The journey of a horror heroine can be formulaic. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but quite often we are presented with an ordinary woman who finds herself in an extraordinary circumstance who must conquer her fear and whatever adversary placed before her to not only survive, but discover an inner strength that she had no knowledge resided within her.
Naomie Harris’ journey in 28 Days Later not only broke from that tried and true mold fifteen years ago, but flipped it entirely. The toughness, determination and intelligence we’ve come to expect was certainly evident, but what made the character of Selena so unique was that it offered ringside seats for a different type of discovery altogether. Not one of survival or strength, but of humanity.
Almost without exception, our introduction to these heroines represents the calm before the storm. We share their initial disbelief and subsequent fear, and we feel their anxiety and heart-pounding search for a way to escape, survive and overcome.
When we first laid eyes on Harris’ Selena, however, infection had done a month’s worth of damage. Harris was portraying a character who had already endured the embryonic stage of shock at what had transpired, had learned how to fight and how to hide, and had come to realize that staying alive was as good as it got.
We met a hard and quick-witted woman who appeared to lack any semblance of empathy for others. Selena’s themes were clear: If anyone proved unable to keep up they were holding her back, and should someone in her proximity become infected she would put them down in a heartbeat.
But then she met a bicycle courier who had just awoken from a coma, desperate to wrap his head around the world his eyes had opened to.
It didn’t happen immediately, because Harris’ character was laying the ground work for the reality of this new life and adamantly communicated that the goal was to move, to survive — not fall in love and fuck. However, when Jim (Cillian Murphy) began to fall off the pace with a headache, Selena offered pain killers and soda. Not before Jim admitted he had been hesitant to tell her what had been bothering him because he didn’t think she’d “give a shit.”
Harris briefly paused at Jim’s words. In that moment, she was stung. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but rather that she had grown so hyper-vigilant that she was capable of putting down her previous hiking partner – in a heartbeat – right in front of Jim. Being friendly seemed an antiquated notion, an art that no longer seemed to hold much meaning.
When the pair were temporarily rescued by Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns), Selena’s initial impression was that the father and daughter “probably need us more than we need them.” Jim’s take, however, was that of a man who had not endured four weeks of hell on Earth – “I think they’re good people.” With that exchange, the seeds were planted, “It’s not all fucked.”
The closer the group got to what they believed were soldiers with “the answer to infection,” the more Selena let her guard down.
Selena began to smile and even laughed. She revealed that she had been a chemist who once had dreams and aspirations. She was no longer just a badass not to be trifled with, but a human being again.
Though the walls were re-erected when the group entered a new level of hell under the “protection” of the soldiers, it became clear that Selena saw her younger self in Hannah. She had come to grips with her lot in life but was quite lucid that when it came to Frank’s daughter “I don’t want her to have to fucking cope. I want her to be okay.”
After she thought she had lost Jim and that she and Hannah were to be passed around to the soldiers because their commander had promised them women, the badassery of Harris’ portrayal came raging back into view. Selena used her sexuality to convince them it was “just polite” to leave the two alone so they could get ready, and did not hesitate to reach for her bag of pharmaceuticals as she lovingly told the young girl “I’m making you not care.”
When Jim finally returned to rescue them, her connection to the bicycle courier left her little choice but to hesitate a bit longer than a heartbeat, but she rescued him right back when those qualifications as a chemist provided her with the knowledge to prevent his death despite a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
The destination for most horror heroines is the discovery of the person they didn’t know they could be, but the beauty of Naomie Harris’ trek through Danny Boyle’s classic was that at the end of her journey, she found that who she was before everything fell apart was still very much alive.
And that was as good as it got.