In fact, having spent six years living in Beijing (with a population of over 20 million crammed into tight quarters), I really connect with storytellers who imagine the collapse of society as the product of disease rather than creatures. I was once on a Beijing bus so crowded that a man couldn’t help sneezing directly into my mouth. In addition to being terribly grossed out, I had the flu within 12 hours.
I also made the grand mistake of watching Contagion for the first time at the start of the 13 hour flight back to China. Halfway through the film I realized everyone around me was coughing and spitting into paper bags and I spent the next 12 hours very consciously trying not to touch my face.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Refuge resonated with me in a very real way. The premise of the movie is that a so-called “Nightmare Superbug” resistant to antibiotics has spread globally, decimating the population. The country falls apart, and the only people left are those who have isolated themselves and avoided contact with the infected.
While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, I am going to talk a bit about the characters and very general plot points. Keep this in mind as you read ahead.
Aside from a montage flashback during the opening credits that outlines the pandemic, the movie is set several years after the complete collapse of society. Survivors have been reduced to roving bands of scavengers, trying to glean whatever scraps of food and medicine are left in abandoned homes, all while continuing to protect themselves from coming into contact with any infected corpses.
In essence, Refuge is a movie about tribes. There are no lone wolves, no solitary hunters, but instead people have grouped themselves into what could be considered post-apocalyptic family units. Jack, Nell and their daughter Birdie are an actual biological family, with the supplementary addition of Kyle – an artist they took in and who serves as a secondary patriarch.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have a sort of hybrid of The Lost Boys and the Manson Family, a pack of young men who revel in violence and mayhem. Led by the cold, brutal, and arguably sociopathic Rez, they take whatever they want and kill indiscriminately. Russell is running with Rez’s crew, but it’s clear that he’s not on board with their methods. When he crashes his motorcycle trying to get away from them, Jack finds him in the road and takes him home to set his broken leg.
Other groups cross their paths over the course of the movie, each categorized as being on either extreme side of this morality scale. It’s not necessarily new ground being covered here in terms of characters or themes, but that’s par for the course when it comes to exploring human nature. It’s not about coming up with a unique scenario, it’s about coming up with a unique approach to immersing the viewer in that scenario.
This movie’s approach immerses you fully, putting you right in the thick of things. You see, more than anything else, ambiance is what revs my horror engine. Refuge leans heavily on the sounds of an abandoned world – crickets chirping, leaves crunching underfoot, the labored sound of breath through a gas mask, papers rustling, wind pulling at branches – and all that natural atmosphere makes you as the viewer really feel the weight of the emptiness. The soundtrack weaves in between these sounds and amplifies their impact.
The loyalty Jack’s family members (related and adopted, old and new) show to each other is fierce, and when they are not together the separation anxiety is real and intense. He can be a bit sharp, to the point where it feels almost cruel, but you get the impression that this is a well-honed survival reflex and his family understands and respects that. None of them seems to question why they press on, they just continue to live because living is what they do.
In my opinion, Refuge nails the pacing – not so much slow as it is deliberate, punctuated with moments of intensity. It is not an action-packed thriller in the traditional sense, but it still does have both action and thrills. For maximum effect, I’d recommend you watch it with the lights out, on a larger screen. If you’ve got surround sound, even better. It’s available to purchase VOD from a variety of services.