Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's a Germ's World. We Just Die In It.

When you really think about it, the popularity of post apocalyptic film and fiction says some very mysterious things about the arts loving public. Are we fascinated by the all-too-possible tease of our own demise? Taking notes on what to do when disaster strikes? Actively trying to undo the damage before it becomes real? Or do we just have a soft spot for watching overgrown beards illuminated by homemade bonfires?
Whatever the reason, I too find any short story, novel, play, movie, miniseries, or religious cartoon pamphlet handed out on Halloween that’s seeped in anarchy and mass devastation to be truly fascinating. Hence, 2009‘s studio-made but straight-to-DVD released Carriers found its way up my queue faster than you could say ‘the quiet earth.’ Toss in a plague element (particularly when this viewer is nursing a hopefully non-fatal form of sore throat) and a supporting role filled by Chris Meloni and you’ve sold me well before the term PG-13 can muster even the slightest taste of discouragement. 

Quick Plot: The sun is shining as four smiling friends drive towards the beach with beers in their hands and flirtation in their eyes. It’s just like Creepshow 2...except instead of a carnivorous oil spill and porous raft, our characters are escaping a nationwide pandemic with no hope of immunity in sight.

And that’s about all I’ll say before delving into SPOILER CITY. Be warned: it’s a foul smelling land that rivals New Jersey in rotting trash and toxic fumes, but sometimes, to get to one special place you must hold your nose, close your eyes, and run faster than Danny Boyle’s infected to brave the cloud of hairspray on the way. In the case of Carriers, I want too much to discuss some of its plot and character choices to hint about it in a general review. For those who haven’t seen it, skip to the bottom (Rent/Bury/Buy) for my summary. All others, let’s talk:
Like Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf  (a film directors Alex and David Pastor cited as a ripe source of inspiration), Carriers takes the idea of society’s death in the wake of disaster and uses its possibilities to explore humanity. Excuse me while I cough up some pretentious tasting phlegm brought up by that last statement.
By the way, my pretentious phlegm wanted to say hi:

Continuing, our four main characters start out as standard film fodder: the jerky big brother Brian (Star Trek’s Chris Pine, hinting at some interestingly dark charisma lurking beneath a pretty boy exterior), his seemingly slutty girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), the Yale-bound nice guy Danny (Lou Tayor Pucci) and a shy rich girl Kate (Emily VanCamp). In a way, they’re all a tad off-putting and nowhere near as sympathetic as Meloni and his adorably dying daughter, but you know what? They’re wiling to do what it takes to survive, so like it or not, it's their path we follow.
Like every movie about the apocalypse, Carriers abides by the rule that strangers generally aren’t friends you haven’t met. Some are racist. Some are potential rapists. All can be liars and hypocrites and none (well, at least none that make it past the early days of infection) are generous and trusting. What I think Carriers does particularly well is demonstrate just how a normal, everyday human being can become the kind of stock villain that pops up in any disaster genre.

Take, for example, the character of Kate. Early in the film, she’s presented as a rather spoiled rich girl who simply wants to reunite with her parents, uselessly playing with dead payphones and tearing up at the suggestion of hopelessness. After she watches enough of the horrors around her, Kate learns--or perhaps, has always known and gains the confidence to actually put into action--how to influence Bobby into making a decision he’s been incapable of acting on in the past. Likewise, we see the valor of Bobby’s moral superiority slowly chip away as the reality of survival sets in with each passing tragedy. Even Pine’s Brian--a stock character fully aware of his own jerk-itude--evolves and devolves in ways most 100 minute films wouldn’t even think necessary to detail.

It's almost as though Carriers takes place around the 27th day of 28 Days Later. Characters like the Hazmat wearing germophobes come across as regular civilians still unsure as to what they're willing to do in a new world. Once devout (or fish loving) Christians choose their lives over risky human compassion. Doctors euthanize children before their bodies have a chance to fight a losing battle with disease. The world has given up, but nobody is confident in exactly what that means just yet.

Carriers is far from a great film and in some ways, not even overly enjoyable. Its story is as stark as its landscape is bright, but even that cinematography style is another interesting choice for a film that could have been so formulaic in both story and execution. Most post-apocalyptic films go for graying skies and try their hardest to color every blade of grass with dreary desolation. The landscape of Carriers is strangely untouched, a choice that makes the disharmony with what's happening in its human world oddly unnerving.
High Points
The opening misdirect-introducing typical pretty people on a joyride only to reveal the true nature of their roadtrip--starts with the right kind of twist that appropriately sets us in a world filled with the folks we know facing a situation we don’t
Similarly, the choice to start Carriers in the middle of the plague’s onslaught, with no flashbacks, prologue, or newsreels bombarding us with exposition, helped to make a surprisingly dense film move briskly without any real wasted scenes 
Though some of the scene’s dialogue inside feels a little too forced, the rescue center sequence (and its even sadder aftermath) is incredibly effective due both to the strangely unnerving empty bed/plastic curtain setup followed by the subdued earnestness of Chris Meloni

Low Points
While I have no real issue with the story ending how and where it did, the choice to introduce heavy-handed narration over home video footage felt forced and cheesy in a film that was in no way either of those things for 90% of its running time.
I’m not a big fan of the ‘extreme closeup on an importantly placed object’ trick often used to foreshadow an impending story action, and Carriers is guilty of this offense way too often
Lessons Learned
During a pandemic, gasoline may be sparse, but at least bullet supplies in handguns seem to be endless
Sand is dirt. (On a related note, if I ever start a band, this is so the title of our first single)
To avoid dropping any hint about accidental blood spatter during a plague, be sure to wear only dark colors and/or keep a Tide stain remover pen inside your pocket at all times
Millworkers do not appreciate having their windows smashed by darned kids 

Try to clean up after yourself before you go.

This isn’t an Idiocracy type good time or Pulse level of nightmare-inducing horror, but I highly recommend any fan of the post apocalyptic genre gives this film a rental with an open mind. It’s easy to write off as a sleek pretty-people-in-peril thriller, but Carriers succeeds at both delivering a well-paced thriller and tossing in new elements to well-worn territory in filmdom. I don't mean to oversell this as a classic or mini masterpiece, but for a crowd-pleasing eye candy flick relegated to your local video store (or, let's face it, Internet provider), Carriers has a lot to offer. Sadly, none of that is to be found on the complete lack of special featured DVD. Give it a watch, mail it back, then keep your eye out for the Brothers Pastor's next work.


  1. The main problem I had with this film was that in a plague riddled world, would people still lend a helping hand to their fellow neighbor or, in the interest of self-preservation, take from them what they need and move along? I think the latter more than the former and it was apparent that this film conflicted in its ideals. This was plainly evident in the scene with the two traveling Christian women.

    And the end totally ruined it for me. One of the worst resolutions (if you can call it that) that I've ever seen. In the end, its aesthetics were good (I did like the pacing and overall feel) but it just kind of fell flat.

  2. I had the same thoughts on my review. So in a post apocalyptic virus plagued America, we start pillaging and raping like crazy?

    Jeez. Here's hoping I'm on vacation in Europe if that ever happens.

  3. PoT: I disagree with your first point because I think the film took place right at the point where most people were deciding to fully take care of themselves. The four kids at the beginning are prepared to follow their rules but give in to momentary consideration to help Meloni's character, then realize his daughter is infection and promptly speed away. The Christian women were clearly conflicted but leaning towards the no-mercy side. It made sense for them to be somewhat moved by Bobby's (fake) story, but they hadn't quite worked up all the nerve to just give up and drive away. In another week or month, they may have shot the kids before giving them a chance.

    Which part of the ending bothered you? I rather liked the two survivors reaching this sort of abandoned paradise with total apathy, but I hated the last home video footage and I'm still somewhat mixed on the resolution with Chris Pine's character.

    Jaded: Loved your review. I think most post-apocalyptic books and movies really like to assume we pillage and rape once all hope seems gone, and sure, it makes for great entertainment, but I like to think there's some form of delay. But hey, I've seen post-apocalyptic films from other countries that go for the same plot, so I'd say it's an abandoned island or bust.

  4. But they come back with their cannisters and armed with guns. Not too be entirely pessimistic, but its at this point that I thought they would have killed both Meloni and his daughter. Brutal and bleak? Yes, but that's the way it goes. I think it would have made for a more compelling movie if at the end, they were on their last leg, needing help and someone else killed them for their supplies. Would have been more gut wrenching and interesting IMO. I don't know what that says in terms of my thoughts on humanity but I think it would have made for a more interesting film and character study.

    But I see your point regarding the whole delay in being desperate and maybe some inclination to still help out your fellow man.

  5. As far as the going back for Meloni and his daughter, I suppose it would have been just too harsh to introduce our main characters as child killers. In another month, maybe they would have just put a bullet in both their heads and taken what they needed, but maybe there was just some lingering innocence that gave them some compassion. Also, the film was originally supposed to hit theaters with a PG13 ending, so I suppose there's always that.

    Your proposed ending is a pretty strong choice. It's a shame there's no special features on the DVD, because I do wonder if there were alternate endings. Still, there was something about the total emptiness of the characters as they arrived at this beautiful and probably safe location that had its own haunting effect.

    But yes, seeing our leads completely down would have been hardcore.

  6. Emily I've given you one of those nutty awards that are floating around! You do deserve it me thinks! : )