Review by Justin Goodman
One of the strangest details of What We Become, the debut film of Bo Mikkelson, is the popularity of television for the protagonist family. Despite being trapped in a house and neighborhood quarantined for reasons the government refuses to explain, and doomed to watch repeats of news anchors saying the government refuses to explain or just a screen of static, they still find themselves drawn to know. One could take this as a presage of the current political environment: the consequence of this distance between the People and the Government is the climax of the movie. Zombie horror movies since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead have had such political applications (if not connotations). But What We Become is not as clean or as coherent as that, and what begins as a meaningful obsession turns into just another characteristic of a movie torn between complexity and simplicity.
When Sonja moves in across the street, Gustav’s hormones and skater demeanor make him remarkably obstinate in pursuing her. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family is distant and defensive. His father, Dino, is too caught up in thoughts to listen to his wife, Pernille, who is herself too protective of their young daughter, Maj, to tell the truth about death. As is discovered later, Maj is herself too childish to listen to anyone. The outbreak—as all zombie movies have them—begins with an old man’s disappearance once his old wife begs for help because she last saw him seizing by the TV. You could call this foreboding. Soon after, Swedish military with gas masks storm into the neighborhood, threatening non-compliant citizens, and covering each house with large, black tarps. Gustav being a teenager still finds ways out of the house in his pursuit of Sonja despite the apocalyptic ambiance.
In a way this make What We Become the polar opposite of Warm Bodies. Instead of a story about a youthful zombie finding love despite being, well, a zombie, we have a young man becoming a psychological zombie to his desires. During the quarantine Gustav sneaks out to discover the “real” reason for the lockdown. I guess the Swedish hasn’t received effective training since the War in Iraq ended (2014), seeing how easily one man succeeds in sneaking past them. Anyway. What he sees is the funneling of living beings into what, to his imagination, becomes death camps: in a shot parallel an ominous fireworks scene, entrenched in darkness but with brief red lights, Gustav is entrenched in darkness reflecting on a bulldozer filed with a bloody soup of corpses. Ever the hero and rascal, Gustav promptly frees the remaining zombies from their cargo holds. He successfully escapes the military’s inaccurate fire and essentially makes “there goes the neighborhood” idiomatic for What We Become.
But there is nothing interesting in what follows. The military leaves the neighborhood because of the now zombie crowded streets. Sonja and her mother move in, as does his neighbor Læge and Læge’s estranged wife. Sonja’s mother, infected, dies in her sleep, which is followed by a poorly placed sex scene between Sonja and Gustav. Nevermind the awkward romantic “tension” leading to this moment: why does death turn them on so much? Dino and Læge leave the house to learn more about the situation, while Pernille stays at home doing discernably nothing. From this point forward the movie follows the patterns of zombie flicks with their surprise victims, betrayals, and stupidities that are watched by horror movie fans with casual indifference because of a love for the genre. What helps What We Become with this is its dedication to amorality.
Despite dooming literally everyone—including, inevitably, his family, whose end would be familiar to fans of Sinister—Gustav shows no regrets or remorse. Because of this, the zombies aren’t actually terrifying; when they appear, they appear in hordes or as obvious emotional manipulators. Perhaps against Mikkelson’s intentions, humanity is far worse. They don’t have the excuse of disease and when Dino tries to calm his family down by recalling a stadium collapse in the ‘80s, suggesting everyone should listen to the government and stay calmly at home, Gustav bluntly points out that, had everyone stayed calm during the collapse, they would have died in it. It’s the difference in mindset that leads Gustav to, self-justified, free the zombies while his father bemoans the fact, “we can’t do a thing.” If only he was right.
What We Become tries to be more than it is, starting from its title. Instead of the examination of distrust that it seemingly wants to be, it becomes the romp of a conscience-less character whose pursuits are unjustified and, honestly, ridiculous. It’s defined by several shots where, with Gustav, we see through holes in the black tarp, holes Gustav presumably tore himself in order to keep an eye on the military. It’s the authoritarian’s response to authority. It’s what defines Gustav and the movie. One man peeks through a rip shakily, the edges of perspective blackened, convinced of the guilt of what he only partially sees. Forget the true love of Warm Bodies or the isolationism of Night of the Living Dead, What We Become is more grandiosely intentioned—and lacking for it.