film of "grimly implicating 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 the reviewer saw the same film I did. How in the world Powell got those messages from this film defies logic. Yes, the underground society is technological. Whether it's "Big Brother" is hard to tell; Willis is a convict so we would expect to see him treated in an authoritarian manner, and there won't be a lot of privacy in those underground catacombs in any case. As for "science run amok," if anything, the film depicts anti-science run amok. The virus is unleashed, remember, not by the military or by an accidental 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? A group of animal rights activists (again!) invades a British research lab and unwittingly releases Rage, a super-lethal virus. In short order they become its first victims. Rage afflicts those infected with it with near-instantaneous dementia, projectile vomiting of blood, and uncontrollable aggression. I did wonder how anyone who vomited blood so prodigiously could survive for very long. I also wondered why such a lethal virus was being studied under such lackadaisical security, since Britain has some of the most ultra-secure bio-war research labs on the planet.

Fade to a black screen reading “28 days later.” Jim, a bicycle courier hurt in a traffic accident, wakes from a coma to find himself alone in a hospital room. I found myself wondering why IV’s that weren’t attended for a month hadn’t gotten severely infected, and why he wasn’t suffering from acute dehydration and malnutrition. I’ve yet to see an IV bag capable of supporting a patient for a month. But Jim disconnects himself and goes out in search 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 read anything. Given that he’s disoriented, that may be understandable, but if I woke up and found the end of the world had happened, I’d make it my first priority to find out what had happened. In particular, if I found a newspaper with the banner headline “Evacuation,” I’d read it to find out where everyone had evacuated to. But not knowing what had gone on, he stumbles into a church full of sleeping people and wakes them up. They are infected with Rage and Jim finds himself running for his life. He’s saved by two healthy survivors, Mark and Selena, who take him back to their shelter. Again, if I were in that situation and found two survivors who knew what was going on, I’d pick their brains until they bled. We do learn that people infected with Rage come out 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 tells him, the day before all broadcasting stopped, there were reports of infection in Paris and New York.

This disease acts so fast that it’s a bit hard to imagine how it could cross the Atlantic. An already infected person wouldn’t be able to get on a plane. (Sir, may I see your boarding pass? Growl, snarl, slash, chomp. It would be like passing the Tasmanian Devil through security.) The incubation period is so 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 reached the point that Rage cases weren’t noticed.) If the disease broke out inflight, the plane would either crash, be shot down, or be ruthlessly quarantined if not destroyed if it did somehow land.

Next day, Jim insists on seeing what happened to his parents. He, Mark and Selena reach his home, where he finds his parents took overdoses of sleeping pills. At least, Mark and Selena tell him, they died peacefully. By that time it’s too 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 light attracts Infected, who invade the house. In the melee, Mark is infected himself and Selena dispatches him graphically with a machete. She tells Jim that when someone gets infected, he has ten to twenty seconds to react before the infected person 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 former neighbors.

The next day, Mark and Selena discover more survivors. Frank and his teenage daughter Hannah are holed up in a barricaded high-rise. Using a hand-cranked emergency radio (they really exist) Frank picks up a message from an army detachment near Manchester. After some debate, the four decide that staying in London is untenable and pack for Manchester. On the way, the first decision is whether 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 too hard 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? But they opt for the tunnel, have a flat, and rather than drive the remaining fifty yards or so to daylight, stop and change the flat in the tunnel. They are, of course, almost overrun by Infected before they do. At least they could get at the 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 biggest problems 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 country that raised soccer hooliganism to an art form. Yet the expressways are absolutely empty. There are no abandoned vehicles, no gridlock as panicky citizens 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 turning flawlessly 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’s it. I had a ‘72 Vega that produced more smoke than that. This could have been a truly powerful scene. Instead, the smoke has the borderline visibility and lack of menace of Hulk Hogan’s mustache.

They locate the army post, only to find it abandoned. Frank accidentally gets infected by a drop of blood from a corpse and his last rational act is to warn his daughter away. Before Jim and Selena can react, Frank is killed by a soldier. Jim, Selena and Hannah are taken to the army camp, now located in an abandoned manor house. The soldiers had relocated here for safety after the fire drove Infected out of Manchester into the countryside. We never find out how the fire started, but with a city full of homicidally insane people, it’s hardly a surprise 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 eight soldiers commanded by a rather effeminate major, nine if you count the infected soldier chained in the yard. The hapless soldier got infected, but instead of being killed was merely knocked unconscious. The major has decided to take advantage of this piece of luck (good for him, bad for the soldier) to study the plague, 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 do they eat? If they’re cannibals, it could take a very long time for them to starve, but maybe the plague eventually will kill them. More important, what do they drink? Dehydration will kill them before starvation.

But the soldiers are getting desperate. They have no idea how long the plague will last or how many survivors there are. In particular they have no idea if there 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 to think their discipline would collapse so completely in only a month. Nobody in the film seems to have heard of a short wave radio or ham radio. Maybe I could understand 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 the Falkland Islands manage to block air transport in time to avoid infection?

The major found one of his soldiers about to commit suicide and rather unwisely promised to find women for them, a promise that Selena and Hannah unwittingly fulfill. When Jim learns of the major’s plans, he tries to escape with Selena and Hannah only to be knocked out by the soldiers. When a sergeant intervenes, he too is overpowered. Next morning Jim and the sergeant are marched out to the body disposal area for execution, but while the guards argue about killing the sergeant, Jim escapes. While hiding in the woods he sees a jet contrail and realizes there is still some surviving order in the world. He lures the soldiers back to the checkpoint, kills one and leaves their vehicle disabled so the rest are at the mercy of the Infected. Then he goes back to the manor house and frees the infected soldier, who promptly goes after his erstwhile comrades still at the house. In the melee, Jim, Selena and Hannah escape but the major, the last survivor, shoots Jim before being dispatched himself by the Infected.

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

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

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

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