Monday, October 14, 2013

The Crazies (2010)

In an age when we have endured Sept. 11, the Patriot Act, school shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters, calamities, acts of violence, and blunders, an update of The Crazies, directed by George Romero in 1973 during the social upheaval of such events as the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, could not have been better timed to be more relevant. It's not hard to envision some virus (like say, Swine Flu) running rampant through the population, and the government completely botching its response. Just look at the current government shutdown; our leaders don't seem capable of managing the day-to-day operations of government, much less something like climate change or nuclear-armed terrorists.

This remake of The Crazies (2010), directed by Breck Eisner, starts off on the right note with Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" playing on the soundtrack. Stanley Kubrick famously used that song over his nuclear explosion montage at the end of Dr. Strangelove, his black comedy about military and political blunders leading to the annihilation of humanity.  By using this song, Eisner indicates he will similarly take a social and political vision with his material. Unfortunately, this remake arrives with all the strengths and baggage of a top-drawer Hollywood feature, resulting in a disappointing movie that starts out promisingly before devolving into just another let's-run-from-the-maniacs-on-the-loose narrative that's obvious and predictable.

One day, in the idyllic farming community of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, a man with a shotgun wanders onto a baseball diamond during a game, and the sheriff, David (Timothy Olyphant), shoots him when he becomes threatening. That's the first of a number of weird and violent incidents that spring throughout town, and before long, the military has contained the town and rounded up everyone. Evidently, some toxin leaked into the water supply after a plane crashed outside of town, and the effects drive those infected homicidal. Soon, David, his pregnant wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), and teenaged Becca (Danielle Panabaker) are on the run, trying to avoid the Army's sweep operations and encounters with the Crazies.

On  every technical level I can think of, the new versions of The Crazies is superior to Romero's original. The acting is better, the special effects pack more punch, the editing is no longer jarring, and the cinematography and production can even be described as gorgeous. Eisner also does well creating a sense of the apocalypse, building a much wider scope than the original. We still don't see the plane crash that sets everything in motion, but we see the plane this time, in a neat reveal showing its outline under water. The action scenes in particular have been pumped up, and they, too, are better than the ones in the original. The film also includes more mystery and buildup to the insanity; Romero's plunged us right into the thick of things in the first five minutes, but here it's about thirty minutes before the military arrives with its quarantine.

When the military does show up, the movie still seems to be heading into fertile socio-political territory. There are some really good sequences of soldiers rounding up all the civilians in school buses and herding them into the high school for medical screenings. Those with a high temperature are immediately tagged and dragged off, strapped into a bed in a room full of other similarly effected people. It's paranoid, it's visceral, it's intense, and it's relevant. It's hard to watch these scenes and not be reminded of our responses to Sept. 11, the Boston Marathon Bombings, and airport security. And unlike in the original, there is no Col. Peckem or Dr. Watts equivalent in this version; the military and government here are for the most part faceless, ruthless, and monolithic. Frequent cutaways to an overhead satellite view of the chaos reinforces the notion of an even colder, more invasive Big Brother.

But once the situation is established and our heroes begin their flight to freedom, the movie turns into another action thriller. Instead of expanding on the paranoia of the earlier scenes, the movie plunges from one gory set piece to the next, and it doesn't take long for this to grow wearisome. The original concerned itself with the challenges, both practical and bureaucratic, with taming an entire town under siege, but our heroes have relatively few encounters with the military. Romero also peppered his version with dark humor and some genuinely taboo material, but here, there's nothing as distinctive as the sweet old lady with a knitting needle, the father raping his daughter, or the housewife literally sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Eisner loads up plenty of visceral shocks like the bit with the pitchfork and the encounter in the mortuary, but without the psychological unease of the original, they aren't as effective.

The movie also loses the unpredictability of the original. In the original, it was hard to discern who was infected and who was just hysterical. Here, it's quite obvious; at first, the infected act a bit strange and then become violent. By the end, all the crazies have becoming bleeding, black-vein-protruding ghouls who murder on sight; they might as well as have been zombies. Worse, the scares themselves are easy to predict. The movie has too many scenes of characters hiding from the crazies and thinking the coast is clear only for one to pop up for a jump scare, and every time David and/or Judy get into trouble, we can be certain someone or something will save them at the last second.

Despite the presence of better actors, the characters are blanks without the memorable quirks or traits of the originals. Olyphant at least brings some authority and command to the standard good-guy hero, but Mitchell is wasted, essentially all shrieking and crying. You'd think it would reflect some sort of gender advancement since she's a doctor and her counterpart in the original was a nurse , but she's always getting into trouble and it's always her husband who saves her. Elsewhere, only Anderson and Panabaker as their companions get more than a couple of scenes; I liked him despite the obviousness of his arc (infected but nobly sacrifices himself). As for Panabaker, it would have been nice if she got something to do.

Ultimately, what really sinks The Crazies is that it offers nothing new. The last decade has brought a glut of apocalyptic zombie, madness, and/or disease movies, including 28 Days Later, The Signal, Zombieland, and even the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and while technically well made, The Crazies doesn't distinguish itself in any memorable way.

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