Friday, March 26, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carriers (2009)

"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper," wrote modernist poet T.S. Eliot in 1925, not long after World War I.

I couldn't get that famous passage from The Hollow Men out of my mind while screening Carriers, one of the bleakest and most emotionally-wrenching end-of-the-world thrillers I've seen since the age of The Day After (1983), Testament (1983) or Threads (1984).

Those films all arose out of the Cold War and the pervasive fear of a nuclear winter during the Age of Ronald Reagan (who insisted, wrongly, that a submarine's nuclear missiles could be recalled after launch, and famously joked about bombing Russia in "five minutes" on an open mic).

In keeping with these modern times, however, and with the rise of the H1N1 flu, Carriers has updated the specifics of the global apocalypse.

This time, it is a terrible pandemic that has wiped out most of the world's population. Billions have died, gas is scarce, the Federal government is absent, medical science has all but surrendered, and the uninfected are left to carry on in a kind of moral abyss.

At one point during the film, we see a normal suburban town in middle-western America, or what's left of it. A truck marked "Bio hazard" and packed with human remains is abandoned on the side of the road, garbage is strewn everywhere across the avenue (as infrastructure fails...) and homes have been spray-marked in code by authorities, just like we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It's a grim portrait of collapse.

Carriers stars Chris Pine (Star Trek [2009]) as Brian and Lou Taylor Pucci as his brother, Danny. These siblings are a study in opposites. Brian is tough, brutal and adheres mercilessly to a set of rules. These are: avoid the infected at all cost, disinfect anything that was touched by the infected, and most importantly, "the sick are already dead." Danny, nicknamed "Ivy League" by Brian is a well-meaning intellectual without a cutthroat bone in his body. He is Brian's conscience when needs be, but he also hides behind Brian, who does the dirty work for his little brother.

As the film opens, these brothers are making an end run across America's back roads. Their destination is Turtle Beach in the Gulf of Mexico, where they hope to settle until the disease dies out. They are traveling with Brian's girlfriend, Bobby (Piper Perabo) and a girl they rescued at a "McMansion," Kate (Emily Van Camp).

The best-laid plans of these siblings fall apart, however, when they encounter a desperate man, Frank (Christopher Meloni), and his eight-year old girl, Jodie (Kiernan Shipka), who is infected with the disease. Frank informs the travelers that he has heard of a new CDC center in a close-by town that may possess a vaccine. He is desperate to get his daughter to that cure. Brian simply wants to appropriate Frank and Jodie's car and continue on their way to Turtle Beach, but Danny insists that they help out. So they help out, and events begin to snowball...

The remainder of Carriers involves the moral choices that these brothers must forge in the face of apocalypses both biological and personal. Early on, the film depicts a quick encounter with a murderous redneck, who shoots down an American Asian. The murderer ties a sign around the corpse's neck that reads "Chinks Brought It." So yes, the Tea Baggers and their nativist beliefs have survived the apocalypse too. They're well-armed (The 2nd Amendment Lives!), drive their pick-up trucks on patrol, and have graduated from shouting "Baby Killer" to cold-blooded murder.

But Carriers isn't a movie about politics, it is a movie about moral choices. Simply put, the "rules" that Brian so assiduously lives by are not quite as intractable when applied to those he loves, or even to himself. It's easy to say "the sick are already dead" when your lover is healthy, or you are healthy. But when those you love are sick, clarity is gone. As humans, we cling irrationally to things like hope.

The early portion of Carriers belongs to Meloni, who delivers a raw, understated and unforgettable performance. Frank does everything he can to save his sick little girl, and, in the end, is left with no options. He deals with his daughter's mortality in a way that will break your heart; by being , simply-- until the bitter end -- "Daddy" to his child.

There's a shot here that will remain in your psyche long after the film has ended: Frank walking in foreground, Jodie in his arms, while Brian, Danny and the girls drive away in abject cowardice (in the background), abandoning the man and his child. The car peels out in the distance, and Frank is fully aware of it...but he focuses, laser-like on the child in his arms, never looking back, never breaking composure. Instead, he asks Jodie to sing a particular song that he likes; as if they are the only two people in the entire world. She starts to sing it in that little, innocent, childish voice, and that's the last we see of Frank and Jodie in the film. But if you are a parent, trust me, you'll return to that image in your slumber.

If the early part of Carriers belongs to Meloni, then the last act certainly belongs to Chris Pine, who demonstrates here (as he did in Star Trek) that he is an actor of interesting and unusual dimensions. At first, his Brian is arrogant and cruel, but as the movie goes on you see another side of the character. He is the one who makes hard decision after hard decision...for his brother. In fact, Brian's final, irreversible, aggressive decision may play to some in the audience as selfish and desperate, but I propose the opposite. It's his final gift to his brother; the last bit of toughening-up he can give to a kid who is constitutionally unequipped to live in this sad new world.

Again and again, Carriers asks the audience to consider the moral dimensions of the actions we see undertaken by Brian, Danny, Bobby and Kate. At one point, Bobby commits an absolutely immoral act, but does so after trying to save Jodie's life. Still, she hides the fact that she may be contaminated, and in this particular world, that's absolutely tantamount to committing murder. She jeopardizes everybody by clinging to irrational beliefs about the disease, and about her own mortality.

We also encounter that Tea Bagger, still eager to kill someone who looks different and place blame, despite the fact that blame, at this point, is certainly immaterial. In one town, Brian and his group also encounter a doctor from the CDC, one who makes an absolutely brutal-seeming choice regarding the dying children under his care. But even here, the film is honest. "Sometimes choosing life is just choosing a more painful form of death," he tells Frank. Not a happy message, but not an untrue one, either.

In another harrowing scene, two male survivors decide to abduct the girls (Bobby and Kate) for their own personal "use," but do so as easily as Brian acquires gasoline from passing travelers. In this world, people are simply another resource to be exploited. We see it happen again and again.

Carriers evidences some visual acumen, too. The movie opens with shaky home movies of Danny and Brian as youngsters. They play at Turtle Beach, feeding seagulls and running in the surf. The camera pans up to the sky and then we transition literally, into an upside down view of the world as it is now, as topsy-turvy a place as you could imagine. The image itself tells us how wrong things have become.

Directors Alex and David Pastor also have an eye for expressing irony. At an abandoned high school, a classroom has been converted into an emergency medical ward, but all the trappings of the classroom are still there. Namely, a banner over the chalkboard which reads "Career Day: Your Future Depends on It." In this new world, the banner is absolutely meaningless, and worse, a painful reminder of what has been lost.

Perhaps what I found most compelling about Carriers is that it is entirely devoid of typical Hollywood bullshit. There's no last act miracles for these characters; there's no sudden reversal of fortune for the world; there's no mock heroics to save the day. When beloved characters -- and children -- get the disease, they die. The film never succumbs to schmaltz or sentimentality. Instead, it ends with a simple and devastating admission: that Danny, sans Brian, will now spend the remainder of his days "alone." There's nothing to look forward to anymore.

In Carriers, the world is really falling apart a piece at a time, leaving only "places" like Turtle Beach, but no people there to comment on them. The silence in and of itself is devastating. Many apocalypse movies (zombie apocalypse movies particularly) are noisy, busy and crowded, so that you don't think about what's lost; instead you just think about staying ahead of the drooling hordes. Carriers looks into the abyss, and there are no distractions from the view.

So, no, Carriers isn't spectacular, it isn't pacey...but it is elegiac. "It's a beautiful day," says Bobby (paraphrased) "but it shouldn't be a beautiful day." Mankind is ending with a whimper, and the Earth is still spinning along. The sun is still shining...

Above all, Carriers makes you wonder how you would behave in such a situation. As a Father. As a brother. As a human being. Would you cling to your sense of morality in a crisis, or just act, to utilize the movie's most dynamic visual metaphor, as a vicious dog feeding off the corpses of the dead?


  1. Great review, John. BTW, those are three of the bleakest films I've seen that you cite here. This sounds quite harrowing to watch, but having someone as great as Meloni in it makes me want to take it in. I don't know if you're into Green Lantern, but he did a wonderful voicing of Hal Jordan for the FIRST FLIGHT DC movie recently, too.

    Anyway, I'll give this a go because of what you've written, John. Thanks for this.

    p.s., I did re-tweet this. Are you on Twitter now? If so, I'd like to follow you my friend.

  2. Hey Le0pard13:

    Thanks for the comment and the re-tweeting! And hey, I would love to follow you on Twitter as well, since I've really been enjoying your blog.

    You can find me on Twitter by searching for JKMuir. Let me know your handle too...


  3. Very kind of you to say, my friend. You can find me on Twitter under: le0pard13

    Best to you.

  4. Anonymous12:00 PM

    "...Carriers isn't a movie about politics, it is a movie about moral choices."

    But, the constant Tea Bagger referrals deminish this analysis. Muir, I don't give a damn about your politics--stick to the movie.

    All writing on this film I've come across lacks any comparison to Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" (1959) the tone of which "Carriers" matches. This omission id blaring and makes me think that most who bother to critique "Carriers" are under 40.

    Ya know, Muir, just because you see yourself as a Liberal doesn't mean you're immune to intolerance.

    1. Hello, Anonymous,

      I know I am a tolerant person because I moderated your comment and passed it through, even though you lack the moral courage to attach a name to your hostile remarks.

      Even though you disrespect me by calling me "Muir" instead of Mr. Muir, I allowed you to publicly have your say on MY BLOG.

      That's the definition of tolerance.

      Even though your comment is factually inaccurate -- there are two Tea Party reference in an article of over a thousand words, I still made it public for others to read.

      Again, that's tolerance. I welcome alternate viewpoints.

      But you know, I don't take advice about my writing, my politics, or my choices, let alone my tolerance, from some ANONYMOUS commentator who doesn't have the courage to stand behind his remarks with his own name.

      You, sir, are the reason that the Internet can be lame. You don't have the balls to put your name behind your commentary and join the debate in civil terms.

      If I'm wrong about my commentary, why not tell me an adult. With substantive arguments.

      My name is out there for all to see, on every single thing I write. Why not ante up and actually let me know YOUR name so I am afforded the decency of knowing who my attacker is?

      Somehow I think you won't do that. It's easier to lob grenades from the safety of anonymity. Go back to trolling somewhere else.