Matt here, waving at you wearily from that little country in the centre-left of Europe. So, for what will soon have been two weeks – but what feels like at least twice that – Switzerland will have been on partial lockdown. We’re still allowed to leave the house, though if we congregate in groups of more than five people, the Corona police will descend on us and… cough on us, perhaps? I’m not quite sure, because I’m being a good little boy, which means I’m practicing social distance with the best of them. My wife and I still go out to catch some sun and fresh air every day, but we stay at least two metres away from others, eyeing them cautiously.
It helps that we’re not exactly the biggest extroverts in the world. Our idea of a fun evening out rarely involves other people, at least not actively. Sure, before the Coronavirus epidemic we’d often be found in groups of dozens, sometimes even hundreds – but that’s what you get when you go to the cinema several times a week.
Is there an actor better than Brendan Gleeson when it comes to evoking the strange, rare combination of exasperation and sadness? Look at his filmography and you’ll find funny, poignant performances throughout, from The General and The Tailor of Panama via 28 Days Later (he makes it out of the film before the shaky ending, though not before breaking our hearts) to Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, where he’s the perfect complement to Colin Farrell’s thick, tragicomic protagonist.
I used to like a good, dark, depressing ending. I used to watch Seven as a feelgood movie. I used to think that Brazil‘s ending was actually as close as possible to a happy ending, given the situation Sam Lowry’s in. (I still think that.)
I don’t know what exactly has changed, but this seems to be an older, gentler me… who actually likes films not to end on a note of utter despair. They can still be pretty dark – but please, please, please, don’t think you need to bring about the complete and utter destruction of mankind, at least in Europe, Africa and Asia to make me enjoy a film. Killing most of the population of Britain’s horrible enough; you don’t actually need to top that one. It’s overkill. Haha. Erm.
Yes, we watched 28 Weeks Later, thanks to the kind programming people at Film4. The film’s actually surprisingly good, well filmed and cast, taking the premise and ending of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later further in intelligent ways. It isn’t a necessary, as far as sequels are concerned, nor does it manage to be as disconcertingly lyrical and moving as the first film is at its best, but it’s a smart, scary, effective horror film.
But it doesn’t half heap up the dreariness at the end. It’s not enough that kiddo is infected. It’s not enough that all the good guys die in various horrible ways: clubbed to death by Robert Carlyle, burnt alive by US soldiers (hey, at least Jeremy Renner got to come back and defuse bombs in Iraq, which has got to beat being fried by your own guys in the process of a zombie apocalypse), having your eyes squeezed into your skull by the hubbie who left you to be eaten by the Infected. Life in post-apocalyptic Britain isn’t pleasant to begin with… so do we really need to end on dozens of Rage-infected Frenchmen running towards the Eiffel Tower, most likely after having had a good nosh on us?
It’s totally silly, I know – but I appreciated that there was a note of hope at the end of 28 Days Later. It wasn’t a happy ending by any means, what with most of England dead and gnawed on, but at least it could get better. Ending on “You thought there was hope? Nope, unless hope in your books means, ‘Well, the Frenchies get killed too! Haha!'”? Now that’s just plain mean.
28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.
Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.
Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.
After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.
Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.
And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?
P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)