Pity the poor apocalyptic horror film Carriers. Here we have a well-shot, psychologically demanding, and impressively unflinching tale of global decay, but since the screenplay caught the eye of a now-defunct "boutique" label (namely, Paramount Vantage), the film is beholden to all sorts of lofty expectations. A "studio product" must A) yield a jazzy trailer, B) earn a big bunch of cash in its first three days, and C) connect instantly with an audience to one degree or another.
Carriers will do none of those things. The irony is that an IFC or Magnolia would have known how to treat this downbeat and rather depressing horror story, whereas a studio's boutique department is still beholden to the same demands placed on all studio product. In other words, the late "Paramount Vantage" is still "Paramount," and this is not a studio that generally dabbles in flicks like Carriers.
On only the most basic of levels, Carriers borrows a page or two from Danny Boyle's blisteringly cool 28 Days Later: We open as a horrific plague is just done sweeping through all of America, and our "heroes" are two young couples driving through a desert highway. But while 28 Days Later and its ilk tend to focus on the "infected" as a malevolent force of aggressive evil, Carriers works on a much more mundane (and therefore creepily realistic) level: These characters are not afraid of being bitten or brutalized; they simply don't want to catch this death sentence of a virus.
Although it doles out a few "boo" scares and a handful of justifiably icky moments, Carriers is not about the "surface level" jolts or even the biological terrors. It's not a film about the gradual extinction of humankind -- it's actually about the horrible demise of humanity. (The movie offers a few chilling moments that are completely bereft of violence.) It's as if co-directors Alex and David Pastor realize that surface-level scares are often quick and disposable, but when you strike at the foundations of man's humanity, decency, loyalty ... that's when things start to get scary. It's a film that actually wants to see how long it takes for normal people to shed their civility and survive at all costs.
But it's far from a perfect film: Some of the more visceral moments have clearly been trimmed for a PG-13 rating, and this "road movie" gradually becomes more episodic as it goes on, but it's also got some very fine performances from the likes of Chris Pine and Christopher Meloni, and (best of all) it subverts what you're probably expecting from an "end of the world" horror flick, and then jams some rather provocative moments at you in lieu of simple carnage.
Reminiscent of more contemplative apocalypse tales like Miracle Mile, The Quiet Earth, and On the Beach, Carriers is a consistently challenging and almost pervasively downbeat story about how it's not the nerves or the eyesight that's the last to go: It's the humanity. It's not a big surprise to see that Paramount has no idea what to do with this movie, but that's not my problem. I just know it's a good film.