Some films commit the cardinal cinematic sin of being too smart for their own good. They smugly announce their importance, challenging you to hate them if only to expose your own lack of understanding. The recent remake of Funny Games is a good example of this ideal. If you loved it, you got what writer/director Michael Haneke was selling. If you didn’t, you stand as a poseur, pretending to love film without seeing the Paloving way in which you salivate over big screen violence. Right. There is a little of this out of touch arrogance running through Neil Marshall’s ’80s movie mash-up Doomsday. In the mind of the man responsible for Dog Soldiers and The Descent, if you’re not hip to his homage heavy update of the ’80s post-apocalyptic thriller, then you just haven’t spent enough dateless nights in front of a VCR.
When the Reaper virus wipes out most of Scotland, the British government quarantines the North Country. Within months, the remaining population dies off, the disease’s communicable state requiring a massive wall and martial law. Thirty years late, the plague returns to the heart of London. Desperate to halt another pandemic, officials turn to Cabinet Minister Canaris and Chief of Police Nelson. One holds the key to a cure. The other has an officer who can infiltrate the hot zone and find the whereabouts of Dr. Kane, the only man who may have the answers. Of course, the region is now its own warzone, apparently immune survivors traveling in packs, creating their own craven rules along the way. But if anyone can accomplish the mission, it’s Eden Sinclair and her ragtag group of well-armed mercenaries.
As part of the Unrated DVD release from Universal, Doomsday‘s director sits down with several cast members to discuss the making of the movie, and from the 28 Days Later inspired opening to the Escape from New York styled set-up, the group make it clear that this film was as much a cinematic statement of terror trivia as an actual attempt to make some serious science fiction. The name dropping is rampant, with Mad Max (in all three of his incarnations), Aliens, and even the legend of King Arthur getting a referential shout-out. In fact, if one reads between the lines, they can garner a fairly accurate review from the ravings. Apparently, even the individuals behind the film recognize how redundant Doomsday is, going so far as to point out the far better examples it rips off in order to achieve its throwback tedium.
Part of the problem here is scope. Even when he destroyed the UK with nubile, naked space vampires, Tobe Hooper made sure to remind everyone that his Lifeforce Armageddon had bigger picture implications. But Marshall, who works better in enclosed scenarios (see: the cave carnivores of his all gal Descent), can’t take his vision global. Heck, he barely delivers Glasgow. There are sequences where Sinclair and her group of military clad clichés come across a deserted cityscape covered in foliage and debris. Yet because of the way it is shot (at night, under a bright blue moon) and the angles Marshall chooses, its looks like the most mediocre of old school matt paintings. Even worse, when we wind up in what appears to be a future shock version of Medieval Times (the restaurant chain, not the era), the castle keep seems solid only when the director stays within its location walls.
Sloppy CGI and incomprehensible scripting are not the only issues plaguing Doomsday. Marshall makes it very clear in his digital conversation that one of the many elements he tried to bring to the material was a thwarting of expectations. And if he meant that his villains would be more pathetic than powerful, that his heroine would whine as much as a pre-weaned pup, that the army would be lousy at the two things they supposedly excel at (infiltration and the skilled use of armaments), or that his government officials would be obvious and outrageous in their corruption and subterfuge, then he’d be right. Indeed, all of these failures fill out Doomsday‘s many minutes, and no amount of added violence or bloodshed (hence the cover art come-on “Unrated”) can fix them. When tossed in with what is, in essence, an adventure without a real sense of purpose – no President to save, no gas supply to protect – any inherent thrills simply disappear.
This doesn’t mean that Doomsday is a visual disaster – at least not all the time. The rest of the DVD is fleshed out with features that argue for the meticulous detail in the production design (check out the tattoos) and the budget busting goals Marshall attempted. A lot of work went into this movie, and like the old adage proudly proclaims, all of it is up on the screen. Yet it doesn’t explain why all this pomp leads to so little entertainment circumstance. Sure, if you enjoy the basic b-movie, easily amused by the sometimes absurdist premises and solid schlock execution, you might get some kicks here. But Doomsday still begs the question – why borrow from something better, especially when you have no desire (or ability) to improve on it.
Of course, filmmakers like Brian DePalma and John Carpenter would argue with such an assessment, especially since they’ve borrowed liberally from past and present masters (Hitchcock, Argento) and yet managed to make the material their own. Neil Marshall can’t make the same claim with Doomsday, no matter how many cult classics he throws into the scattered storyline. Sometimes, a bad idea is just that, no matter what inspired you to come up with it. Arguing for its mediocrity by citing better original sources seems…arrogant. Then again, that’s how the ‘smarter than you’ style of cinema defends itself. Somewhere, someone is laughing at this criticism’s inability to sync up with what this dystopian dirge has to offer. One peek behind this genre emperor’s dressing room door doesn’t reveal a lack of clothes, just someone who worships the designer yet has no idea how to wear them.