Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Contagion


SPOILERS ABOUND!!

Breck Eisner's The Crazies was met with enough critical warmth that I started to think that it might actually be pretty good. Shows what a sucker I am, because the film is actually quite startlingly free of any kind of imagination, or even respect for its own scenario. Or, okay, not its own scenario, as it's a remake of George Romero's 1973 film of the same name, a film I'm also not overly keen on. However, there are moments in the Romero film I can at least look back on with admiration, while Eisner's take is like watching someone date-stamp a stack of incoming mail. You know precisely what they're doing, but have no idea why you would want to watch it.
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The Crazies, both versions, is a plague story -- more specifically, it's a quarantine story, and it is on this level that I want to focus. To dispense with the plot summary first: a bunch of people in a small rural town start to go unaccountably crazy, violently so, and the military swoops in to cordon off the joint, and to ruthlessly gun down anyone who tries to break their quarantine. Our heroes (Timothy Olyphant as the sheriff; Radha Mitchell as his wife; Danielle Panabaker as Mitchell's young friend and co-worker; Joe Anderson as Olyphant's deputy) are horrified by the brutality of this new prison-town that has sprung up around them, and seek to escape, both the military and the "crazies". So that's your story. There is much blood.
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My problem -- my main problem, because there are others -- is with the whole genre itself, or at least the way it's so often executed. Generally, and certainly in this film, filmmakers lazily settle on a black-and-white presentation for what should be a profoundly gray scenario. Just once I'd like to see a plague movie where one of the soldiers tasked with gunning down the civilians who seek to escape the quarantine take a break, rip off that goddamn gas mask, and break down sobbing. Instead, the portrayal of these characters is that of heartless automatons (often, a token "nice one" is thrown in, but in The Crazies remake, even that guy's niceness is burdened with some pretty big qualifiers) who at best thoughtlessly aim their weapon at a fleeing housewife and pull the trigger, and at worst find their inner bloodlust awakened by the job they've been handed.
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And why, might I ask, should it be assumed that our rooting interest always be with those who would break the quarantine? If they succeed, then they could very well be spreading these highly contagious and always deadly diseases to millions of other people. That's the entire reason the quarantines -- in film and in reality -- are in place. That's also the reason the fleeing housewives are being gunned down, but Eisner and his screenwriters have no interest in engaging with the logic of the story, or of their characters. The truth is that he heroes of these films, the Timothy Olyphants of the world, are usually mind-bogglingly selfish -- it is their safety that counts, and that of their loved ones. The rest of humanity can, quite honestly, fuck off. And it's not as though I don't understand the impulse to flee, but if these possibly disease-ridden people (and it's always the case that at least one of these heroes that have grouped themselves together actually does have the disease) gets shot in the head, am I supposed to think the solider holding the gun did something horribly wrong? Horrible, yes, but wrong? How many people did he just save with that bullet?
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As I say, it's a profoundly gray scenario, but almost nobody wants to engage with that side of it. Most often, they latch on to the "we are the real monsters!" idea (this is the idea on which Romero has built at least the second half of his career, and has also tried to retroactively apply to all the films he made before he thought it up), that not only means fuck-all in general, but usually means fuck-all within the very narrow confines of the individual movie. In The Crazies, as in many other similar films, the reasons for the quarantine, and the seemingly callous actions needed to keep it secure, are so plain that the filmmakers never even need to explain them (and they probably wouldn't if they thought they had to), but the story unspools as though it didn't matter. This person was shot, and that's bad. What's going through the mind of the man who pulled the trigger, or of those who gave the order for him to pull the trigger, are irrelevant.
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One recent film did actually address these issues, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge it, and that film (today's Collection Project Film of the Day) is 28 Weeks Later (d. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo). In this sequel to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, London is recovering from the "rage virus" that eviscerated the city in the earlier film. A quarantine has been set up, but one that, due to time and increasing resources, is able to be more gentle and communal. But strict rules apply: no one is allowed to travel into the parts of London that are outside the borders of the quarantine. When someone does, two children, early in the film, what happens? They bring the virus back inside. The military discovers this breach before the children make it back, but they are not heartlessly gunned down, as those trigger-happy madmen in The Crazies would no doubt have done. As a result, though, and as I say, the virus is back inside, and it spreads, and all hell breaks loose, to the point where the military has to open fire on a swarming pack of civilians, because if any of them gets out, and goes on the run, they will be spreading doom all across Europe.
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And guess what? That's exactly what happens. When both 28 Weeks Later and The Crazies were first released, I heard much talk about the political nature of both films, and the commentary on the way we live now, but I'm not sure anyone who made those nebulous points were considering the fact that, in 28 Weeks Later, the military is absolutely correct. It is because they are defeated that we see rage-infested people shrieking past the Eiffel Tower in the last shot. The people who escaped at the end of 28 Weeks Later were, ostensibly, the characters we were rooting for, and they succeeded. And look where it got us.
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PS - I freely adapted, to the point of quoting outright, this post from comments I left over at Arbogast on Film. If you read any of this over there, then I am profoundly sorry.

13 comments:

WalkerP said...

When is the last time you watched the Romero version? Because it reads to me like you are imposing your analysis of the remake on the original and doing a disservice to the original. I haven't seen the remake, but the main moral character in the original is the military guy in charge. He is shown as being very ambivalent about his job and what he has to do, but carrying it out nonetheless. The final scene is him being helicoptered out, knowing he failed here and will now be called upon to do the same job at a larger scale in a new location. He is portrayed sympathetically and it forces the audience to rethink their feelings towards the other protagonists.


I do agree that none of the soldiers themselves are portrayed with any nuance, but that can also be attributed to a sacrifice of narrative. The real bad guys in the original are the suits back in Washington, who created the problem in the first place and are now seen only trying to distance themselves from it and perform damage control on the message, rather than dealing with the seriousness of the actual problem.

bill r. said...

Walker, the guy you refer to in the original is the token "nice guy" I mentioned, and besides that, my quarrel in this post was mainly with the remake. But either way, in Romero's film, the job itself is treated as wrong (or so I remember; it has been a while, I admit), while the job itself, while horrible, could be morally justified. No one cares to do that.

WalkerP said...

He's not token. That's my point.

Beyond that, though, yes, I think taking on the moral idea that the greater good can sometimes justify individual bad is something Hollywood will never touch. 2012 is another good example of that, with the idea that it is somehow morally wrong to not allow everybody on arcs that have limited space. We live in soft times.

bill r. said...

Okay, maybe he's not "token", but he's all alone in his decency. As far as my argument here goes, that amounts to the same thing.

Neil Sarver said...

I completely agree with you. It's a lazy, thoughtless movie, especially for all the reasons you mentioned.

I've not seen the original in some time, but my memory of it is a very flawed movie with great ideas and even moments of real greatness. As such, seemingly a perfect movie to remake. Unfortunately, the remake wasn't interested in picking up on any of the things that were great (or at least approaching greatness) in the original.

I also have to add that I think, considering their viewpoint, making Olyphant's character the police chief was frustrating. He is the keeper of order in this town and the army comes with seemingly no attempt to solicit his cooperation? Heck, there's not even particularly, to my memory, any mention that it would be weird to do that.

bill r. said...

Great points about Olyphant, Neil, I hadn't thought of it. As you say, what's strange isn't so much that they don't have the military contact him, but that the filmmakers don't even consider that as an issue worth addressing, even if only to have the heroes complain about it.

So since you also didn't like the movie, are you as completely bewildered by the praise it got when it came out? Philosophical and narrative problems aside, I would have expected something in the filmmaking that would make me understand why anyone cared about this thing, but there was nothing. It's whitebread.

Neil Sarver said...

Thanks.

And, yes, I'm always surprised when movies like this get singled out for praise.

I can understand the "Meh, it was ok." people fine. I'm a "Meh, I didn't like it guy." myself. But it does seem like there was a lot of genuine enthusiasm for it and I have no idea what was there for those people to latch on to.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yeah, count me as someone who was also suckered into watching this based on the critical praise. I remember A.O. Scott raving about this on "At the Movies", specifically the standout scene in the carwash. Granted, that is a great scene, but the movie as a whole was about as interesting as Romero's...which wasn't very interesting at all. In fact, the movie bored me so much I had no desire to write about it at all for my blog.

You hit on a lot of the problems with this movie. There is something about Olyphant that I find myself gravitating towards. Perhaps its his cadence, he's definitely not a generic actor, and I think he's like the male Rebecca Pidgeon in that a lot of people think he's a bad actor because of the way he talks. But I thought he was fantastic as the villain in DIE HARD 4.

Oh, and I liked 20 WEEKS LATER, too. In fact I liked it much better than Boyle's film.

John said...

No argument here, except I've come to expect nothing more from current remakes than lazy, at best, rehashes that not only fail to improve on whatever weaknesses might exist in their sources, but generally succeed in making a mockery of whatever worked okay in them, as well.

I didn't like 28 WEEKS LATER at all (much like its predecessor), though, and while it might be superior to the Crazies remake in some ways, as I recall it didn't lack for dopey lapses in logic and credibility either.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Sounds like you're asking for Romero's movie! The lead Army guy is hardly a token nice guy---there's the brusque-but-brilliant doctor (whose frustration with Army bureaucracy is largely justified), the other generals, who are mostly tough-but-sympathetic, and even, as I recall, quite a few soldiers who initially try to talk gently to the townspeople before getting stabbed with knitting needles.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about the original film is its step-by-step procedural view of bureaucratic disaster, how each reasonable move ends up at a complete clusterf*ck. The attempt to establish quarantine often reminds me of many foreign military occupations---the soldiers know that they're trying to do the right thing, but walking into a tiny town while wearing a full-body spacesuit from which you can't talk and waving a gun around, well, that invites panicked responses, no matter how good your intentions.

Romero's actually very sharp about such things, ever since the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD---watch closely, and you'll notice that everything our hero Ben proposes is disastrously wrong, and everything the bigot in the basement proposes is right. I think one of the big problems with the remake of THE CRAZIES, like a lot of remakes, is that it's dragging a very era-specific movie out of its era. Much of the power of the original is in the images of terribly divided post-60s America---the shots of soldiers turning flamethrowers on brain-melted hippies would be unbearable without the comforts of genre. The remake doesn't---can't---muster that kind of resonance.

bill r. said...

Kevin - I think Olyphant is pretty good, but honestly, in this film, some of his "scared" reactions come dangerously close to mugging. That could be the director, I don't know, but I wasn't crazy about his work here.

I agree, 28 WEEKS LATER is better than Boyle's film. I like Boyle's film, mind you, but WEEKS is more visceral, and more complex. How often do you see an ordinary, decent man presented as someone who is also a hopeless coward?

John - Well, WEEKS ain't perfect, I'll grant you, but as I've said, it did largely work for me. I thought it hit on a lot of things, both in its take on the material, and in basic filmmaking matters (like performance, for instance) that too many films of its kind don't bother with.

Fuzzy - Well...maybe! I tried to focus my ire on the remake, as it's been too long since I last watched Romero's film, but that distinction might get lost in the haze. I don't remember the film being as smart as you describe, but I obviously need to look at it again. Even so, I'm not thrilled with the direction Romero has taken, or his talking-out-of-both-sides-of-his-mouth attitude towards his earlier work (it depends on his mood when you ask him whether he'll claim he had politics on his mind when he made NIGHT, or not), and I also wonder if you might be giving him too much credit regarding Ben's plans vs. the bigot's. Do you think he intended that? I don't know that I do.

But still! I don't want to sound like I'm not a fan, because to a point I am. I love NIGHT, DAWN, MARTIN, and am very fond of others. I just don't like hearing him talk about his films.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

It's hard to say for sure if it's deliberate in NotLD, but it sure is blatant. Ben says "Go to the gas station." Harry says "The gas station's a deathtrap." The kids take Ben's advice... and it turns out to be a deathtrap. Harry says "The only way to survive is to hide in the basement." Ben says "No, we should make barricades." The barricades crumble. Ben survives by... hiding in the basement. I'd be a little surprised if it *wasn't* intended.

But yeah, many a director's mouth is their worst enemy. Exhibit A is Spike Lee, a brilliant maker of extremely ambivalent, complex films, who can't help but mouth off like an undergrad when you stick a mic in his face.

John said...

Well, to be fair, everything Ben suggests in NOTLD is a lot more sensible from a longer-term survival perspective than Harry's rigid stance of "We gotta lock ourselves in the cellar indefinitely, with no TV, no access to supplies and no way out, and pray the things don't get through the one door in and out of the place!"

And let me just add (as I forgot to, last time) how hilariously on the mark Bill's comments on Romero were:

...the "we are the real monsters!" idea (this is the idea on which Romero has built at least the second half of his career, and has also tried to retroactively apply to all the films he made before he thought it up), that not only means fuck-all in general, but usually means fuck-all within the very narrow confines of the individual movie.

Yeah, the zombies are us! Except for that whole "being dead" thing, of course. And, true, as far as I know no living person ever tries to eat one of them. Plus living people can generally talk and interact constructively and, well, show signs of having functioning intellects, despite the occasional dumbass decision and whatever. But certainly, besides that, they are US, dammit, and WE are THEM! US! THEM! Crazy!

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