Monday, 28 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: The Stand

This is the cover to the first edition I read.
All the other ones are better. I'm just a
masochist, I suppose.
The Stand (Complete & Uncut)
(Novel, 1978 & 1990)
Written by Stephen King

US Paperback - US Kindle 
UK Paperback - UK Kindle
(easy way to check if you're getting the full, expanded version: use the Look Inside feature to see if it has the introduction where King explains why he did the 1990 Complete & Uncut edition)

Review (spoilers!)
A terrifying bioengineered virus escapes from a military facility and devastates the US, leaving only a few survivors plagued by dreams that drive them to engage in a conflict between good and evil.

The Stand originally came out way back in 1978, and was pretty damn long despite the many cuts King had to make to get it down to some kind of reasonable length. In 1990, King reissued the book, having become just a teensy bit popular in the meantime, and was able to get everything back in that he originally wanted, as well as revising and updating much of the rest.

It’s an epic length, and it’s meant to be an epic. The original idea calls for a battle between good and evil that resembles a Tolkien-scale fantasy conducted in modern-day America, a theme King would return to more than once. This makes it as much a fantasy novel as a horror novel, though the horror is very definitely there (but I’ll come to what I think the true horror of the book is later on).

The problem is that the book doesn’t start out with this epic battle. It doesn’t even really get to it for a pretty big chunk of the story, because first of all it has to get through a very well depicted and harrowing viral apocalypse that wipes America clean of most of humanity and leaves everything in place for the game of good vs. evil.

The only problem is that the apocalypse is the good bit and the battle against evil is… well, it’s a bit tedious at times. There’s really not much actual battling going on. King later reported that he ended up having to kill off a sizeable chunk of the ‘good’ characters just to keep up the interest in the story. And it doesn’t help that he always seems to be having so much more fun when dealing with the ‘evil’ characters. The first appearance of one of these in the early chapters of the book (with two unpleasant people on a killing spree) bursts off the page in comparison to the personal and family dramas that the ‘good’ characters are going through at that point.

And when you finally get to the battle… well, there basically isn’t one. The good guys walk into town after the Dark Lord has pretty much screwed up his own cause by trusting a maniac who derails all his evil Dark Lord plans by basically being a maniac. He’s about to take revenge on the good guys who finally showed up for the battle, and the aforementioned maniac accidentally sets off a nuke. Or possibly the Dark Lord’s own lightning does it. Or maybe the hand of god comes down and sets it off. It’s not entirely clear.

The biggest problem is that the intended story (battle of good vs evil) doesn’t actually seem like it’s the real, main story here. The viral apocalypse originally conceived of as a way of getting everything ready for the battle is far more compelling, and the fantastical/religious confrontations after that end up seeming like an attempt to trump the apocalypse with the only thing the author could think of that might be bigger – a religious battle of cosmic proportions.

But, as I’ve said before, this is a problem. Apocalypses are just too devastating to use as an introduction to another story. You can’t top the destruction of almost all human life by having the few survivors run around having religious confrontations. The story might have worked if the apocalypse had been presented in flashback – but the siren song of utter destruction was clearly too great for King to resist. We’re left with half of an excellent book, and then a long, slow trudge (even longer in the 1990 version) towards an end that can never match the promise of the beginning.

Usually one apocalypse is enough. But here we have two: one viral, and one religious. They overlap and intertwine, but are fundamentally separate in the way they operate. Despite his forays into other genres, King is very much a horror writer and both these apocalypses are horrific – but for very different reasons.

Firstly: the viral apocalypse. Unlike Contagion, there’s no pretence that this is anything natural, nor is the response to the superflu quite what we would expect in the real world; nevertheless, it’s gripping stuff. There’s a little bit of handwavium called a ‘shifting antigen’ to explain why the bug is so deadly, and thankfully this is never explored further than that (though if you’re interested, viruses do shift their antigens on a regular basis when they meet another strain and swap these protein keys on their coat, and this is why influenza keeps coming back at us. It just doesn’t do the shift constantly while it’s infecting you, thus making it virtually impossible to defend against).

More interesting than the bug itself is the rather paranoid attitude to how it’s created and how it develops. A secret, off-the-books government installation develops a wide variety of diseases with this particular nasty twist; there’s an accident, one of the army guards realises what’s going on and does a runner with his wife and child, not realising that he’s already infected. The government then does everything it can to try and stop the outbreak – and prevent anyone finding out that it was their fault in the first place. Even as millions die, the military is deployed to kill journalists and suppress protests with live ammunition (at Kent State, of course). The pointlessness of the cover-up might seem a little bizarre at first, but we’re in a darker America than even the one we have now. In the original version, the story is set in 1980, and it’s easy to believe that the people who brought us Mutually Assured Destruction and were willing to push the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war only a few years later might decide to behave in such an insane manner, even as they find themselves with the first sniffles that presage death within a few days. It makes slightly less sense in 1990, when the updated version is set, but still seems plausible if you’re willing to be paranoid about the more secretive arms of the US Government. And indeed, the updated version shows us much more of this, expanding significantly on the government side of things. There’s a very clear feeling of impending armageddon that was a familiar dread to anyone who lived through the cold war; you could even interpret this as a novel about those terrible dangers we were subjected to for forty-five years (if it weren't for the second apocalypse).

King’s skills as a horror writer come to the fore as the apocalypse builds: that sick, lurching sense that things are just going to keep getting worse is prevalent as the superflu spreads, and he’s very much at home dwelling on the nastier aspects: a prisoner locked in his cell considering cannibalism as he regards the corpse of his cellmate; towns suddenly depleted of people; cars turned into coffins on every highway; and even the details of the disease itself, with the swelling and blackening of glands in the neck, show signs of King’s fascination with the unpleasant side of life.

But eventually, the tidal wave of death dies down, and the surviving characters head out on the road, driven by dreams into the arms of the second apocalypse – the religious one. And this is where the story falls down, for more reasons than just the loss of interest after the first apocalypse ends.

It rapidly becomes clear that the second apocalypse considers the first one to be just a curtain raiser, and in that regard, it’s basically the Rapture with a twist; instead of the good people going to heaven and leaving the sinners behind to choose sides between god and the devil, a seemingly random (but possibly hand-picked) selection of people are left alive to choose sides between a saintly old woman in Nebraska and the Dark Lord who gathers his forces in Las Vegas. There’s no concept of ‘the elect’, but otherwise it’s pretty clear that we’re in Christian fundamentalist territory as far as the workings of the universe go.

Some of the characters object to this (or at least the good ones do, anyway; the evil ones get nailed to crosses for far lesser infractions). As saintly and kind as their prophet is, it’s clear that what’s required of them is really quite vile. Not content with putting them through the horrible experience of watching all their loved ones die and leaving them to try and survive in a world filled with corpses, the good lord then requires that they march off to sacrifice themselves on cue so that the final battle can be won.

Except that this isn’t a final battle humanity has any real say in. It’s not their fight. It’s two supernatural beings playing chess with each other, and this is the true horror of the second apocalypse: this is the kind of universe that religious fundamentalists actually believe in, where humans are no more than pieces on a board to be positioned and sacrificed at whim. And what’s more, they’re expected to like it, or else they might be punished with greater suffering. It’s a pointless, hypocritical waste that’s only addressed in the book through the mouths of the characters who recognise this for the horror it is, and are then shouted down or bribed with miracles to keep them playing the game. Other than that, no one really deals with the true enemy: God and the Devil combined, who are willing to sacrifice billions of lives so they can play their game.

I don’t know if King intended this to be the true horror of the second apocalypse, or whether he was just trying to depict an epic quest using the mythology of the land in which it’s set, imitating the structure of Tolkien. It was certainly effective in horrifying me, much more than most horror stories I’ve read or seen. And perhaps if the horror of this supernatural interference had been further explored as the true reason for all the suffering in the story, and maybe even confronted somehow, then the book might not have ended in such a disappointing way.

(time to go and re-read Preacher as an antidote, I think)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: Last Night

Party like it's 1999. Especially if 2000 isn't going to happen.
Last Night
(Feature Film, 1998)
Written & Directed by Don McKellar

Amazon CA DVD - Amazon UK DVD
(don't bother with the US DVD - it's rubbish. The Canadian DVD isn't much better but at least it's widescreen, though possibly not anamorphic, and the transfer is supposed to be much better. The UK edition is something I haven't seen but does at least claim to be widescreen)

REVIEW (spoilers!)

The world ends in six hours. How are you going to spend the last night on Earth?

Back in 1998, the world was getting ready to end – in the cinema, anyway. Two major Hollywood blockbusters about asteroid impacts came out in swift succession. Armageddon and Deep Impact were run of the mill stuff in which the world was saved (or left with only a mild singe or two) by the usual crews of heroes with the usual bland adventures.

Then came Last Night – a tiny little Canadian film with a far more interesting premise: the world is going to end and saving it is impossible. All that’s left is for everyone to choose how to spend their last remaining hours on earth. There’s a family getting together for Christmas (though it isn’t Christmas), giving their adult children back the presents they’d had when they were kids. There’s an executive at the gas company calling every customer to reassure them that the gas will stay on until the end. There’s a guy working his way through every sexual fantasy he’s ever had. There are parties in the streets, people overturning cars for the hell of it, suicide pacts and a demented woman jogging around yelling a countdown to anyone who cares to listen.

Threading through all these choices are the recently bereaved Don McKellar, who thought he’d decided to be alone at the end but can’t quite work out the details, and Sandra Oh, who’s decided to be with her husband, but has become stranded on the wrong side of town while trying to get a few last supplies. They don’t really want to make a connection, but the film inexorably pushes them towards it as the clock ticks down towards the end.

To some extent, this is a series of interesting, often funny vignettes about what might happen at the end of the world, and that willingness to explore things happening on the sidelines rather than following the main plotline might leave some people wondering if there's a point. But when you place the apocalypse at the end of a story, there’s never any need to worry about where things are going. The ending of Last Night pulls every thread together in a moment of sublime beauty as the world ends; even watching it now after first seeing it twelve years ago, I still wept.

And unlike most of the whizz-bang apocalypse blockbusters, this film is actually about something. It’s not a terribly complicated something; it’s much more of an emotional thing. It’s about the connections between people and how important they are. Many of the choices people have made about how to spend their last hours are monumentally selfish, and the film shows how destructive that is. On the last night, most people are just too busy doing their own thing to help one another. For those few who rise above that and come together (quite literally, in one case), the last second of life on earth becomes a perfect moment.

There’s only one downside, now I look back at the film from a distance of years, only slightly less overwhelmed by the story: Don McKellar’s performance. There’s something rather flat about the way he ambles through the movie, and maybe that’s a choice, given that he’s supposed to be emotionally numb from the loss of his fiancĂ©e, who died just before the end of the world was announced. But when put up against all the other actors, he doesn’t quite ring true. Even David Cronenberg manages a better performance, and he’s not actually an actor. But in the end, it’s a minor irritation, and the rest of the film is good enough to rise above it.


If there’s one thing this film doesn’t care about too much, it’s the exact mechanics of the apocalypse. And it’s right to do so, because the story is really about the people and how they face up to the end of everything, rather than anyone trying to actually do anything about it.

And now, having said that, I shall proceed to poke holes wherever I may.

The apocalypse appears to be something to do with the sun – or a sun, anyway. Towards the end, Don McKellar observes that there are no nights any more, and even as the clock approaches midnight, it still seems to be a bright sunlit day. If something had gone wrong with the sun, then this would, of course, be impossible; the Earth would still be turning, and night would still happen (okay, sure, maybe the moon would be much brighter due to reflection, but not so bright as to turn night to day).

If night has been banished forever, then there would have to be a second star coming close, which offers a more plausible method for destroying the world, though I doubt it would be so sudden: firstly, the temperature increase would be gradual, and life would not be able to continue with such ease until a sudden cut-off point. Secondly, an incoming star would make a mess of the solar system through gravitational interactions. The earth would not just plough on in the same course until it hit the star – it would most likely be flung out of the solar system altogether and freeze to death, or be bombarded with debris driven inwards as the rogue star knocks everything out of whack.

Or, of course, it could be something different entirely. Maybe aliens have decided humanity needs to be exterminated and have told them when it will happen. It really doesn’t matter to the story. But it’s clear that the exact details haven’t been worked out. Which is fine for this film. Because it doesn’t matter. Okay? IT DOESN’T MATTER. 

(I’ll just repeat that to myself for a bit…)

Where the filmmakers have put in a little thought is in the human response to the apocalypse, which is resolutely Canadian, well organised and polite. The government shut itself down in an orderly manner. There was chaos and social unrest when the end of the world was announced, but they got over it. Electricity and gas are still running. Nobody seems to have run out of petrol. Nobody’s dying of starvation (or even from a lack of alcohol).

It’s a lot like On the Beach in this regard: an inevitable apocalypse creeping up on the world, and everyone trying to keep things going until it’s all over. The partying gets a bit out of hand towards the end, and people die in stupid, pointless ways, but somehow, society keeps itself together until the final moments. Last Night chooses to believe more in the goodness of humanity in its final moments, but then it doesn’t have to contend with the bitterness of a self-inflicted apocalypse that was a very real possibility when On the Beach was written. Absolving humanity of any guilt in its own destruction – which it does, in part, by refusing to specify how the world is ending – allows the film to examine human reactions to an apocalypse without any baggage that would skew the results. It’s not responding to any issues of nuclear war, environmental breakdown, social decay or anything else; it’s purely about the characters, set free to do what they will in the last few hours before the end.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Stand By

So I'm re-reading The Stand, just so I can put in my tuppence in a review, and what should happen?

I get a cold.

It's not exactly superflu but it was exquisitely timed. It's like the virus knew I was reading about a deadly bioengineered flu-based pandemic that wipes out humanity.

This is no normal virus. This is a method virus.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to take a bath in Lemsip.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Apocalypse Review: Contagion

It's been a while since I blogged, so I decided I might as well give myself something to talk about - this is the first in what will be a semi-regular series of reviews of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, books, comics and anything else that reaches my notice. This one comes from a very recent film, but I'll range back over older stuff too. As well as review each one, I'll add a few notes about how the apocalypse is depicted in each case.

Lots of actors means lots of actor heads
on the poster. Thus causing utter joy
for poster designers everywhere (they
only had to come to work to do the
middle bit).
(Feature Film, 2011)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns

Amazon US Blu-Ray/DVD (release date: 3rd Jan 2012)
Amazon UK Blu-Ray/DVD (release date: 5th March 2012)

REVIEW (spoilers!)

Somewhere in the world, two viruses meet and share RNA; a chance recombination that creates a new killer disease. Within days, it’s spreading across the globe. Within weeks, millions are dying and the world’s authorities are racing to find a cure as society collapses around them.

Contagion is a relatively realistic depiction of what might have happened if H1N1 or SARS hadn’t been spotted ahead of time and prevented from doing their worst. This time, the infection makes an unfortunate connection in a Hong Kong casino, and is taken to Japan, Europe and the US by business travellers, from where it rages uncontrolled across the world.

The film refuses to follow just a single protagonist, instead taking what seems a very sensible choice for this kind of global narrative: a number of characters push the story forward, all trying to stop the infection in one way or another: Matt Damon as a father with immunity to the disease, trying to protect his daughter who may not be immune; Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, running the US response to the disease; Kate Winslet as a scientist sent to Minnesota to persuade the state authorities to prepare; Marion Cotillard as a WHO official sent to Hong Kong to trace the beginnings of the virus; and Jude Law as a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccination agitator. This approach works well, especially in the early stages of the film as we flit from city to city across the world and see how the infection begins, building tension without the need for hyperbole. The first half of the film is gripping and horrifying, using the medium beautifully, keeping the music low-key while focusing on shots of people touching things, implying all those methods of infection long before someone actually spells it out – by which time it’s too late. Something very like a subtle tilt/shift lens marks out the flashbacks to key moments during the initial infection, isolating the characters in frame without losing the surrounding space – but none of these tricks overwhelms the story, which refuses to sensationalise what’s happening even as the bodies start to pile up. 

But as it goes on, the multiple-narrative approach tends to work less well; it’s hard to give each character the time they need to develop, and some strands seem to vanish entirely – the Hong Kong story virtually disappeared for what felt like half an hour. Characterisation is difficult when you only have the time for broad strokes, and as realistic as the science in this film is, the characters tend to turn into shorthand tropes: the scientist testing the cure on herself, a kidnappee developing Stockholm Syndrome, the conspiracy theorist acting like an idiot, the heroic virologist told to shut down his work but then giving it just one more try and discovering something vital, the husband who knows about the threat warning his wife to get out of town and setting off a panic because she inevitably tells her best friend. If there isn’t a TV Tropes page for the characters in this film yet, there should be.

There’s another problem with the multiple narrative approach, which it shares with anthologies: one story almost always ends up being not as good as the others. In this case, it’s almost everything to do with Jude Law and his anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, who promotes a homoeopathic remedy that doesn’t work, while claiming the actual vaccine is a lie. I’m no fan of people who endanger the lives of millions by falsely claiming that vaccines often cause conditions worse than those they protect against, but such people do at least try to give the impression of plausibility, which Law never manages. This isn’t really his fault, but rather a problem of writing. He’s been turned into a straw man: obviously wrong for no reason other than to make it clear that he’s wrong. I would have been more convinced of the danger he represents if he seemed to really have some kind of honest belief in what he was saying – if he acted as though he were the hero in his own little film, rather than an annoying crank. 

There’s one final failing which spoiled the end of the film for me, and that’s the way in which it tries to be a satisfying narrative when the reality of what would happen doesn’t easily fit into the usual template of a feature film. The main narrative tension through most of the story comes from the lack of a vaccine, and the increasing horror as the disease takes its toll. And then the vaccine is found, but that’s not where the story ends. It jumps forward several months, the time needed for the vaccine to be mass produced. These would be months of terrible privation, as people feared contact, as food supplies grew short and the medical profession would be worse than decimated through their constant contact with the infected. But while do we see little bits of social unrest and a single mass grave, the long months of social decline are mainly shown by the fact that rubbish hasn’t been collected for a long time, and it doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic to cause that (people in New York, the UK and Naples have all seen this happen for much lesser reasons at one time or another). The final act of the film has little tension in it, because all it really concerns itself with is the slow process of vaccine distribution and a return to normality. The worst is already over, but stories of this length work best when the worst comes right at the end; so all we have are a serious of somewhat flaccid scenes wrapping up the various narratives and reassuring us that everything’s going to be okay now. Sure, the world’s lost many millions of people, but Matt Damon puts on a prom night in his house for his daughter, so things must be better. And Laurence Fishburne makes up for causing the panic that doubtless killed many thousands by giving his dose of vaccine to his cleaner’s son. These endings seem false and cloying, as though the only way to cope with the horror is by smearing it with treacle.

And with nothing at stake during the conclusion of the film, the epilogue that shows how the disease got its start and spread into the casino to infect Gwyneth Paltrow and dozens of others seems superfluous. The film would have vastly more impact if this ending followed a moment of great horror, illustrating how very simply that horror began – but with all risk and tension gone, all it can do is satisfy curiosity.

But nevertheless, this film still stands head and shoulders over most stories about apocalypses, mainly because it doesn’t try to turn it into an adventure. That makes it vastly more horrifying, because we can all too easily grasp how real this threat is, and that our world can be reduced to chaos by nothing more than a disease. Despite going on a bit of rant about the second half of the film, I did largely enjoy the whole thing. I just wish it hadn't turned so sentimental at the end.


Where this film largely excels is in its depiction of a viral apocalypse. Most apocalypses in film are presented as backdrops for adventure, but this one is taken seriously and shown as realistically as they can manage, given the constraints of a feature film (which are far tighter than most people realise).

Viral apocalypses are a very unlikely candidate for a full human extinction, and Contagion illustrates why this is the case. The virus depicted in the film is nowhere near as deadly as the bubonic plague, which repeatedly left Europe mourning anything up to half its population, from late antiquity (the Plague of Justinian) to early modern times (the 1665 plague). But Yersinia Pestis is no longer a real threat; either we have evolved to deal with it, or it has evolved to be less deadly. These days, the greatest threat is from bugs that take the opportunity of mass world travel to become far deadlier than they would once have been, but even these have a mortality rate of about 1% (which the film quotes for the Spanish Flu of 1918, though the death rate from the MEV contagion in the film may well be higher). This still means many millions of deaths and economic disruption that may take decades to recover from, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

(Viral apocalypses can, though, work for populations which have been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time; witness the effect of smallpox and measles in the New World, and the often 100% mortality rate for Inuit societies that traded with passing European and American whalers. While global travel spreads disease, it also helps humanity to survive by exposing us to things we might otherwise never meet, spurring us to medical research which helps to keep us far healthier than our ancestors)

The response to the disease is only marginally less realistic: the film adopts the multiple narrative style to illustrate firstly the individual patient zeroes of several countries, and then to show various aspects of the response to the plague. The difficulty of this is covered extremely well, and anyone watching should come away with a very good sense of how such a pandemic would be dealt with if it really happened, explaining key concepts like R0 by having a character try and explain this to a bureaucrat who thinks only in terms of how much the CDC are trying to steal her budget. The only real problem is that the film necessarily has to resort to shorthand; as much as it covers an event on a global scale, each story it shows has to be condensed down to a digestible size. This means that we only see one main administrator at the CDC, who seems to have only one operative in the field in one part of the US. And surely the CDC would have more than two scientists in their lab trying to figure the virus out? But no film could cope with the vast numbers of people that would really be involved in such efforts; that they show one scientist working in a lab elsewhere who makes a vital contribution does at least give some sense of distributed effort. A TV series or novel would be better to give a deeper sense of the effort needed to fight such a disease, but Contagion has to work within very narrow limits, and does an excellent job with what time it has.