A very British nightmare: 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s anti-imperialist zombie flick

Spoiler warning with immediate effect.

Content note: fictional scenarios mentioned of infanticide, racially motivated violence and (separate) sexual harassment, enslavement and attempted institutional and ritualistic rape-to-impregnate in a post-apocalyptic horror context.

Atop the Big Brother house, picking the undead off by long-range rifle through its outer fence, characters in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (Channel 4, 2008) wonder why zombies overrunning Britain gather outside. ‘Some kind of primitive intuition’, offers gauche outsider Joplin. ‘Don’t forget, this place was like a church to them.’ It’s a hat-tip to Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s film whose walking dead are drawn by a instinct to a shopping centre where survivors hide; iconic scenes show them traipse brainlessly down retail aisles, hardly distinguishable from their former selves. Dead Set‘s treatment of reality TV reprises this as well, and both stories (if Brooker’s more overtly) are satirical, picturing consumerism’s nosedive into actual flesh-eating.

Zombie narratives make thought-provoking commentaries since they differ from us only in being dead – we see in them a duller, hungrier echo of ourselves, one less pronounced in vampires or werewolves, and their worlds feel instinctively like places ours has the potential to become. Loving genre parody Shaun of the Dead (2004) plays with this theme, and Dominic Mitchell’s social realist horror series In the Flesh, screened earlier this year on BBC Three, is built around it, but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was the film to codify the zombie flick as social criticism, reviving and updating it as a cinematic form. Its creatures, not zombies in strict terms at all, are raging, hyper-violent Britons, driven by fictional infection to mindless hostility; the aforementioned stories all owe something to it, and repeat views leave me more and more convinced it’s a horror of national identity.

Released ten years before the 2012 Olympics, whose opening Boyle would stage as a collage of British cultural iconography, the same hand is still visible at work in it. Bleak as it is, the film’s landscape is packed with imagery of this sort: a deserted London’s skyline, silent at its outset, a red bus on its side as if lying wounded; the black cab in which characters flee the city; the ruined castle where they picnic and stately home where they seek refuge; Manchester’s smoking ruins and the Lake District’s glacial valleys. Boyle’s Olympic ceremony leaps implausibly to mind in certain scenes, as a looted supermarket’s trolleys glide balletically into shot, horses canter unaware through English fields and wind turbines whirl next to the M6. Moments like these alternate surreally with ones of undiluted horror, suggesting the two might be sides of one coin. As we switch from pastoral idyll to Wyndhamian hell and back again, Cillian Murphy forced in his first major to end a feral child’s life, the thought occurs that what the script calls a ‘diseased little island’ might itself teeter between the two – that both are part of Britain’s character, infection merely letting them resurface.

Christopher Eccleston’s grotesque but somehow dignified commandant, Major Henry West, leads a troop of human villains who by obvious design (perhaps to emphasise this point) bring empire to mind. Lamenting his soldiers grow lebensmüde in their fortified, once upper class estate and sanctioning the rape of survivors Hannah and Selena (Skyfall‘s Naomie Harris in an early part), he confesses ‘I promised them women, because women mean a future.’ That Selena is black, a fact would-be perpetrator Corporal Mitchell fetishises, gives the soldiers’ planned sexual violence imperialist connotations, and procreation here seems little more than pretext for it: if pregnancy is what they want and not just an excuse, why Mitchell’s harassment of Selena on meeting her? Why no question of her current fertility, or whether ambiguously adolescent Hannah can conceive at all? Why force them, as West’s underlings do, to dress up in scarlet ball gowns?

Aptly-named West’s real motive may be as as colonial as his chaining and yoking the infected soldier Mailer, also black. ‘What do nine men do except wait to die themselves?’ he asks while justifying his scheme, hinting at homophobic paranoia – is West afraid the homosocial interplay of his brigade (‘You killed all my boys’, he later tells Murphy’s protagonist), unchecked by ceremonial sex with women, might flower into eroticism? These attitudes to sexuality, gender and race, ones Britain exported worldwide at its historical brutality’s peak, are dormant mainstays here of its establishment, reawakened by the (not quite) zombie plague. Even West’s voice implies he aspires to this regime, Eccleston’s native Salford showing through the major’s plummier, affected vowels, suggestive of a man with establishment pretensions, determined to appear above his roots.

A newer imperialism features too, if subtly, in Boyle’s film, released a year or so post-9/11 in Britain and mid-2003 stateside. Its opening shot, inserted perhaps during the War on Terror’s genesis, shows scenes of police attacks on British demonstrators, public chaos in the Middle East and topoi which would otherwise become familiar in the years after, before cutting away to reveal these on television screens, shown forcibly to a chimp clad with electrodes. The rage virus’s spread, about which nothing else is indicated, begins when animal advocates release infected chimps from this laboratory; should the fact this is the sole hint viewers get at the infection’s origins tell us, on some impressionistic level, that world politics Britain was entering at the time somehow created it? That the rage of rioters, soldiers and war victims the chimps are made to watch somehow transfers to them, and subsequently infected humans? Major West, at dinner with the film’s protagonists before revealing his men’s plans, comments that ‘people killing people’ is all he remembers seeing before the outbreak, ‘which to my mind puts us in a state of normality right now.’ The violence of the infected stems, it seems, from that already harboured and practised by Britain, especially through military men like him.

The corollary of this, embodied in Selena and Jim’s relationship, is that whatever use compassion has as an antidote to carnage, it has here and now. Their love story, a better one than zombie films have often told us, lies improbably at the film’s core: Selena, hard as nails and able to dismember her infected friend initially, regains some measure of humanity from Hannah and Jim during the film, despite initially warning him ‘If it happens to you, I’ll do it in a heartbeat’; Jim, initially reluctant to kill and slowing the party down, unearths his lethal side in order to save her and Hannah at the climax. When Selena, mistaking him for one of the infected as he kills Corporal Mitchell with his bare hands, hesitates to attack, Jim tritely, knowingly remarks ‘That was longer than a heartbeat.’ The moment their attitudes meet in the middle is when we know they care about each other, a balance between callousness and mercy being struck which offers some degree of hope, as if walking that fine line might be what saves them, and stops our own society’s collapse into an abattoir. Boyle’s film is a British nightmare, a horror of things lurking in our nation’s woodwork and what might befall us should we fail to toe the line.

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Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.

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