How long does it take for humans to recover from severe trauma? How long does it take for us to morph ourselves into something completely different? After an extraordinary, terrible event, how much time do we need to pick up the pieces and go back to doing all the things that humans do—having sex, going shopping, being a vigilante, rescuing our damsel in distress?
The title of Danny Boyle’s new movie, 28 Days Later, suggests an answer. In it, we’re confronted with a scenario that would seem silly if it weren’t so far-fetched. But since it is, we are prepared to believe it: The world could end this way. It just might. And if it did, or almost did, we might behave in this way. We hope we would.
The film opens with a trio of black-clad animal rights activists/anarchists breaking and entering a London-based research facility. Their mission: to liberate the chimps that are being used for clinical research. The nature of the research is not quite clear, though it is plainly inspired by A Clockwork Orange. One chimp lies strapped to a table in front of a series of televisions depicting violent scenes. Real horrorshow.
Against the in-house scientist’s warning that these chimps are infected with a virus called “rage,” the Greenpeace anarchists release the chimps, who chomp the anarchists, who chomp each other. The virus spreads, and quickly, apparently killing off most of humanity. The screen fades to black. We are told four weeks have passed, and then we enter into the new London—a city laid bare by viral genocide.
What follows is part apocalyptic vision, part road trip movie, part zombie flick, and part superhero story. There are, of course, survivors, and these survivors are left to struggle against the infected humans (already known by the shorthand “Infected”) who live only to infect others. The Infected are like zombies, or vampires, but with a more realistic sense of purpose than in the horror films of yesteryear: They are driven by biochemical necessity. The rage virus must answer its insatiable anger and hunger; it is not pure evil, it is a physiological disease.
All is executed in stunning atmospheric digital video, making the film at once cloudy and antiseptic. We’ve seen this before, but not with these eyes. And it is rare to see a horror film put the Big Question so neatly: Are our heroes fighting against the villainous Infected, or against themselves? 28 Days Later makes clear that the evil that lurks within human hearts and minds is far more threatening than any biological virus—or even P.E.T.A.
But while the film asks all the right questions, putting evil and good in their respective places, it is also a story about something else altogether: the triumph of Cool.
Our hero, Jim, is a bike messenger. Jim is knocked unconscious in a traffic accident shortly before the virus spreads, so when he awakens, he knows even less about what happened than we do. He spills out of his hospital room into the deserted corridor. The Pepsi machine has been broken open, and he quenches his thirst before wandering outside. He roams desolate London looking for clues, shouting “Hello!” over and over. He has never seen his city like this—streets emptied except for overturned buses and smashed cars; industrial buildings blank of bustle; towering billboards still erect, but with no one to advertise to.
Soon Jim runs into some Infected, and he has to be rescued by two of London’s remaining survivors. These two—a beautiful woman and a nondescript man (guess which one will die soon!)—initiate Jim into the post–rage virus world. They carry weapons and travel in groups. If someone is bitten by an Infected, they tell him, you have ten to twenty seconds to kill them. If you don’t, they will kill you. Jim dismisses this notion—he won’t kill another human. He’ll find another way to survive.
The film’s centering element is Jim’s transition from a skinny, naïve newbie who takes the high moral ground into a ruthless hero of Spider-man proportions. When the going gets tough—when Jim, his love interest, and a father-daughter team they’ve hooked up with make their way to Manchester only to be confronted with a corrupt British military encampment interested mostly in repopulation vessels—Jim evolves into a gladiator.
One minute he is a likeable pansy, the next a consummate movie hero with specific references to Rambo. See Jim climb walls. See Jim overcome the odds. See Jim kill you in ten different ways. Jim handles the horny, trigger-happy British soldiers in quick fashion, restoring order to uninfected Manchester and helping his friends flee to the pristine English countryside.
The path along which Jim travels from weakling to warrior is a bicycle path. His status as a bicycle messenger imbues him with a cool, otherworldly detachment. How do we know this? Because bike messengers are the new arbiters of cool.
Slate knew this two years ago when it hired a Boston bicycle messenger, Andrew Weiner, to compose a weeklong online journal. The journal is a heady, fluid survey of the post–9/11 world, dispensed in bike-courier wisdom. Weiner lives by another code. He sees the city from his bicycle seat, a seat of privilege and esoteric knowledge. Weiner describes the bicycle-courier hierarchy of cool on display on park benches:
One set of benches usually belongs to the alpha-dogs and tough guys who ride to show how badass they think they are. They push impossibly steep gear combinations, never use helmets, wear shorts all winter. Another set holds the hipsters, rockers, skaters, and art-school kids—the new jacks. For them, riding downtown is about rocking a style and looking the part. They’re inked and pierced, have the latest deck shoes, wear studded belts over cut-off work pants, ride vintage track bikes.
As the journal proceeds, we learn that Weiner understands the city’s real power structure because he knows better than anyone how the grid works—which is really saying something in Boston, where knowing six different ways to travel between Cambridge and the North End can make you a legend.
Consider also Rob Walker’s recent New York Times Magazine article on the sudden sales increase of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Walker reveals how Pabst Brewing Company marketers made use of the cultural cachet of bicyclists to save their company from ruin. PBR had faded as a brand to such a point that bicyclists and other retro-chic drinkers in the northwest started embracing the beer precisely because it was unmarketed and so entirely hidden from the purview of mainstream beer drinkers. The brand had seen steady sales declines since the 1970s. But in the last two years, this underground-swell of support has helped sales climb—by nearly 10 percent in 2003 alone. “Cash payments to rowdy bike messengers,” writes Walker, have helped the libation become the drink of choice for hipsters. Even USA Today acknowledged PBR in a recent article on hipsterism, which would make it automatically unhip if any hipsters read USA Today.
If the PBR executives had only watched David Lynch movies, they could have discovered this lucrative secret of cool years earlier. Blue Velvet is fashioned in the image of 1950s melodramas with their honed blonde bombshells and dashing heroes and bullies. Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is the iconographic 1950s hip bully figure—he exudes confidence, dresses well, drives fast, talks in emotive chunks rather than complete sentences, and takes what he wants until it is taken from him. Frank’s drink of choice? PBR. “Fuck Heineken!” he yells after Jeffrey tells Frank that he prefers the green Amsterdam beer. “Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
Something of Frank’s confidence and quick violence exists in the Jim we see in the final scenes of 28 Days Later, but as we think back on the early scenes we see hints of his fundamental coolness even there. In Jim’s initial walk around post-apocalypse London, he is less frightened and curious, less desperate for answers, than would seem appropriate. He doesn’t scream, pull his hair, claw his eyes, or break down into feverish sobs. He walks about leisurely, with his head up. He almost smiles.
Perhaps this is the world as he always sees it, as Cool always sees it—turned upside down, exposed. The corporations always spill out offerings to the Cool, as the Pepsi machine does to Jim. He’s not surprised at the free soda and snacks. He takes what he needs and moves on. This is the life of the Cool.
The whole experience of 28 Days Later is itself an airtight package of Cool. You don’t get the photography unless you know Anthony Dod Mantle and Dogme. You don’t notice the soundtrack artists unless you listen to post-rock groups like Granddaddy and Brian Eno. You don’t recognize the actors unless you’re privy to British television or the most independent of movies. (Brendan Gleeson may be an exception, but for every Braveheart or Lake Placid he has a The General or The Butcher Boy.) Director Danny Boyle has made forays into mainstream film, but always with jet-setting packaging, and Trainspotting remains his most recognizable accomplishment. This movie is by the Cool, of the Cool, and for the Cool.
So 28 Days Later, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is not exactly a summer blockbuster. But Jim may well be the best hero of the summer, the hero most appropriate to the figures we admire. He has none of the internal conflict of Wolverine, nor the world’s weight of Neo. He is an unassuming, always-in-his-element, urban un-star. He knows how to saunter into a bar. He knows how to get his girl. His power is not the result of a red pill or spider’s bite or scientific experiment gone bad. He’s just a cool bike messenger, and that’s more than enough to rule the day.
Patton Dodd is an uncool writer in Boston. His book, My Faith So Far, is forthcoming from Jossey-Bass (2004).