The cinematic sub-genre of the bio-pandemic disaster film has been around for a long while, stretching from the seventies with Robert Wise’s film of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and The Survivors BBC television series to the flawed digital-effect-blockbusters of the new century, such as The Day After Tomorrow. Yet it is movies like the British outing 28 Days Later which offer particularly good examples of how the social and moral threads of this premise can be successfully woven together. The film achieves this by concentrating on the struggle that continues between members of our species once the initial contagion has died away.
In 28 Days Later, scientists endeavour to manufacture a 'rage' virus, ostensibly in lab monkeys. To what use this virus will be put is not made apparent. The supposition is that it will ultimately be used as a biological weapon. Yet it is the ignorant, self-styled animal liberators, not the lackeys of the Military Industrial Complex, who unleash this terror upon the world. The film is not without its logical flaws; the ease with which the animal liberators enter the laboratory calls forth the question of whether a military or para-military research facility would have such lax security. Perhaps this is merely a way of manifesting the innate apprehension commonly felt at the idea of genetic tinkering. Yet it is a stark lesson, impressing upon us the fact that biology is the oldest weapon used against us by the very planet that spawned us, and that now we seem to be unknowingly helping Gaia in her eradication program.
We have been engineering our environment for aeons. Indeed, it is one of the traits that defines our species. Since the first Palaeolithic near-human left the trees and began changing the immediate vicinity to suit itself, we have been guilty of disrupting the natural course of things. Can we still be defined as part of the natural course of things on this planet? Perhaps not. If not, at what point did we separate ourselves from the natural processes of this world? When we started clearing the forests for pasture, building permanent encampments, staring outward at the world instead of concentrating on ourselves? When we began draining the swampland and felling the trees in order to construct our enlarged communities, we began to stir up and attract a myriad of creatures —insects, primates, rodents and other scavengers— that had the capacity to spread new and virulent diseases beyond their own immediate gene pool. And that was when the first pandemics erupted in a cycle that has been more or less continuous since that time. Domesticated animals, and, by proxy, their associated parasites have brought this cycle into even closer contact with us, into our very homes.
Why is it that no sooner than we develop the scientific acumen to invent a vaccine or similar medical response to one scourge of the planet, a more virulent and terrifying version springs forth to take its place, often with our unwitting assistance?
All the horrors previously contained within Pandora’s Box were set upon the human race and, being the inventive creatures that we are, we created the Bogeyman from our own psyches in the forms of gods and devils, imps and Death personified as the Grim Reaper to explain the phenomenon.
Within the realms of the filmmakers’ fecund imagination, we invariably bring this doom upon ourselves. And while our capacity to be idiotically reckless in our research is always highlighted, so too is our inventiveness and persistence in finding a solution. Wildfire viruses like Ebola and ‘the rage’ can be shut down by quarantine if that quarantine is instituted fast enough. By its very definition, quarantine is a hard but practical measure. To consign entire populations to hellish, lingering deaths, as is the premise in 28 Days Later, with the entire island nation of Britain cut off from the rest of the world, may seem inhumane, but the instinct for self-preservation is several million years older than our species. Once the initial contagion has died away, the survivors will rebuild. That is how it has always been. There is evidence that epidemic brought down the Greek empire; perhaps it also helped bring down the Roman Empire. Spectacular theories of volcanic cataclysm, even annihilation by meteorite have been suggested as the cause of Atlantis’ demise. It is likely that all these great empires came down, not with an apocalyptic roar, but a prolonged, pathetic whimper brought about by epidemic illness. Like those portrayed in the BBC series of the seventies The Survivors, the remnants left after the collapse of society will do what they must, and rebuild. In 28 Days Later, that premise is another source of horror as an enclave of soldiers endeavour to stamp their version of authoritarianism on any other survivors they lure into their den. Yet, historically speaking, renewal and regeneration of the species probably would have been undertaken in a similar brutish fashion. In the past, the breakdown of society set the stage, not for social experimentation, but for the retelling of the same old tale. As paradoxical and contrary as our species is, this is almost inevitable. We hold within us such inventiveness, yet rarely use this gift when we really have to, more often reverting to survival methods which verge on barbarism.
These views may be interpreted as being somewhat negative. We would like to think of ourselves as an innovative species that can rise above the programming written into our genetics. Given enough time, perhaps we will learn this particular trick. Sometimes we seem almost on the verge of it, yet in truth, the species is still enduring its tumultuous adolescence.
Bio-terrorism is only the latest weapon in a manifestation of primitive evil that still infects our species, itself akin to rampant disease. This premise was grasped by Michael Crichton in The Andromeda Strain, when the U.S. Government depicted in the book/movie realised that an extraterrestrial virus could be used for just such a purpose. Now it seems to be the turn of religious fundamentalists in upholding the outdated notion that Might is Right. The meme (a meme is a ‘thought gene’, carried through a population culturally in much the same way as a gene is carried biologically) for fundamentalism has the capacity to spread itself through populations within a few generations - and it does not matter what the prevailing religion within that population is. Perhaps we as a species should concentrate our labours on developing a vaccine against the pestilence of negative memes. One may argue that the vaccine is science. If that is the case, why is the world still a theological battleground? Perhaps Gaia has been forced to employ tactics as devious as that of her spawn. Instead of smallpox, cholera and bubonic plague, She has given us Nazis, the Taliban and the Religious Right. The end result is very much the same.
Disease and natural disaster are the two forces in the arsenal of our planet that we have always strived most intently to counter, yet we now realise that we cannot defeat them. Surely these memes for turning against our own are a tactic which we can defeat. There sometimes seems a very fine line between the extremism of various groups of fundamentalists and ‘the rage’ that reduced folk to murderous zombies in 28 Days Later. We can either work with the planet and our fellows and all the natural mechanisms which include disease, earthquake, tsunami, every other horrifying act of weather and geology, and differences of culture, religion and lifestyle, or we can disperse, leave Mother Earth in little ships full of like-minded souls, there to enter the realms of true science fiction.