Saturday, April 04, 2020

CoronaVirus CoVidEo Corner: Plague Film Bonanza: Part 4

To Recap:

Weirdo that I am, I'm commemorating the CoVid19 lockdown by watching plague movies, and because I love you, dear reader, I'm writing them up for you, and I'll end the series with a nice best-of countdown!

If you aren't up to date on the series, the rules for inclusion or need a full description of the scoring, or you want links to the other installments in the series, I'll put a recap at the bottom of this post, or you can read the full description, the official rules, and find links to every part of the series on the table of contents page linked here.

Scoring:
Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish) and no score (that would be unfair).

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (Is it the kind of scary that builds up, and stays with you afterward?) Dread & anxiety get points here.
Scary (Is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch?) Surprises and gross-outs get points here.
Plausible (Does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (Is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger (Does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location?) That's tacky, and I take away points depending on the amount of cheesiness.

Coming Up in this Review: 
Antiviral (2012)
Maggie (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Pandemic (2016)
Stephen King's The Stand (1994)
28 Days Later (2002) / 28 Weeks Later (2007) duology
The Invasion (2007)



Spoilers for every film, by the way.




Antiviral (2012) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny:
This Canadian film was directed by the son of famous body-horror-and-things-that-go-squish director David Cronenberg. It's a science fiction film about a future where people have become really good and unethical about microbiology, and really focused and also unethical about celebrity worship. The protagonist, Syd, works for a company that collects the diseases afflicting your favorite celebrity, and for a fee will infect you with them, so that you can suffer the exact same sickness your idol had. We see one character ask to be infected with his favorite star's herpes on the spot of his lip he would have been infected if she'd kissed him. When we see him later, he is wearing his herpes sore as a grotesque badge of pride. A cell-growing lab has taken a few cells from various celebrities, and grown them into pieces of meat their fans can eat to feel closer to their idols. Ew. In the film, Syd gets in  over his head when the superstarlet's disease he's put inside his body, and the people who want to collect it from him for their own profit, turn out to be more than he can handle.

The Good: This film knows its premise and explores it thoroughly. The premise is quite creepy and unsettling, so it is fitting that the film is very creepy and unsettling, too. We see the dehumanization of every single aspect, the sheer intrusiveness of this level of celebrity obsession. We see characters' ghoulish curiosity about celebrity gossip, health details, and pathogens. The film has a clear and consistent tone, and knows how to elicit in its audience the discomfort we are meant to feel about creepy, gone-too-far celebrity worship.

The Bad: To be honest, the performance of the lead actor just didn't hold me in the right way, perhaps because his character was so off-puttingly weird this choice may have been intentional, but still. The pacing of the film, and the tone, as well as the way it was filmed -- most colors washed out with overly bright lights -- was stark and clinical. A film this weird might have done well to recognize its inherent weirdness with a little more absurdity or parody. Instead, it was a bit self-serious, and never quite invited me into its world.

Scoring:
Frightening: This film had quite a few "That's disgusting" moments, but most of them were more in the abstract idea that someone would be into this or that celebrity-worship activity (news report publicizes the result of a celebrity's intimate health check, including a superimposed image of private parts over a photo of said celebrity - stuff like that), rather than the sense of looming dread. The horror is all in the sheer extremes the society portrayed in the film will go to in order to feel closer to their favorite stars. 2/5

Scary: There were a few gross-outs with blood and stuff, but this was a film about obsession more than any particular disease. The progress of protagonist Syd's disease, and the idea of injecting a celebrity's virus makes it a disease or plague film, but everyone doing creepy weird disease stuff opted in: this isn't a film about a contagion waiting on a subway hand ring to change someone's life unawares. None of the main characters experiences any disease they didn't choose for themselves. 1/5

Plausible: The technology might be a generation off, and a lot of ethical compromises distant from science we have now. There is a conspiracy, and the protagonist's performance as he gets sicker and sicker works. The film seems to be a parody of celebrity culture, so of course the premise and people's behavior is exaggerated a bit beyond the threshold of disbelief and keeps upping the ante as the film goes on... but then the actors play it small instead of going big like actors in a Terry Gilliam film, which might have worked better with a premise so over-the-top. 1/5

Awesome: The film mostly does what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do is so weird and off-putting that I'm not sure if I should give or take points for that. This film is as close to a DNF as I'll probably get without giving an actual DNF. I mostly watched it to the end as background while I was working on some stuff. 2/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? There's a new status quo by the end, but it's just a new iteration of the same weird society and weird obsession we've been exploring throughout the film. No penalty, but no points for the ending.

Verdict: If you like cerebral, weird films with slow pacing and washed-out lighting, you'll enjoy this. It's a lot of different kinds of weirds at once, which makes it a tough watching experience, but a unique one.

Total Score: 6/20

Maggie (2015) (IMDB Page

Score: DNF
I'm a little surprised by this one. I'm very fond of Abigail Breslin, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has done a good job playing to his strengths in the roles he's chosen over the last decade, but this film just didn't quite do it for me, and I tried twice. Maybe because it was late when I watched it, but probably because of the very slow pacing. It was attractively filmed, but too dark and shadowy. It's enough of a plague film to rate inclusion on this list, because it shows Abigail Breslin's character (Maggie) slowly turning into a zombie after being infected with a bite, but it can't seem to decide if it's really a zombie film, or a father-daughter film, or a sad meditation on the inevitability of death and loss that doesn't quite land. Yeah, there's some melancholy and some dread there, and it's sad watching Abigail Breslin's eyes slowly glaze over as she turns, and Schwarzenegger's character's agony as he watches this happen to his daughter is as credible an acting performance as he's done, but after 40 minutes, I started to lose faith that any payoff could justify such a slow buildup.



10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) (IMDB Page)

Big-time spoilers in this one, by the way. I find myself unable to discuss the film without spoiling ...the thing. Sorry.

The Skinny: This is a slow-burn thriller (just the kind I like) in the uneven, weird, and tangentially connected Cloverfield series of films. In it, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's protagonist, Michelle, is in a car accident, and wakes up in an underground emergency shelter run by Howard (John Goodman). He claims some cataclysm has occurred, and Michelle and another man, Emmett, must not leave, as a matter of life and death. John Goodman, in a fantastic performance, rules over the shelter, switching between routine and rules, and intimidation and threats to keep the shelter orderly. The film drips information out slowly, complicating things in both directions as we wonder whether Michelle is actually safe in the shelter at all, whether Howard is a good guy or a villain, and whether the cataclysm outside is scarier than the fellow running things underground.

The film is not obviously a plague film, but it is an apocalypse film, and part of the reason it's frightening is because for most of the film, the audience does not know what is outside the shelter, any more than the characters do. So... it could be a plague, and characters' choices treat that as a possibility, which is why we're including it here. There's some evidence it might be. Meanwhile, the film's constricted setting - it all happens inside the underground shelter until the... thing happens, and all we see of the world outside is through a tiny port window in the shelter's door - evokes the claustrophobia, inert frustration and helplessness that a lot of people are currently feeling in self-isolation.

The Good: This is the horror film equivalent of a sitcom bottle episode: the setting is confined, jacking up the tension relentlessly. The acting of the tiny cast is excellent. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is easy to like in just about every performance I've seen her do, John Goodman is fantastic, balancing the line between helper and bully, flipping from sad to terrifying on a dime. His behavior toward the two young people with him are the acts of a man who wants to make routines work for a long, long confinement... but a man who's hardened and willing take extreme measures if he considers them to be necessary. The scenes are well written and paced, the sound and music work, and it's a heck of a climax. The end of the film references HP Lovecraft in all the good ways: I like filmmaking that shows the monsters through edges and corners, moving lights shining through the slats of a barn door, images through foggy glass, a single tentacle that's clearly part of a much larger beast we never quite see, rather than showing it all in precise detail. Lovecraft's way of looking at things much larger than human scale through a human's limited perspective really works in good cosmic horror. That was the good thing about the end of the film.

The Bad: First of all, we're all already in self-isolation... a claustrophobic film about confinement, isolation and paranoia on top of already being a shut-in might seem a bit much. Perhaps a film about someone on a quest, or doing things out of doors, might be better for my mental health at this juncture. Lord of the Rings or Avatar would help me get the feeling of open skies, when I can't get enough of it from regular life. Here. Watch this for a while instead. For the film itself, the setup worked better than the payoff, in my opinion. John Goodman can be terrifying when he wants to -- see O Brother Where Art Thou or Barton Fink if you doubt me -- but by the end he was a bit over the top. I almost wanted him to shout, "Fee Fi Fo Fum." The biggest problem, though, is that after the payoff of the premise the whole film had set up, the confrontation in the bunker... the film kept going for twenty-five more minutes. Michelle escapes and something is out there. I understand that this is where the film connects to the other films in the Cloverfield franchise, and I'm always fond of films that reference HP Lovecraft's sense of the cosmic, but I kind of wish the film had kept the courage of its convictions: the first three quarters were an intense, confined film about constriction mistrust and paranoia, carefully written and awesomely acted... and then she escapes and suddenly it's a "monsters in the cornfield" film instead.

Scoring:
Frightening: This is where the first part of the film really shines. There aren't many effects: it's just a bomb shelter set and a few very good actors in well-written scenarios. But it pulls me in and makes me watch - and care - as a weird, uncertain situation slowly curdles into a disaster, as a big, possibly gentle man slowly reveals himself to be a monster. 4/5

Scary: Something is out there. And whatever it is, it's pretty horrible. We don't see much through the tiny A4 paper-sized windows, but what we do get is haunting. There's a short "let me in" kind of scene, but that's about as gory as it really gets until the climax. The rest is implied... which I like. I'm not wild about the new thing in film where people think that just because you can show everything, you should, and that somehow it's automatically scarier if you do. A film like this, or The Sixth Sense quickly puts the lie to that. 3/5 - the scares in this film are not of the "cat in a garbage can" kind.

Plausible: Given the fact that we're all shut in and wondering who in our building is gonna be the first to snap.... well let's hope things don't go to the lengths they do in this film, but the logic of the characters and the situation were good enough that I cared, and believed, for the duration of the film. The first part of the film was 4/5, but the final quarter was an entirely different film, and they didn't quite carry me along for that. 3/5

Awesome: I like how the Cloverfield franchise is giving us a cataclysmic event in bits and pieces, in the same way human protagonists would only experience certain aspects and corners of the entire situation. That is good. If we're going to have franchises and IP for our cosmic horror, at least we aren't getting omniscient narrators or fast-talking scientists who can unravel cosmic mysteries after fiddling around with test tubes and a microscope explaining things to us (ahem: Pacific Rim). That said, the film's two parts were just too disjointed, and going from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, scene actor, to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, action gurl, was too jarring. I would have liked an entire film like the first part, or an entire film about the second part, but smashing them together is like putting fruit salad on a pizza. 3/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? As I said earlier, this film explores one tiny corner of a world flattened by the invasion of a Lovecraftian monster. There was more, but the film also stands alone, leaving us to guess on the rest, one strong point of all the Cloverfield films so far.

Verdict: It's kind of two different films jammed into one, and either one of those would have been interesting and enjoyable, but stuck together with duct-tape and a jerry-rigged facemask, they were a little too dissonant.

Total Score: 13/20. I wanted to go higher for Winstead and Goodman's acting performances, but I'm satisfied with this score reflecting a film that had a number of strong points, but could have been better.

Pandemic (2016) (IMDB Page)

Score: DNF
More of a monster/zombie film than a plague film anyway, but the pacing and production quality weren't high, and the zombie scares weren't gritty, surprising, or fun enough to make up for it. Standard box-checking, boilerplate zombie apocalypse stuff, but nothing to distinguish it.

Stephen King's The Stand (1994) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: 
Stephen King was big news in the 1980s and 90s. I remember my dad regularly having a Stephen King book in his hand during my childhood. The Stand was a four-part miniseries and I remember watching them in my teens. It was on too late at night, so dad had to videotape it and we'd watch the episodes the next day. The story begins with a plague virus escaping from a military facility, and from there it escapes quarantine and wipes out most of America and the world, I imagine, but American media usually don't care what happens outside of America, so we never see that.

After the plague has run its course, the last half of the series turns into... almost a fable and a tale of good and evil as we follow a group of (mostly likable or interesting) characters gravitating either toward the community of good survivors, or the community of evil survivors, and from there I guess they have to figure out whether the future will be more like Mad Max, or a hippie commune. I'm writing about The Stand mostly as a plague story, so my review will discuss the plague apocalypse section of the film, which is in the first and some of the second parts of the four part miniseries.

The Good: This film's cast was just loaded with recognizable faces, and sports a startlingly good soundtrack of 80s and 90s pop songs. Some of the actors, including Gary Sinise, Matt Frewer (Trashcan Man) and Jamey Sheridan (big bad Randall Flagg) do standout work, and the cinematography, soundtrack and production value are very high. I remember the first part (of four) being the worst, as far as chills and horror goes. The dying and dead left a pretty strong imprint on fourteen-year-old me. The progress of the disease, and the helpless feeling as the plague swept, unstoppable, into every part of America were done well enough that I still remember how it felt to watch it as a teenager.

The Bad: Rob Lowe is not good at stage fighting. This show has the same blind spot as so much American media, treating an event that would have worldwide effects as if only USA existed (or mattered). After the top tier of actors who do very good work, there's quite a drop-off, and a few actors with significant parts are fairly weak, or don't fit the rest of the miniseries tonally. If self-isolation is giving you vast reams of uncharted time, I guess 8 hours of content is an excellent thing, but if not, it's looong, and it is basically two different stories -- one about a plague, and one about a post-apocalyptic world self-sorting into good and evil. To be honest... for all he can do as a novelist, Stephen King's dialogue sounds kinda clunky in actors' mouths in a television script. He should probably stick to writing novels. And once the film moves away from plague stuff and into the battle-of-good-and-evil stuff, it gets hokey. With all respect to Ruby Dee, her matriarch of the "good" crew, Mother Abigail, a guitar-strumming, Amazing-Grace-singing, slow-talking, porch-sitting black grandmother, is the most magical "magical negro" stereotype who's ever magicked. She is also just about the only person of color to survive the plaguocalypse. Perhaps there are unknown antiviral properties in mayonnaise.

Caveat:
I don't have eight hours kicking around, and I already put in big hours on the Planet of the Apes trilogy, so I'm skimming the last half of the miniseries, where the plague bits are all finished, as the good and evil people all flock to Mother Abigail in Nebraska and Colorado, and Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. It's a completely different story, to be honest.

Scoring:
Frightening: As I said, the helplessness of watching the plague spread, with no cure and extreme contagion, is well done. The idea of a sickness that starts off looking like a flu, before suddenly getting way out of hand, makes for a sickness well designed for an out-of-control spread. The makeup makes the effects of the plague quite gross, especially for 90s prime time television. 3/5

Scary: The stuff that could get past the censors in prime time 90s television pales in comparison to some of the stuff seen in the R-rated films elsewhere on this list, but they did a pretty good job within those constraints. The scariest 90s miniseries is still "It" with Tim Curry as Pennywise the evil clown, but this film shines past its low-ish television budget and delivers a few effective scares with some latex-heavy sick people makeup. There's a bit in the Lincoln Tunnel that is pretty harrowing, and stuck with me since I first saw this as a teenager. The impact of the early frights are also dragged down by pacing, but again, 8 hour miniseries, right? 3/5 - the scary bits are scary, but there aren't enough of them, and they're front-loaded in the first third of the miniseries.

Plausible: During part one, Ed Harris plays a military general watching the disease unfold from some kind of a control center. Working like a narrator, he talks about the disease's communicability (99% - yikes!), and the impossibility of containing it, describing how the virus works: this is the plaguiest part of the plague film. The outbreak starts when a disease escapes containment at some kind of military medical lab, and the soldier guarding the gate loses his nerve and escapes the base with his wife and kid rather than stick around to die. By the time he's driven across the USA, he's spread "Captain Trips" at every gas station and truck stop he visited, making it too late to stop the disease from spreading. If a disease this deadly escaped a government lab, wouldn't military police be wearing better gas masks than the ones construction workers wear to filter out sawdust? As the miniseries goes on, it gets less realistic and more fantastic (fantastic meaning like a fantasy, not fantastic meaning great), it loses plausibility points, though it's still fun in a different way. 2/5

Awesome: It has its spots, and mid-90s Rob Lowe is very very handsome, while Jamey Sheridan's Randall Flagg is a nice performance with just the right mix of menace and mischief, but to be honest, the high points are spread out a little too far apart, as are the excellent acting performances. The music in the first half is really, really excellent, but trails off to boring mood stuff way low in the mix toward the end, lessening the impact of the entire story. If you're going to watch one very long, somewhat slow-paced, made-for-television plague program from this series, make it And The Band Played On, which is shorter, and much better written and acted. 2/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? None, but everybody dies in the first third: there's no more to be had. No penalties, but no points.

Verdict: The plague bits might be the best part of this miniseries, but they're over too soon and leave us with a totally different kind of story, punctuated by uneven acting and writing, and after alllll that buildup... a deus ex machina resolution.

Total Score: 10/20... And The Band Played On just got better and more poignant with age. This one... didn't.


28 Days Later (2002) /28 Weeks Later (2007) (IMDB pages: 28 Days Later / 28 Weeks Later)

The Skinny: These barely qualify as plague films: they're mostly monster/apocalypse films. I'm only including them because... they're some of the best scary films out there, so if I can jigger the qualifications to include The Descent in my social distancing/isolation films list, I can jigger the qualifications to include these, too.  This duology is about a viral outbreak that triggers uncontrollable rage in the infected, and turns them into red-eyed monsters who snarl and sprint in choppy film speed. I usually don't like running zombies, because they trade off frightening points for scary points, and frightening scares linger longer, but the durn films manage to be frightening and scary, they kicked off the zombie trend that saw to the creation of a huge amount of excellent zombie content since 2003, and have one of the best creepy music tracks in any horror film (2 of my other favorites). So let's at least mention them, though my write-up might be a little shorter than others.

The Good: Hugely influential. Brought running zombies mainstream. Also a good creepfest with gore, excellent scares, excellent performances, and good direction. 28 Days is probably the zombie film I've rewatched the most often, and the one that kicked off my zombie film fandom, while 28 Weeks is the rare pre-superhero IP sequel that holds up to the original.

The Bad: Hugely influential: brought running zombies mainstream. Some of the thematic bits were really really on the nose, including the way they created the rage virus, the zombie kid at the gas station in part one who clearly shouts "I hate you" even though all other zombies are nonverbal, and the clumsy "Who's the real monster here?" moment near the end that so obviously wants to make you go "oooh!" but instead made me go "ugh. Film-school preachiness." Click the link. You'll know it when you see it. Also, the very title: 28 Days Later shows that the film skips a lot of the initial outbreak stuff that would have done more to justify including this as a plague film.

Frightening: Again, sprinting zombies are not good at dread. They're good at explosive, startling action. I think thematically we're supposed to be thinking about how rage and hate are the real monsters, but the actual monsters in the film are so good, I tend not to think about that while watching this film. The idea men would form the kind of society they did in an apocalypse is the scary thing in the first film that lingers the longest... but there's no follow-up on that in the sequel, which kind of takes the wind out of those sails. The first half of #2 is probably most effective for building the sense of dread and then paying it off with an explosive climax... only to jack it up again during the underground scene. 4/5

Scary: Some of the best jump-scares and horror action out there, in both films. Danny Boyle filmed the zombies' movements in a different film speed than the non-zombie characters, so that while being gross and terrifying, everything the zombies do is also just a little uncanny. It's one of the few scary films that uses shaky cameras to really excellent effect. The way it takes 20 seconds after infection to turn into a zombie creates a bunch of awful "Is it gonna happen? It's gonna happen... I know it. Buckle up!" moments in both films, but especially the second. 5/5

Plausible: A few people make some really stupid decisions, but the fear and panic response people have when confronted by sprinting rage zombies is pretty plausible, and the more I think about it, this is what makes truly scary movies scary: showing the fear they create in the characters. We see hardened soldiers paralyzed with terror, and the zombies seem much more terrifying. What's implausible is the very concept of a zombie virus that can turn a person this completely, into this kind of monster, this quickly. A virus just can't move through a body so quickly and keep its host alive. The first film starts in a science lab, where a scientist doing horrifying experiments on chimpanzees, confronted by animal cruelty activists, defends himself saying "in order to cure, you must first understand" (this is the first part of why it qualifies as a plague film), and the second film introduces the idea of asymptomatic carriers, and shows very very clearly why they are so dangerous, allowing me to just squeak this film over the qualification bar and include it. 3/5

Awesome: Yeah. These movies are awesome. The second film lags a bit in the middle, while the first adds a nice thing with Brendan Gleeson's taxi driving dad, who adds charm and humanity to the ordeal. 28 Days Later is one of the most effective horror/zombie apocalypse films ever made, from top to bottom, and 28 Weeks Later has one of the best horror opening scenes ever made, and a pretty dang good ending too. 5/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? The first film's ending is indeterminate, which fits the tone of the rest of the movie. They get away from the baddies, but they're still in an apocalyptic zombie hellscape. The second one has a "there's more" stinger. And it's bad. Not goofy-bad like cabin fever, but bad. Even worse, after such a tacky stinger... they didn't even give us the satisfaction of a third film, which is the really unconscionable part. If Cabin Fever, utter shit, gave us a sequel, I'm mad that we didn't get further installments of these two excellent films. -1 point.

Verdict: These films are so good I manipulated my qualification criteria to include them. That ought to tell you something. That said, I do have to penalize their scores because of that, since we're rating the films in this series as plague films, not as films outright. I think my write-up is pretty clear on how I feel about these films.

The Score: While my scoring system underrated The Host, it probably overrates these films, particularly as plague films specifically. 4+5+3+5-1=16/20, so I'm arbitrarily subtracting two more points because I'm really stretching my qualifications to count these as plague films instead of either apocalypse films or zombie films. 20/20 as zombie films, 18/20 as apocalypse films, but 14/20 as plague films is about right.  They don't deserve to rank as highly (on a plague films list) as And The Band Played On or Contagion, our pandemic high water marks.



The Invasion (2007) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: Peak Nicole Kidman anchors a tense film about a body-snatchers-like space virus that rewires people's brains to make them into a zombie-like hive mind. A spaceship crashes on reentry, and its pieces turn out to be covered by a pathogen that rewires people's DNA (disgustingly) once they fall asleep. When they wake up, they look normal, except for patches of goo on their skin, and try to spread the virus through fake vaccinations and barfing. Dr. Carol Bennell has to find and protect her kid from the space zombies who want to infect her and her kid and make them join the hive. Meanwhile Jeffrey Wright is a biologist who figures out (in a single night) how the virus works, and the last half of the film is a race to get an immune virus carrier to a military compound where they can use his immunity to discover a cure/vaccination before the zombie baddies catch him and eliminate the threat his immunity poses to them.

The Good: The film has a good balance of tense moments, gross-out stuff during the virus infection/transition process, and creepy zombie people acting uncanny valley all over the place, hitting a lot of get-inside-your-head quadrants in a single movie. Because the zombie people display no emotions, there are some good tense scenes where Nicole Kidman has to blend into a crowd by acting robotic... an interesting wink to her robotic performance in The Stepford Wives. Watching this, it was a bit nostalgic to remember just how huge Nicole Kidman was in the mid '00s, and what it was like back when our culture had movie stars.

The Bad: The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a red scare movie, where the zombie people were a metaphor for communism and the film was an expression of American fear of communism. We can look back and consider that quaint, but the film tapped directly into the biggest social anxiety of its day. While this film updates the story with good effects and slick filming, it doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what the new metaphor is, given that communism isn't an existential threat to The West anymore. There's an attempt at the end to shrug at humanity's warlike, ugly nature, but it wasn't well set up by the rest of the movie, so the "maybe the real monster... is us" revelation is unearned, feels tacked-on, and is trite AF to begin with. Lacking a clear analog to communism, or a direct connection to the kind of society-wide anxiety that helped the original land, this film just comes across as an attractive frippery. 2007 had lots of things to worry about -- Bin Laden, war, terror, media deceit, weapons of mass destruction, the "Axis of Evil" and a US president willing to lie in order to start oil wars-- but those anxieties didn't get enough play to stick. There is a clunky information-dump scene at the end where, in a single press appearance, Jeffrey Wright explains everything that happened during a one-year time jump, in response to well-placed reporter questions. That's a weak-ass storytelling cop-out way to wrap up a film. The film is slickly written and made, but feels a bit like it's going through the paces. Nicole Kidman is just too put-together and gorgeous to ever believe she's in actual danger. The twists don't land, and the final climax is underwhelming.

Scoring:
Frightening: The "are they zombies or not" guessing scenes worked, though the surprises weren't surprising. The device where the transition into a zombie person doesn't happen until you fall asleep was also effective because as Nicole Kidman's exhaustion increases, you start to worry whether she can stay awake. Problem: watching someone struggle not to doze is not great cinema. The device where a perfectly coiffed and composed person in a suit and tie is the villain is alright, though they never really get their menace on and make me feel like Nicole Kidman is in actual danger. In Twelve Monkeys, you see Bruce Willis' character experience legitimate joy, and real pain. Nicole Kidman looks great, but she floats across this film like a bubble with a $900 haircut, which undermines the intended creep-outs. 2/5

Scary: One way the body-snatchees transmit their virus is by barfing on people or into things people will eat, which leads to some gross-outs and a good "Don't sip that coffee!" moment. Once they fall asleep and the virus changes people's DNA and rewires their brains, and some icky effects come into play as those sleeping bodies transition. The best scare of the film is in two or three moments where the infected people make gestures or facial expressions that are truly alien. The film does the cheap trick of using a sudden sound to turn an innocuous action into a jump scare. Boo. 3/5

Plausible: The speed with which they discover and implement a vaccine, and the ease with which this virus reveals its secrets strains credulity. More believable are the speed with which the body snatching virus spreads, and the reactions of people who realize their loved ones are no longer themselves. The zombie people discover who hasn't been infected by spotting people showing emotion, but in one ridiculous scene, (unless I'm reading this wrong) it seems that a couple of infected people jump off a building to  their deaths just to prompt a horrified scream from a non-infected witness, so that they can grab her and infect her. I have never seen an elevator door open and close fast enough that during a chase, a person's pursuer wouldn't be able to catch up and get in. I don't understand why, if everyone is infected and part of a hive mind, only the six people who originally came to catch Nicole Kidman are chasing her. Why wouldn't every zombie on the sidewalk join in?

It's fridge logic if you don't notice it until you go to the fridge after the film ends, and if it doesn't bug you until then, fridge logic is forgivable, but this had me asking those questions during the movie, which is not. 1/5

Awesome: Should have been better. It hits its notes dutifully, but never does better than that. The film never seems to have the ambition be more than a setting for Nicole Kidman to look absolutely great. During her peak, that was a reasonable thing to bet on, but this film doesn't quite manage to make it. Refer to The Bad above. 2/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Unless you count the "Maybe the real monster... is us" attempt at insight, no. But that's a bad, tacky thing in itself, so -1 point for last-minute message grubbing.

Verdict: This film was well-made and starred Nicole Kidman at her absolute peak, an up-and-coming Daniel Craig, and an all-time premise. The end result is weirdly a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Total Score: 8-1 = 7/20 7/20 seems a bit harsh, but even if I recalculate my scores more generously, this film won't deserve better than 11/20, and the fact I'm already having trouble remembering scenes and sequences other than "Boy, she looked great in that sweater" means I don't feel any pressing need to recalculate anyway. Pretty, but forgettable.



Those are the film reviews for today... remember to leave comments requesting films I haven't included yet, and share the series if you enjoy it!

Once again, here are the ground rules for the series.

Series Recap:

Back to the Table of Contents, where I explain all this in more detail.

Qualifying:
It has to be a film. There might be some great plague television out there, but I have a kid: binge watching six TV series that are too scary to share with my kid this week is off the table. I think I'm going to add right now that it has to be a narrative film, not a documentary.

The film has to be about a plague or viral infection. That is, the film has to put significant attention on what the infectious agent is, how it spreads or works, and what can be done about the infection. If the response is "we need to hide from/kill all the zombies" it's not really a plague film: it's a zombie film. If the response is "we can beat this if we discover and exploit a weakness in how the virus spreads" then it's a plague film. (So, World War Z: yes; Dawn of the Dead: no.) There's a little wiggle room here, and I'll be making some calls. Deal with it.

Scoring:
Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish)

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (is it the kind of scary that's moody, builds up, and stays with you afterward?)
Scary (is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch? Surprises and gross-outs get points in this category.)
Plausible (does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger - does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location? You know...the montage where the contaminated water ends up at a bottling factory while ominous music plays? Yah those are cheesy, and I will be docking points for them, depending on the amount of cheesiness.

It's unlikely that any film will get a 20/20 on this scale, because frightening, scary and plausible are usually a trade-off: films that make me jump like a cat usually don't also make me fear door handles, and a film that does both probably asks for a big suspension of disbelief in the plausibility category.


Go Back to Part 1 
Films reviewed:
(Carriers (2009)

Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)

Go Back to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Pontypool
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Go Back to Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:

This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation.


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