Monday, May 12, 2008

Pestilence, Plagues and Madness:The Doomsday Scenario

For those who frequent my reviews, the following may seem oddly polite, especially for such a crap film. However, this review was written specifically for a magazine, which requested a less flamboyant review. I am running the review here as written only because at this time I cannot bring myself to revisit a film that killed two hours of my life- and not without some agony....and because said magazine, after saying they were running it, did not print it. No hard feelings. Business is business. It is now long after the fact. Far better movies have trumped it at the box-office, and rightly so. Enjoy....

The resonant voice of Malcolm MacDowell fills the theatre with the ominous foreboding that Vincent Price once inspired. As he tells us of a future not so unbelievable, when a pestilence spreads throughout the white faced-urban lands of Scotland, images flip like forgotten news reels across the screen. The seriousness of his tone, smoothly laid out on the realist side of melodramatic, lays down enough dates and statistics to lend credibility to the story, elevating it above the 'innocuous viral-apocalypse movie.' Director Neil Marshall borrows from the potent socio-political sci-fi films of the seventies and while he tosses violence and gore into our laps, it is done with an unforgiving emotional detachment. The film Doomsday opens with the promise of a visceral portrayal of a future that is not so difficult to imagine as for years, we've watched the scenario play out on the dark-faced villages of Africa on the daily news.

This first half hour is a sharp stab at our empathy and apathy when presented the instinctual need for self preservation. It is not a powerful portrait yet, but this first half hour shows promise of a film to follow in the ranks of post-apocalyptic classics like Mad Max, THX-1138, The Terminator, The Omega Man and Escape from New York. There is a truth of our own cruelty presented with such matter-of-factness that the salvation of a young girl almost strikes the viewer as too saccharine to be true.

Sadly all promise is lost and as one character later advises: Abandon any such hope.

The homage to the powerful sci-fi films of past does not end with a quiet nod from writer/director Marshall. The heroine's likeness to Æon Flux, complete with funky hair cut, ocular implant, attitude and sexy wit is a more noticeable point to more recent influences as well. He hints at his 'influences' with characters named for directors John Carpenter and George Miller, amidst scenarios all too reminiscent of Escape from NY, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Dawn of the Dead and even a smack in the face of 28 Days Later and Aliens. There comes a point, however, when homage crosses over into giddy fan-film, and when well-crafted story-telling becomes regurgitation into an Hollywood-formula that should theoretically be quality. Nothing regurgitated is ever quality. Any pretense at originality or deliberate scripting is quickly dropped like foul-scented soap in the shower.

Neil Marshall wrote and directed Dog Soldiers, an independent film I recommend to anyone who likes unique horror/fantasy, although one who is keen on science fiction and horror will fast spot the many references and 'borrowed treasures' from other films and sources there as well. What makes it far more tolerable in Dog Soldiers is the subtlety to which it is done. Unfortunately as his budget bloated, Marshall's grip on craftsmanship was lost.

Of the three antagonists it is hard to say who has the grandest or most absurd lair. The deep-throated Scotsman, Canaris, with a fairly vague governmental role, has your typical wall of media encased in a heavily guarded militaristic compound, your run of the mill government room of evil and doom. He however, is outfitted with an entire military at his disposal and with it such wonderful toys.

The 'Kurgan-esque' tribal king, Sol, has an amphitheatre filled with can-can dancing Scotsman, x-games motor sport racers and pole dancing punk chicks on a stage outfitted with pyrotechnics and a human-sized rotisserie with which he appeases the cannibalistic hunger of his followers. The cannibalism, of course, is necessary due to lack of food, in spite of the sea of cattle that lend themselves to a gag earlier in the film.

Our final antagonist, the lost idealist Kane, has a Scottish castle. Yes...a castle. Complete with armored knights on horses, archers, gladiatorial giants in a death pit and damsels dressed in renaissance garb. I'll allow you to ponder that a moment while reminding you that this is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film set in 2033AD.

This disjointed and weakly connected film can be easily divided into deeply contrasting parts, not unlike the evil lairs. The opening is a serious film speaking to the threats foremost on society's mind, a tribute to the storytelling methods of Marshall's heroes and idols such as HG Wells, an author who more than once wrote of the destruction of society. Then we are thrown in Thunderdome, and it is no longer about societal conflict and change, but merely the visceral blood lust of Clancy Brown wanna-bes, and an attempt to mash the pointless vulgarity of Hostel and Saw into the same film. Did I mention the Gimp?

Then with a shift of the bizarre akin to Gilliam's Time Bandits, our heroine Eden is marched toward a castle in a scene begging the declaration, “this is my boomstick!” It is after a “David crushes Goliath's skull” row in the Pit of Death, which recalls the Conan series, that a product placement is inserted with such absurdity one begins to wonder if there are commercial breaks. Eden's dead pan remark on the color of the Bentley played like a misquote of the batmobile introduction in Batman Begins.

Everything that follows that commercial break belongs in some horrible send up to The Road Warrior. The only thing left out of this final ridiculously lack-luster chase scene is the Cannonball Run crew, any level of believability and Michael Bay gushing “Awesome!” after every explosion. I've neglected to mention that during this chase scene, the flashy 2008 Bentley GT is barely able to outrun an old, rusted 1980s pony-car police cruiser. Excellent marketing boys, I'll drop $176K on one, sure thing. If Marshall was merely remarking on female drivers, I beg to argue that Sinclair's driving was about as unimpressive and dispassionate as her approach to everything else in the film. The fiery Irish lass Dierdre did a far more exciting driving job in Ronin, and with at least a little facial expression.

At the very core, the concept presented was not a new one, however Marshall attempted to make a statement. Albeit, the message came across as clearly as a political treatise written with crayons. In his representation of the break-down of society he presented us with three different social structures: the Pragmatic, “civilized” Empire; the Barbaric, urban-punk tribes; and the isolationist medieval colony. In spite of the stark superficial differences of the three groups they all exhibit the same structure, as each is ruled by a Machiavellian leader willing to exercise whatever brutality and barbarism necessary to maintain control. A fairly cynical way of saying that all governments at root are the same and all humans are barbaric no matter their level of technology or manner of dress. This very loosely made statement is quickly buried beneath the spectacle and groan-worthy scripting.

Although the cast gathered is note-worthy, (Rhona Mitra, Malcolm McDowell, Bob Hoskins, David O'Hara, Alexander Siddig) and most performed to the expectations of their role, the absolute disappointment that Doomsday presents leaves me to suggest that you forget that the excellent actors in this film were ever in this film and consider Doomsday a “Mulligan”. Because Dog Soldiers and The Descent, for what they both were, stood as a testament that Marshall has great potential, we can grant him this Mulligan as well, but any future mistakes may lead me to believe that the more money he's given the less he tries.

If you're hungry, have a piece of your friend.”

*NOTE: If confused as to how/why this film is not as bad-ass as these images may indicate, please refer to my previous essay.


Janet said...

Great review! Too bad the magazine didn't print it. Maybe they thought it was still too flamboyant...

I would've loved to see what you would've written had you not had to tone it down. I love your wit and occasional snarkiness. :D

Kahl said...

Oh believe me, I could have been FAR snarkier. It was agonizing staying in this movie...and I never leave a movie. I mean-Christ...I even stayed and watched Ultraviolet until the very end.

The audience was nearly as absurd as the film itself. A guy next to us brought his kids. An infant and a one year old. The one year old was crying. (I completely commiserate there). The father tells her to just watch the movie. The girl looks at the screen right as a man is being burned alive and then cannibalized.....and she watched in rapt silence.

Hurray. Another well-adjusted human being in the making.

Unknown said...

Wow, am I out of touch...I just saw this movie for the first time and unfortunately it was on TV with commercials and blooped-out curses and who knows what else cut out??!? I started watching it because I caught sight of Rhona's haircut (and, yes, I got mine cut but not quite as extreme). So I ended up watching this movie because of a haircut....weird! Anyhoo I loved the costumes and make-up (and the haircut) but the rest of the movie was so disappointing. I liked the whole idea of the story as it starts out, then it kind of gets lost in translation.
All in all I'm a sucker for female heroes in a desperate situation (Alien[s], Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ghost Ship, Resident Evil[s] etc...) so I have to give credit to the female force that compelled me to watch (and record for future haircut reference) this strange and rather lackluster movie. :)