I went through the DVD backlog last night and picked out Carriers, a 2009 independent movie released by Paramount’s short-lived Vantage label (an attempt to duplicate the success of Universal’s Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics with smaller-budgeted, character-driven films aimed at the art-house market) and written and directed by brothers David and Alex Pastor (imdb.com insists that Alex’s first name should start with an accent — Àlex — and that their family name is really Vallejo; Pastor was their middle name). This may account for the fact that the film revolves around two brothers, Brian (Chris Pine, who made this film just before starring as Captain James T. Kirk in the J. J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek) and Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci, whoever he was, who’s actually top-billed), who are confronting post-apocalyptic life in a world in which a killer virus has laid waste to most of humanity and are seen at the film’s beginning in an overhead shot of their car, a white Mercedes with the words “Road Warrior” lettered across its hood, as they drive in the middle of the road down an otherwise deserted back-woods highway. With them are Bobby (Piper Perabo) — since she’s a woman I would have expected her name to be spelled “Bobbie” and the online imdb.com synopsis presents her as Brian’s girlfriend, though in the film he seems a lot more interested in her than she in him — and Kate (Emily VanCamp), who seems just on the edge of puberty since she’s talking up her interest in the Spongebob Squarepants cartoons. (Would someone please explain to me the appeal of this bizarre character?)
I had ordered this from the Columbia House DVD club ages ago when, in one of my madder moments, I decided to get everything they had featuring Christopher Meloni that wasn’t Law and Order: Special Victims Unit or Meloni’s previous series, Oz — despite his great success on the first 12 seasons of SVU I think Meloni has been ill-used as an actor, especially in films (he would have made the perfect Jack Reacher but the studio — Paramount again — and author Lee Child went with Tom Cruise, who’s totally wrong casting, especially since he’s short and Child describes the character as intimidatingly tall!), but he’s indelible here. He plays Frank, a father who’s trying to take his daughter Jodie (Kiernan Shipka) to a clinic located in a former high school where they supposedly have a serum that can cure the disease — only when they get there they find from the doctor who invented it that it only worked for three days and thereby simply prolonged the patients’ suffering from the disease without saving their lives. The foursome at the heart of the film meet Frank when he’s parked his car across the road; they blow him off but come for him later when their own car’s oil pan blows and they need a replacement vehicle. Then they throw out Frank and Jodie and leave them behind at the clinic, and afterwards they spend time at a deserted golf course, where Brian rides around in an abandoned golf cart and tries to get Bobby to have sex with him in a sand trap. “Now I know why they left Christopher Meloni behind,” I joked. “He wanted to rape her and didn’t want Meloni arresting him.” What they don’t realize is that the golf resort is inhabited by a group of survivalists wearing gas masks and haz-mat suits, and fully armed — at one point one of the survivalists wants to kidnap the two women, obviously to turn them into sex slaves, but Brian is able to fight them off. Only what they don’t know is that Bobby already has the disease — she got it when Jodie, whom she was trying to help, puked blood all over her (the virus is described as being airborne but obviously person-to-person contact with bodily fluids is a more efficient way of spreading it) — and at the end Brian gets the disease as well and his younger brother Danny has to shoot him so he and Kate can get away and drive to the beach resort the family used to visit in their childhoods and to which they’ve been trying to get to all movies (and there are faux home movies showing Brian’s and Danny’s younger selves there to underscore the importance of their memories of that place in keeping them going now).
I still think Walter Miller’s sci-fi novella “Dark Benediction” is the best work I’ve ever read or seen in the disease-driven apocalypse genre — in it the disease is a parasite from outer space, sent to Earth by people from their home planet (one of Miller’s gimmicks is that the parasite actually determined the evolution of a sentient species on its own planet just to facilitate its own survival!) when it’s about to blow itself up à la Krypton in the Superman comics, and when it arrives on Earth the parasite doesn’t kill people but turns their skin grey and scaly and also increases the power of their senses. Miller told this tale in the early 1950’s with surprising depth and power (not so surprising if you’ve read his most famous book, A Canticle for Liebowitz, which “Dark Benediction” anticipates in various particulars, including the use of the Roman Catholic Church as a key plot element in the salvation of humanity from the instant Dark Ages brought on by the plague) that no one who’s tried this particular sort of sci-fi apocalypse since seems to have caught, though Carriers is quite a good try. I hadn’t watched this film until now because I had worried it would be a Romero-style zombie movie, full of gross-out scenes of armies of infected people going out after Our Heroes, but in fact it’s quite a good film, intelligently written and surprisingly Lewton-esque in its restraint, in how little we see of the actual victims of the virus and how it builds its scares from suspense and situations instead of actual horror. There are two fascinating things about Carriers: the relentlessness of its dark vision — throughout the movie its moral is that in a situation like this, you have to behave in a single-minded looking-out-for-#1 way and any compassion is almost certainly going to be lethal — and, paradoxically, the bits of black humor the Pastor brothers insert into the film throughout, most notably in the scene in which as their camera travels the halls of the old high school that’s been converted into a clinic, we see a poster advertising the school’s career fair and solemnly instructing students, “Your Future Could Depend on It.” Carriers barely got a release at all (it’s preceded on this DVD by a trailer for the 2009 Star Trek movie that made Chris Pine a star, though he’s equally effective here as he was as the young Captain Kirk, and if anything he’s actually better in Carriers since he doesn’t have to live up to a legend!), but it’s a film that doesn’t deserve its obscurity and it whets my curiosity about the Pastor brothers’ other productions, The Last Days, Out of the Dark and Self/Less.