A PG-13 virus thriller might sound like a contradiction in terms, but for the most part, “Carriers” spreads its bleak vision of post-pandemic terror to fairly chilling effect. Alas, in apparent avoidance of an R, the film fails to clarify the particular threat of its infected citizens, red-faced ghouls who look plenty scary and are indeed contagious, but are never shown to bite. Put into extremely limited release by Paramount Vantage after spending years in studio lockdown, “Carriers” has moments of genuinely communicable horror and thus deserves better than a de facto theatrical quarantine.
That the film escaped from the lab at all most likely owes to the success of Par’s recent “Star Trek,” whose hunky Chris Pine appears here as Brian, the most hardened of four young survivors in a rural Southwest made nearly vacant by an unspecified plague.
The leader of a tight-knit group that also includes his younger brother, Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci); his g.f., Bobby (Piper Perabo); and another young woman (Emily VanCamp), Brian makes his mercenary agenda unmistakable from the get-go, as he initially refuses to help a man (Christopher Meloni, “Law and Order: SVU”) whose daughter (Kiernan Shipka), evidently infected, has blood in her mouth mask.
As in so many viral-contagion pictures, the sensitivity of some — in this case, Perabo’s instinctually mothering Bobby — brings about the emotional and physical collapse of others.
Sibling writer-directors Alex and David Pastor display a particular facility with shocking turns of narrative that reveal the desperation of those few left alive. Still, at a lean 84 minutes, “Carriers” has little chance to register on a sizable scale, and the shortcuts it takes — as if in deference to the familiarity of the genre — leave the film feeling a bit anemic at points.
The actors, a blond-dyed Pucci most impressive among them, appear both grimy and grimly determined. Tech credits, too, are appropriately ravaged, with Texas and New Mexico convincingly serving as depopulated wastelands.
Ultimately, the film’s greatest liability is the datedness of its outbreak. Released closer to “28 Days Later,” “Carriers” could’ve caught on.