Two Films, One Review, No Holds Barred. For more, visit MOVIE SMACKDOWN!
The Smackdown. Of course it would be easier to smack "28 Weeks Later" up against the film that gave birth to it, "28 Days Later," but most conventional reviews are already doing that. It could also easily smack up against the post-apocalyptic "Children of Men" or even the "Planet Terror" half of "Grindhouse." As I watched this film, though, my mind took me back to 1986 when another surprise horror hit, "Alien," was being followed by its bigger-budget sequel "Aliens." Both "28 Weeks Later" and "Aliens" got new directors for their franchises, more money and more action. There were more Zombies and more Aliens in each and, to fight them, the military was brought in to show how ineffectual their swagger and weapons could really be. And each sequel decided to throw kids up against the creatures to really drive the jeopardy forward. Which sequel was the best follow-up to what went before?
The Challenger. I wish Roger Ebert was still writing reviews because he would most definitely decry the "idiot plot" moment of "28 Weeks Later." It comes when Don (Robert Carlyle) decides to plant a wet kiss on his obviously exposed-to-infection wife, despite having seen the Zombies first-hand and knowing full-well how the infection travels and how it has pretty much decimated the population of Britain. I watched this at the Westlake Village Promenade today at 4:50pm with a crowd of mostly teenage guys and even a lot of them were shocked at how ridiculous this was. This film (directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) deals with the "rage" infection which pretty much leveled the population in the original. Now it's over half a year later, and the United States has sent in the troops to secure the area and make it safe for re-population. They have a secure "Green Zone," helicopter fly-overs, snipers on the roofs and a supposedly secure bar on the grounds. Guess what? It's not secure and the Iraq metaphor goes from Code Green to Code Red as fast as Carlyle's character can get a hunger for human flesh. For the record, though, this film has a fearsome opener that really, really worked for me, and a first half that felt as fully-realized as all of last year's "Children of Men."
The Defending Champion. James Cameron took over the director's chair from Ridley Scott in this sequel to the 1979 sci-fi shocker "Alien" (which, I have to confess, is the first film I ever professionally reviewed). Sigourney Weaver's Ridley character has been found after 57 years, and now a bunch of gung-ho Marines have been tasked with going back to find out what happened to a lost colony. Naturally, this is a bad decision that will be regretted almost as soon as they set foot on this God-forsaken planet. The alien in the original was subtle and scary because we rarely got a good look, but this time there is all the alien you can stand and then some. There isn't a lot of great dialogue, though, probably because it would have just gotten in the way. James Cameron, of course, would direct a clearly superior sequel when he took on the "Terminator" franchise years later. "Aliens," however, is a great thrill ride but the macho military characters really don't hook you nearly so much as the crew of the Nostromo did. They were trapped and overwhelmed and they knew it.
The Scorecard. I don't think too many people would be surprised if I took the position that both "28 Days Later" and "Alien" are better than what they spawned if, for no other reason, they were so brilliantly original and frightening in their first incarnations. Both sequels are whirling dervishes of camera-work when it comes to looking at the Zombies or the Aliens. And both of them hook their audiences largely through the attrition rate of main characters, wondering who will go and who will survive. "28 Weeks Later" feels more like it could happen (even though it's obviously not going to) and "Aliens" feels more like the beautifully realized science-fiction masterpiece it has become known as. Both are technically great follow-ups. Remember, though, that the "Alien" franchise degenerated into the awful "Alien versus Predator." God help us when they make "28 Months Later." I will probably skip that one.
And the winner is...
The Decision. Coming out of the theater on opening day with my son, I was pretty sure it would be "Aliens" getting the nod. Then the "28 Weeks Later" feeling started to grow on me. And, after that, I started to remember the things I didn't like. Let's just say I traveled a road here. Much as I was gripped by "28 Weeks Later" in that opening scene and the empty-city shots which followed, it has too many "don't go in the room" moments where the characters do what only a movie character would do. "Aliens" remains solidly within its own reality (they're supposed to go in the room!), takes you on a ride you'll never forget and solidified its franchise with suspense, execution and thrills. It's not perfect, it's not even in the universe of like with "Alien," but it's damn good. A classic sci-fi tale for the ages and it wins this contest easily.
- By the way, on the subject of viruses that threaten to wipe-out life as we know it, my Hallmark Channel mini-series, "Pandemic," airs on May 26. Co-written with my wife, Jackie.