Post-apocalypse stories trade on that weird fear and fantasy that comes with imagining the end of the world—that we will survive even if everyone else perishes, and that the world we inherit will still be worth having. It’s a uniquely human arrogance to try to impose dominion over the undoing of our own civilization, but it does make for some awfully good storytelling. The funny thing is, as we return again and again to the notion fo a world past apocalypse, we tend to focus on more exotic kinds of armageddon and overlook the more mundane, the ones that we have already survived and should be more afraid of, but are not. A deadly pandemic may not be gimmicky, but it is true horror. And it is that rarely trodden territory that we travel through as we enter a world that is part road trip, part survival story, all existential horror: Carriers.

The story takes place not long after a viral pandemic has swept across the world, swiftly killing anybody who has been infected by it. There appears to be no cure. There appear to be no natural immunities. There is only a thin margin of safety that can be enjoyed by those meticulous enough to live by some very strict rules: anybody you meet is likely a carrier, anything you touch is likely infected, and anyone who is infected is doomed to die. The only question is whether or not they’ll take somebody with them before they go. Into all of this we meet a pair of brothers—Brian and Danny—and Brian’s girlfriend Bobby and Danny’s friend from school, Kate. The foursome are traveling across the American southwest on their way to a coastal resort that Brian and Danny used to visit when they were kids. They think that there is a safe haven there, but the longer the quartet travel on their highway of the damned, the more evidence they see that there are no safe havens to be had in a world where the only thing worth living for—each other—is the thing most likely to get you killed.

This is a movie that simultaneously employs a lot of standard post-apocalypse tropes—scrounging for supplies, wariness of others, imposing one’s own reality upon the ruins of yesterday—while staying so far from a straightforward plot that it becomes less of a story about survival and more of a meditation about living with the inevitability of death. At its heart, Carriers is a kind of road movie as Brian, Danny, Bobby and Kate make their way a disease-ravaged America in which almost everyone is already dead. Their transit through empty cities, encounters with infectious people, minor mishaps that become major problems in a world without help or supplies, and brushes with armed survivalists all show just how uniquely suited our protagonists really are to survive this fresh hell they inhabit. It almost seems like a form of unjust punishment to learn only when everybody else dies just how good one is at surviving. And doubly so to learn it in a way that makes one wonder what the point of survival is anymore.

Living in an age of wondrous medical knowledge and life-saving technology, the risk of pandemic remains real but distant—the kind of thing that can surely happen, but just to other people far from where one lives. That kind of disassociation with a risk that has so deeply impacted humanity over the years is a recipe for disaster, indeed. So to see the cruelest realities of what life in plague time looks like isn’t just gloomy and bleak, but downright terrifying. Carriers isn’t full of zombies or running gunfights or neoprimitive society. What it is full of is the quiet desperation that comes with a refusal to die in a world where death is the only thing left in abundance, and the thing in scarcest supply is hope.

One scene that drives this home with utter ruthlessness is midway through, when our characters encounter a scenario that causes them to break the very specific rules of survival that have served them so well. They allow a father and his infected little girl to join them, even they know the girl is a goner. Letting her and her dad into their car puts them all at risk, but this is the first living child they have seen since the plague broke out, and they agree to help her and her father get to a medical facility down the road, where it is rumored there is a vaccine. Only when they get there, they find that the place is just a school converted to a field hospital. And what’s worse, it is full of sick children presided over by a sick doctor who knows he cannot cure anyone, but he can end their suffering. The somber way in which the doctor makes his preparations is both chilling in how cold it is, and yet retains a kind of dignity. The doctor could have crumbled beneath his despair, and yet he chooses to spend his final hours in the service of others.

What delivers the moment of truth, then, is after that heartbreaking scene, which we imagine either has or is playing out all over the rest of the world. Knowing they cannot help their passengers, the protagonists must decide what to do with them. Keep them in their car or leave them behind to face certain death alone? What they decide, and how they carry out their decision, is one of the most chilling acts of survival logic we are likely to see. Not for the course of action carried out, but for the reactions of all who are involved. How this scene ends versus how the scene before with the doctor ends is a striking reminder that even when the Grim Reaper looms over everything, our humanity cannot be taken. It can only be surrendered.

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