By Darren Franich
Updated January 23, 2015 at 02:00 PM EST

The best movie ever made about an American sniper is a British film directed by a Spanish guy. 28 Weeks Later came out eight years ago and hasn’t aged a day. It’s technically a sequel to 28 Days Later, the movie that transformed the zombie apocalypse genre into the pre-eminent post-9/11 pop culture myth.

But Weeks isn’t Days. 28 Days Later is a lo-fi thriller, shot-on-digital, hyperkinetic. It’s an accepted classic—so when you watch it today, it’s always a surprise when the whole thing is nearly ruined by a final act where it turns out that the real monster was man! 28 Weeks Later is smarter and sadder, weirder and quieter, less thrilling but more urgent. Shooting on 35 mm, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo shoots with a mix of aggro-handheld kineticism and prose-poem stateliness.

Almost a decade later there’s a bumper crop of true-ish stories about the military in the Middle East. Compared to 28 Weeks Later, they all look painfully simple. So few films of the 2000s had more to say about American intervention abroad. So few contemporary Middle East war films even try, claiming an “apolitical” stance, which is really just stupidity or cowardice or probably both.

The sniper in 28 Weeks Later is Sergeant Doyle, no first name ever given, played by Jeremy Renner in the performance right before the performance that made him a star. We first meet Doyle on the rooftop of a building on the Isle of Dogs, the American military’s Green Zone in post-zombie London. Doyle is a silent sentinel and an all-seeing eye; he’s not above a little kinky voyeurism. “What’s on TV tonight?” he says, pointing his sniper rifle at a building and channel-surfing until he spots a naked couple engaged in some lights-on copulation. It’s a lighthearted scene, but you vibe onto the subterranean horror—here’s a man looking at the people he’s supposed to protect, staring at them through the scope of a rifle pointed right in their direction.

Sergeant Doyle isn’t the only character in 28 Weeks Later, because if you think about it for a second, it would be pretty weird to make a movie about a complicated geopolitical situation and only focus on one single person. Far more interesting and worthwhile to cast your net wide—and so Weeks begins in the middle of a zombie outbreak, with a typical John and Jane Q. Public just trying to survive. Robert Carlyle is the husband, Catherine McCormack his lady wife. In the movie’s first scene, they’re inside a barely-secured house with a few other survivors.

28 Weeks Later gets off on impossible decisions. There’s a little boy outside, knocking on the door, screaming, begging for shelter: Do you open the door and risk letting the zombies in? They do. Soon enough, the zombies—or “infected,” whatever you want to call them—are knocking down their door. There’s a moment where McCormack and the boy are in a bedroom. Carlyle’s on the other side of the room…and then the zombies run in the middle of them. McCormack screams for help. Carlyle looks at her…and runs away, closing the door behind him.

That decision haunts the movie. Carlyle can tell himself that he had to run—if he’d stayed behind, wouldn’t he have died, too? Isn’t it better that one of them live? We learn in a throwaway line that their kids are still alive, safe on a school trip abroad—shouldn’t those kids have at least one parent after the apocalypse ends? And yet: Here is a movie that starts with a man running away from his wife, leaving her to die. He has no choice, and yet he made a choice. This is the complicated emotional logic of the war zone, of Holocaust films, of worlds where the social order has fallen away. Or if you want to compare it to a recent movie, it’s like a less-metaphorical version of the beginning of Force Majeure.

Time passes. The zombies die off. A NATO force led by Americans takes up residence in London, starts repopulating. The Americans are played by Idris Elba and Rose Byrne—this film’s casting director deserves some kind of prize for future-stardom premonition. Carlyle is overjoyed when, after half a year, his kids come to live with him in the Green Zone. (The daughter is played by Imogen Poots, who’s kind of a thing now; the son is played by Mackintosh Muggleton, who has no further credits but can lay claim to the most British name not invented by J.K. Rowling.)

The kids are told explicitly: Do not leave the Green Zone. They immediately leave the Green Zone, racing through the empty streets of abandoned London. It’s a rhyme of the first great iconic scene from 28 Days Later, the empty cityscape. But there’s a lightness to the scene. It’s very Hope and Glory: The horror of an empty city becomes, through the kids’ eyes, the joy of feeling like the whole city has become your personal sandbox.

There’s a specificity to this emptied-out London that strikes you. At this point we’re acclimated to the Post-Apocalypse as a wild experiment in art direction. But this is a familiar London, with a bit more trash, overgrown grass. It’s still a real place. There are a lot of movies set in warzones that seem to argue that the warzone was created for the express purpose of being a warzone—movies that send American troops to a civilization that was ancient centuries before America was invented by rich British guys, and treat that civilization like a videogame setting where the only people in the city are good guys, bad guys, and bystanders that you shouldn’t technically shoot, though nothing bad will actually happen to you if you do shoot them, maybe you’ll lose a few points, maybe your boss will get angry.

So this is why a movie like 28 Weeks Later, which is clearly fake, can feel more real than “real” movies. You look at this shot and you wonder what it would feel like, walking through your old neighborhood and seeing no one and nothing.

The kids go to their old childhood home. And here’s a lunatic twist that plays genius upon rewatching: Their mom is still alive. She’s been living in their house, trapped, barely alive, clearly half-crazy and maybe too far gone. She’s so happy to see her son…but she hugs him too tight, starts scratching him. You understand what it must be like to live for half a year inside a nightmare; you understand how, after awhile, even your happy dreams must become nightmares.

The boy screams; the daughter pulls him away. The camera holds on this moment for a second: The two children who sat out the war, the mom who has survived horrors they can’t imagine until she became a horror they can’t imagine. Outside, there’s the sound of a helicopter. The kids run outside…and they see three troops, covered head-to-toe, pointing guns straight at their face.

The troops are there for a good reason—rescue mission, keep the peace—but the film treats this moment like a scare. You hold onto that image of the invaders with big guns. You can imagine that all three of those guys are basically good guys, who only want to protect each other—but you also see them holding guns on two kids who just wanted to go back to the house they grew up in.

Those American troops. They’re all American, even when they’re played by British people or Australian people. The first half-hour of 28 Weeks Later, there’s a low-lying, insidious weirdness to the American presence. From here, that weirdness becomes pervasive. The Americans pick up the kids’ mom, capture her, shower her down like she’s in prison, tie her up. She screams—we never heard her scream that loud when the zombies attacked her.

Turns out that the mom has some kind of genetic abnormality: She’s immune to the zombie bite. Doctor Rose Byrne wants to study her. General Idris Elba has a different idea. She might be immune, but she’s still a carrier. So he orders his men to kill her. “Run tests on her corpse,” he says.

Is this the right call? The virus decimated one of the most powerful countries in the world: Doesn’t it make sense to eliminate it? What is one life against the many? This is a simple question, but the movie doesn’t make it as simple. We have spent the first third of the movie getting to know this entire family; we understand how the loss of their mom would ruin them. Imagine if the movie that didn’t care enough to make you understand what this family is going through. Imagine if the movie just cut to the good stuff: Bang-bang, dead! Imagine if the movie didn’t even care enough to give anyone besides the soldiers a single line of dialogue. Imagine if the movie pretended that war was just a place for soldiers to experience moral quandaries.

But before they can get to her, Robert Carlyle slips into his wife’s cell. He says he’s sorry, so sorry. She forgives him. She says she loves him. They kiss—and that kiss transforms him into a zombie. (She’s immune to the virus; he’s not.) 28 Days Later brought a sense of realism to the zombie genre; the great thing about 28 Weeks Later is how it bakes surrealism into that realism, like a stealth missile inside a sniper bullet. You can feel how the virus is a metaphor for some larger pain that these two people could never get over—how, even if they had lived together after this, there would have been this black hole, that memory of Carlyle running away. Instead, Carlyle becomes a zombie, bludgeons his wife half to death, and then sticks his thumbs into her eye sockets until there’s more blood outside her than in.

There’s about an hour left in the movie, and this is when 28 Weeks Later gets going and never stops. The last decade-plus has seen the rise of a certain subgenre of war movie, a kind of nonstop-action POV film. Spielberg started this with the D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan, but Ridley Scott really cemented it with Black Hawk Down, which is like a neverending D-Day scene.

Black Hawk Down is an embarrassment of history—you could watch the movie a hundred times and never quite figure out what the hell the U.S. was trying to do in Mogadishu—but it’s a relentless achievement in you-are-there action. Of course, the film’s vagueness is part of the point. Mark Bowden’s book Black Hawk Down skipped freely from the perspective of the American soldiers and the local citizens; the movie cuts out the locals’ point-of-view, probably because Scott decided it would be a total bummer to ruin his sweet action movie with boring context.

The Hurt Locker is a much better movie, praised for all the wrong things and fascinating for a lot of reasons Oscar usually overlooks. The movie got dinged by a lot of people—one imagines a Baghdad citizen and a Marine bonding over how much The Hurt Locker got wrong—and, like Black Hawk Down, it’s a movie that pays a lot of attention to how hard war is on soldiers and barely seems to notice how hard war is on the citizens who live in a war zone.

So turn back to 28 Weeks Later for a second. Idris Elba knows that there’s an outbreak, and he knows it’s spreading fast. (ASIDE: In the 28 [Increment of Time] Later franchise, zombies strike fast: They bite someone and then move on. Once bitten, you become a zombie immediately. This was a radical twist on the zombie genre 13 years ago. Bizarrely, it still feels radical today—something I attribute to the fact that The Walking Dead slowed zombies down again. END OF ASIDE.) So Idris Elba institutes Code Red.

They force the citizens of the Green Zone into subterranean cellars, and then they lock them inside. This is the kind of horrible idea that could only be conceived by military bureaucracy. Predictably, it makes things worse—and before long, the people are getting attacked by zombies. In the centerpiece scene of the movie, people race through the streets of the Green Zone. Some of them are zombies. The snipers in the rooftop stare down, confused. “I don’t see who’s a target!” someone screams. Who are they supposed to shoot?

“Abandon selective targeting,” says the American General. “Shoot everything.”

Cut back to Jeremy Renner. He’s confused—did he really just hear that? It’s a confusion that you used to see a lot in movies about war: The moment when a man receives an order that he can’t quite understand, and he knows that his job is to execute that order, but some fundamental part of him feels like that order is wrong. Renner only has a few scenes in this movie to sketch his character in, and so it’s difficult to overstate just how completely this movie depends on the actor: On his unique way of looking tough and boyish, gentle and thuggish.

Remember a few years ago, when Renner was in every big franchise movie? In a weird way, Renner in Ghost Protocol and Avengers and the crappy Bourne spinoff are all direct variations of Renner in 28 Weeks Later: The good man who lives with the memory of bad things, the amused soldier who comes of as cynical but who’s really just sad.

All of those movies give Renner a Big Speech where he underlines all of this. None of those movies gives Renner a moment half as powerful as this scene in 28 Weeks Later. He looks through his sniper scope. He shoots someone, someone else, someone else. That first person was a zombie; that second person might’ve been a zombie; that third person definitely wasn’t a zombie. Hell, he’s only following orders. Aren’t these people probably going to die anyway? And if they don’t die, won’t they become The Enemy? Wouldn’t it be easier just to kill them? Except that then Renner’s scope falls on a boy—The Boy, Mackintosh Muggleton, just a normal kid in a war zone. And then Renner puts down his gun.

You could argue that this is an insane allegorical moment in the context of a fantasy film; you could argue that this is a zombie movie, so maybe it’s best not to read too much into it. From there, 28 Weeks Later really is just kind of a really well-shot action movie. But there’s a moment a little later on, when Rose Byrne asks Jeremy Renner why he left his post—why he came down to help them. “Had that boy in my sights,” says Renner. “He’s not a target anymore.”

There’s ruefulness in his voice, but also a hard-won heroism—and this from a character who is disobeying orders, who actually shot one of his fellow soldiers because he wanted to save innocent people. Sound insane? Of course it is. “It’s all f–ked,” says Renner. “You hear it on the radios. F–ked.” (That line could’ve come out of any Vietnam film. War movies used to take it for granted that, no matter what your political opinions might be, we could all agree that shit was pretty f–ked.)

By this point in the movie, the Americans have executed the final act of Code Red. The Green Zone? It’s all gone: Planes came down and blew it all to smithereens. 28 Weeks Later ain’t subtle, but it gets at something that most movies never even remark upon: The curious dilettantish quality of American intervention. Here’s America, as presented in 28 Weeks Later: “Good news, England! We’re here to save you! Ah, crap, you guys are having problems again? Forget it, guys, let’s burn this place to the ground and go home.” In the film’s perspective, it’s remarkably easy for America to come to England, and it’s almost as easy for America to leave again.

And can’t you see a version of 28 Weeks Later that’s entirely from the American perspective? A version that is just about Jeremy Renner the sniper? He arrives in an emptied-out London, ready to be a hero, ready to shoot some goddamn zombies. But 28 Weeks Later is a film from the British perspective—you never forget who the interlopers are. Fresnadillo is Spanish, and he shoots London with a tourist’s excitement for landmarks—the kids run across Tower Bridge!—but he casually contextualizes the film, too.

When the Americans firebomb the Isle of Dogs, the camera cuts to the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson in distant Trafalgar Square, looking on impassive. There’s a history here, a reverence—and you realize just how lazy it is when filmmakers ignore all that history, when they use a real-life city as a background for a showdown between the forces of Good or Evil. 28 Weeks Later is a movie where a virus turns people into zombies. (Then again, nothing in 28 Weeks Later is half as crazy or as insane or as reductive or as flat-out silly as the idea that the War in Iraq was first and foremost for a really sweet showdown between a badass American sniper and a badass Syrian sniper with mad parkour skills and an all-black wardrobe.)

When the firebombing takes place, the camera lingers inside of the military’s headquarters. They watch a TV row of surveillance cameras—and one by one, the screens blink black. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak’s restless camera pokes around the room, finding the faces of people who look extremely freaked out. You imagine that what they did just is weighing on their conscience; you imagine that they kind of know they did the right thing, but you also kind of imagine that they’ll spend the rest of their lives doubting.

The Americans aren’t the bad guys in 28 Weeks Later. Idris Elba doesn’t do much in the film, but he brings a quiet stoicism to the part. He’s not a villain; he’s just a guy trying to keep the peace. But 28 Weeks Later gloms onto the central paradox of our age of military intervention: How “peacekeeping” always seems to turn violent, fast.

Now imagine, for a moment, that someone decided to make a movie that was just about the people in that room. Maybe it’s a movie about Idris Elba, or maybe it’s a movie about one of the grunts sitting at a terminal, pressing buttons on drone strikes that eliminate people far, far away. (If you think about it, a drone operator is just a sniper with a comfier seat and zero chance of dying.)

Would it be interesting to make a movie that is just about those people, and about the internal conflicts they suffer, and how killing a whole lot of people really kind of messes them up? Sure. It sucks when you start to feel really bummed out because of all those people you killed.

But as a filmmaker, wouldn’t you be at least a little interested in, like, the people getting killed? Shouldn’t you be? Doesn’t 28 Weeks Later gain all of its power from the fact that the first half-hour carefully sets up characters on all sides—the people who make bad decisions because they want to live, the innocent bystanders who are ultimately destroyed by forces far beyond their control, the grunts who just want to do the right thing, the generals who decide what “right” means today?

Wouldn’t it be so lazy if 28 Weeks Later just pretended that every British character was an undifferentiated non-being—either a zombie or someone who isn’t a zombie but who might as well be a zombie? Wouldn’t this show a complete lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers? It’s wrong to ask for our soldiers to be perfect; wrong for conservatives to insist that all soldiers are Golden God Superhumans whose actions are above reproach; wrong for liberals to get upset when soldiers don’t live up to a pacificist-humanist progressive hallucination of globalized moral rectitude. But it’s right to call out our filmmakers when they pretend that the only way to tell a real story is to turn it into a one-sided fantasy.

Things don’t turn out well for Renner in 28 Weeks Later, by the way. As the survivors race through London, they are beset upon by the American forces. Poison gas falls through London—and aren’t chemical weapons one of those beyond-all-evil terrors, a form of warfare that most countries refused to engage in after World War I on the grounds that it was just too horrifying? They retreat into a car. The car won’t start. Renner is about to get out and push—when he notices a bunch of Americans with flamethrowers, walking through the gas, igniting everything in their path.

Renner turns to Rose Byrne, tells her to get the kids to the rendezvous point. (Renner’s best pal in the movie is a helicopter pilot—played by Harold Perrineau from Lost! This movie!) Renner pauses. You know, he knows, they know he’s going to die. “I’ll meet you there,” he says. He gets out, pushes the car to get it started…and the flames engulf him completely. (How many other people become a movie star by re-enacting an old Spike Jonze music video?)

It’s a moment of self-sacrifice, which is something heroes used to do a lot before franchises forced them to keep living forever. It’s also the end of a devastating little character arc. When we met Renner, he was a sniper up on a rooftop, staring through a scope at a bunch of people, every one of them a potential target. Actually, for first half of the movie, Renner is always on a rooftop—in the film’s depiction, the sentinels of liberty live thirty floors high. So 28 Weeks Later is a movie that challenges a sniper to come down to ground-level—to understand that the targets are people, too.

28 Weeks Later is not a movie with a simple message, though. By the end of the movie, the cute little boy has been bitten by his zombie father. He’s infected—but he doesn’t turn zombie. (He inherited Mom’s immunity.) The girl and the boy get into a helicopter, flee to Paris; in the film’s epilogue, we learn that the boy carried the virus to Europe, that zombies are storming the Eiffel Tower. So the film repositions our allegiance again. Hey, maybe everything would’ve been better if Jeremy Renner had just shot the kid in the face. That’s the cold reading of the movie: The perspective that says that sometimes the only thing you can do is point a sniper rifle at a problem and pull the trigger. Another reading is that everything would’ve been better if Elba hadn’t jumped straight from containment to extermination.

Or maybe it’s most accurate to say that everything would’ve been better if Robert Carlyle hadn’t left his wife behind. The film offers up an argument for that, too. When the little kid gets bitten by his zombie father, his sister shoots their father dead. (This movie!) She knows he’s been bitten; she knows that he’ll probably turn in a few moments. “We stay together,” she says. “Whatever happens.” What she’s saying is, basically: “I’d rather die with you than leave you behind.” In the context of the decision her dad makes earlier in the movie, this counts as progress.

28 Weeks Later doesn’t have any easy answers. That’s not the only reason it’s a great movie, but it definitely helps. There is a hunger right now for easy answers. Eight years after 28 Weeks Later imagined the post-apocalypse as a bureaucratized wannabe-utopia, most post-apocalypse films prefer to reduce their moral complexity to simple questions: Us vs. Them, say, or The Guys We Like vs. The Dude With An Eyepatch, or Matthew McConaughey’s Angelic Daughter vs. Cynicism.

And there is a hunger for a movie that can take the real-life conflicts we have all lived with for over a decade and reduce it to a simple story. A movie that cuts through all that annoying complexity and just offers a simple tale about a man doing his job, even if “I was just doing my job” sounds an awful lot like “I was only following orders.”

In 28 Weeks Later, an American sniper finds himself in an impossible situation and makes a moral decision. Imagine if the movie didn’t have that moral decision. Imagine if the filmmaker said that they weren’t trying to make any larger points. Imagine if the filmmakers just claimed that their story was important because it was true—as if the whole concept of “truth” in fiction films isn’t fuzzy. Imagine making a movie about one of the most complex armed conflicts in history and pretending it was just an action movie.

Imagine making a whole movie looking through a sniper scope. Imagine a world where you’re either a sniper or a target.


Email me at darren_franich, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Entertainment Geekly Mailbag.