agoraphobia, Alex Pastor, Barcelona, Blindness, Children of Men, cinema, co-directors, co-writers, collapsed civilization, David Pastor, dystopian future, epidemics, film reviews, films, flashback narrative, foreign films, Isak Ferriz, Jose Coronado, Leticia Dolera, Marta Etura, Movies, non-linear structure, pandemic, Pere Ventura, Quim Gutierrez, sci-fi, Spanish film, survivor, The Last Days, The Panic, writer-director
Nowadays, it seems that everything under the sun is “antibacterial,” as if the single greatest threat to humanity isn’t climate change or interpersonal conflict but, rather, microbes, viruses and assorted germs. It’s gotten to the point where roughly 90% of the soaps on the market are antibacterial which, of course, has led to the inevitable backlash: perhaps all of the antibacterial stuff is actually weakening our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible to the very bacterium that we’re seeking to defend against. Ah, humanity: providing the universe with a constant source of amusement for millions of years.
What if this obsession with germs is a completely futile exercise, however? What if our bodies aren’t reacting to specific irritants but, rather, are reacting to everything? In other words, what if we’re all becoming progressively more allergic to the outside world? This rather frightening idea forms the crux of co-writers/directors David and Alex Pastor’s quietly powerful new film, The Last Days (2013). While the film isn’t quite as good as its most similar parallel, the neo-classic Children of Men (2006), it’s still a more than worthwhile entry in the “intelligent sci-fi/dystopic future” subgenre and establishes the Pastors as filmmakers to keep an eye on.
The Last Days begins with the kind of monochromatic atmosphere that informs similar films like 12 Monkeys (1995), Children of Men and Blindness (2008): everything is gray, the sky looks like it’s just about to open up and slam down rain and every single person looks as battered and shell-shocked as any survivor of a protracted siege. In this case, however, “shell-shocked survivor” is a pretty apt description: as we find out in short order, the citizens of the world have all developed a sudden and extreme form of agoraphobia. Unlike the “regular” kind, this particular fear of open spaces kills: victims seize up when outdoors, bleed from every orifice and drop dead unless they’re returned to the “safety” of the indoors. This has led to a situation where everyone has been trapped inside whatever building they happen to be in for months: society has broken down, unchecked fires ravage the streets and the people are gradually losing their basic humanity…and their hope.
Enter our protagonist, Marc (Quim Gutierrez), who’s been trapped with his co-workers in an office building for the past three months. As food reserves and supplies gradually disappear, the trapped people have been attempting to tunnel out from their underground garage into the nearby subway system, which would allow them access to the rest of Barcelona without risking travel in the outside world. Via flashbacks (the film employs a non-linear but fairly simple flashback structure wherein the past and present each get their own “timeline,” although the timelines are intermingled throughout the film’s run time), we learn that Marc’s office has been visited by an “efficiency expert, Enrique (Jose Coronado), whose presence leads to firings and increased stress in Marc’s relationship with his girlfriend, Julia (Marta Etura).
In the present, Marc and Enrique end up working together after each man realizes that the other has something he needs: Marc has managed to get a hold of a flashlight, while Enrique has stolen a coveted GPS system from a car in the garage. The two strike up a deal wherein they will first go to Marc’s apartment building, in search of Julia, before heading to pick up Enrique’s ailing father at a hospital. The journey will be difficult and fraught with peril, not least of which involves the fact that they’re unable to step foot outside: they’ll have to make it from one end of Barcelona to the other using only buildings, underground routes and the like for cover.
As if this wasn’t enough, however, Marc and Enrique will need to deal with that most insidious of dystopic concerns: the violent devolution of humanity in the face of an overwhelming, extinction-level event. Anyone familiar with things like Children of Men, Blindness or The Walking Dead will know that the “event” is never the biggest problem: humans will always be more capable of evil than any disease, zombie invasion or outside force. In The Last Days, people have turned the cramped interior spaces of buildings, subway stations and garages into stuffed-to-bursting pseudo-cities: think the ruined vibe of Blade Runner (1982) jammed into the equivalent of a broom closet and you get some idea of the insanity. As is wont to happen whenever the masses of humanity are forced into constricted locations, tempers flare, the rules of society are abandoned and brute force becomes the law of the land. Will Marc and Enrique survive the human menace long enough to reach their respective loved ones? Will humanity ever be able to rebound from what appears to be an evolutionary development designed solely to extinguish people from the face of the Earth? Will we ever be able to go outside again?
If there’s anything really derogatory to say about The Last Days, let it be said that the film isn’t particularly original or unique, even if it is extremely well-made. While the basic plot is different from films like Children of Men and Blindness, the overall themes and tone are nearly identical to any one of a number of dystopic sci-fi films: I hate to say “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all,” since it’s such a restrictive, negative thing to say but it’s kind of true. That being said, I could follow that up by adding, “If you liked the others, you’ll like this one, too.” Unlike something like a generic slasher or low-budget monster film, The Last Days is anything but a cookie-cutter film, even if it brings to mind other, more well-known movies. While the Pastors’ film doesn’t break any new ground, it’s still an incredibly solid, thrilling and thought-provoking experience: innovation is certainly appreciated but there’s still something to be said for just making an overall good film and The Last Days certainly delivers on that front.
The acting is uniformly solid, with Gutierrez and Coronado making a really effective duo: there’s a genuine progression to their relationship that never feels forced and seems to reflect a pretty realistic grasp on how people would actually react in a similar situation. There are a number of setpieces in the film (collecting the rain, fighting the bear in the abandoned church, the insane fortified department store at the end) that are as good as anything else out there, with the bear fight easily standing as one of the most thrilling, well-staged action pieces I’ve seen in some time. It’s always interesting to see how a film will (or won’t) survive multiple butts in the director’s seat but there doesn’t seem to be any notable flaws in The Last Days craft: if there can truly be any flaws, they come from the unnerving sense of deja vu in the film – even if you haven’t seen these particular episodes before, it might feel like you have. As already mentioned, this is both a blessing and a curse: while the Pastors don’t break any new ground, they also don’t phone it in, either.
Ultimately, The Last Days is an interesting, solemn and mildly thought-provoking film that programs nicely in with the rest of its peers, yet doesn’t really have a complete identity of its own. There are certainly some interesting ideas here (the notion of us all becoming gradually allergic to the outside, as our lives and interests increasingly occur indoors, is a solid, frightening one) but the film, ultimately, takes a different route to wind up at the exact same location: we have seen the enemy and it is us. I may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment but it doesn’t mean I haven’t heard it before.