Thursday, June 04, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Doomsday (2008)

Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008) is all about...ingredients. 

The film is a visually stunning, high-impact pastiche of ingredients from many post-apocalyptic films, particularly those that were made in the seventies and early eighties. The film tells an original story, but one with recognizable elements from Mad Max (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and other beloved genre films.

In a sense, the Marshal film showcases a good alternative to today’s brand-name “remake” obsession and seeming compulsion. Instead of remaking a beloved post-apocalyptic film, Doomsday instead throws six or seven such efforts into the pot, stirs them up, and serves them to viewers as something fresh. 

The result is an action movie in which you recognize the pieces, but the whole is something new and different. The movie is a variation on a theme, but not a cash-grab rehash.

An extremely gory and violent film, Doomsday proves impressive in terms of its stunts and action sequences, but it also features some narrative blind alleys. The result is movie of intermittent success, of some highs and a few lows.  It’s fun recognizing all the influences and ingredients when they appear on screen, and Doomsday never fails to rivet the attention.

But in the end, the film doesn’t quite reach the level of "classic" enjoyed by so many of its brethren and creative inspirations.

“Once you’re over that wall, there’s no rules…no back up.”

In Glasgow, in April of 2008, a mystery virus infects the population. Only a few people escape, including a healthy little girl, Eden.  

Before long, all of Scotland is sealed off from the rest of the UK to stop the spread of the disease.

In 2035, the plague suddenly re-appears in London (Rhona Mitra), and Eden, now a major, is summoned by the Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) to go inside the Quarantine Zone on a crucial mission. 

In particular, satellites have shown that life has continued inside the Quarantine Zone, which must mean that there is a cure for the disease.  Indeed, a doctor -- Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell) -- was working on just such an antidote when the city was quarantined in the first place.  Perhaps he is still alive, and has completed his work.

Unfortunately, the Administration wants the cure for England but to give it only to selected that Britain can "thin out" the herd, and reduce over-population.

Eden Sinclair leads a team in two armored transports into the Quarantine Zone to recover Kane and hopefully his cure to the plague.  

Instead, she runs across cannibalistic savages led by his mad son, Sol (Craig Conway)...

“It’s Medieval out there.”

Doomsday draws its life-blood primarly from the post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinema of the 1970s. Although Marshall presents a coherent narrative, the film moves from influence to influence, knowingly reminding viewers of classics of the format.

For instance, the film starts with the same creative technique as Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). 

There, as you recall, beleaguered SWAT officers went into an urban tenement building, and fought a bloody battle with its residents...before the first zombies were even seen.  

In some way, this scene punctured or blew up the idea that the zombie apocalypse had made mankind violent.  Pretty clearly, he was already violent, and the violence in George Romero’s Dawn is human against human first. Then the zombies get in, feeding off the carnage.  The ghouls are just one more problem to contend with, but not the first problem. The tenement shoot-out captures and expresses that idea.

Similarly, Doomsday’s hero, Eden Sinclair, is first seen on the job early in the film, tracking down and killing brutal criminals.  These shoot-out sequences are over-the-top bloody (much like those in Dawn’s tenement opener), a key reminder to viewers that apocalypse isn’t the thing that rouses us to violence.  

That violence already exists within us, even in “normal” civilization.   

One kill involving a woman in a bath-tub is especially gruesome, and a police officer gets half his face blown off in one fire-fight.  But this scene is important because it acknowledges that Eden Sinclair operates in a violent, corrupt world, even before she undertakes her mission for the Prime Minister.

Next up, Doomsday adopts many qualities and aspects of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a dystopian if not apocalyptic film. For instance, Eden at times wears a patch over her eye, like Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), at times.   

Then, Eden is given a GPS locator (just as Snake is tracked by the government in Manhattan), and sent inside a walled-off zone, a kind of fully-contained Hell on Earth. In this case, it is all of Scotland that is walled-off from modern civilization, not New York, but the concept is virtually identical. 

Once inside, Eden is promptly captured by the denizens of the walled-off, barbaric area (populated either by crazy cannibals or criminals…) and eventually forced into combat for the pleasure of the audience.  

In Escape from New York, Snake battles one of the Duke’s (Isaac Hayes) burly minions in a boxing ring…and wins.  In Doomsday, Eden ends up in a Medieval Castle battling a knight to the death, a minion of Marcus Kane. She also wins.

Similarly, Doomsday ends with Eden releasing footage (from her eye camera…) of political corruption, of the replacement PM talking about trimming the fat from the population, allowing the plague to work through the populace. This leaked footage not only embarrasses him, but destroys his ability to lead.  His administration will fall because of his inhumanity.

This "political humiliation" ending harks back to Escape from New York too. 

There, the President (Donald Pleasence) is embarrassed when he presents the wrong tape at a peace summit, one (from Cabbie) that makes him look like a fool. Snake did this switcheroo for a reason. The President was unable to summon one genuine or sincere word of thanks for those who died in the process of saving him. 

George Miller’s Road Warrior/Mad Max saga is another significant source of inspiration in Doomsday.  

We see it, in particular, in terms of the wardrobe of those living in the Quarantined Zone.  Like Wez in The Road Warrior, many of these individuals wear mohawk hair-cuts and outfits that might politely be termed leather-chic.  

The primary action mode of Miller’s Mad Max saga is vehicular. Weird, modified cars battle it out on the old roads to determine supremacy in the new world. 

Accordingly, the climax of Doomsday occurs on the road, as Eden and her entourage of survivors race from the forces of Sol.  This chase sequence, while not lengthy, is one of the most impressive in the post-apocalyptic milieu, at least outside of Miller's work. 

In case viewers miss the point about pastiche, Doomsday names two of its soldier characters “Carpenter” and “Miller" -- John and George, right? -- just to assure cult-movie fans that it is in on the joke. Doomsday has thus blended the worlds of Snake and Max into one package, and -- not surprisingly -- they fit together pretty well.

In terms of other inspirations, the plague in Scotland might be seen as being  connected -- at least obliquely -- to contaminated London in 28 Days Later (2002).  Or if one goes back to the 1970s, perhaps the infected Los Angeles of The Omega Man (1971). 

Uniquely, at least one important ingredient in Doomsday seems to be piped in from a contemporary war film, and not a post-apocalyptic one. The best and most harrowing scene in the film involves two armored vehicles -- or APCs -- moving into the Quarantine Zone. While Eden and some soldiers go inside a hospital in hopes of retrieving Dr. Kane, others remain safely in the vehicles. 

At least they believe they are safe.  

But Sol’s people lay siege to the moving transports, and -- shockingly -- bring them down in an orchestrated, well-visualized assault.  

The loss of this mobile home base leaves the survivors on the chaotic streets of a failed city-state, surrounded by a population dedicated to killing them.  

This scenario -- the best modern technology overcome by hordes of enemies -- clearly evokes Ridley Scott’s brilliant Black Hawk Down (2001), which involves the bringing down of two American military helicopters in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.  

In both cases, people from "civilization" feel that their technology makes them untouchable.  Then, when their technology is destroyed, they must fight their way out the city on foot, on the run. Meanwhile enemies are literally everywhere...

In its use of “ingredients” from all these films, Doomsday makes for a compelling, action-packed ride, and the level of gore and violence is almost unbelievable at points.  Sean Pertwee, playing Lt. Talbot, meets a horrible fate, and the movie isn’t shy about showing it, point-blank range. He is burned alive on stage, and then eaten by cannibals, who tear the seared flesh from his bones.  I've already cited Romero as a key influence, but the eating scene here is every bit as grotesque as anything you'll find in Dawn of Day of the Dead (1985).

The level of violence in Doomsday is truly stunning and indecorous, but in a way, that’s really the point of all the films I’ve name-checked so far. 

Dawn of the Dead, Escape from New York, Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and even Black Hawk Down concern a world where the laws of man -- as we enjoy them now -- don’t exist, or at least don't hold sway. The best of these films also compare the apparently savage world with the apparently civilized ones...and find that they are not all that different.  

That's Doomsday's point, ultimately.

We see, in such films, that the world is an egregiously violent and corrupt place. To make that world seem real, directors such as Romero and Miller, especially, don’t shy away from depicting brutal, shattering violence.  

This is so that -- as I noted in my review of Fury Road (2015) -- audiences will feel un-tethered while watching, rocked back on their heels. It’s entirely possible that viewers will see something truly disturbing, and feel physical jeopardized while watching one of these films. We thus become, like the characters populating these films, uncertain about what to expect next.

Doomsday pushes the envelope to achieve that vibe, though not always successfully. When it succeeds, it is a stirring film. When it fails, it's just sort of gross.

Other scenes in Doomsday simply don’t work. Malcolm McDowell is wasted by the filmmakers as the sort of Kurtz-ian ruler of a Medieval Castle in the Quarantine Zone, and the overt fantasy visuals associated with his domain feel somewhat out-of-step with the post-apocalyptic and savage scenes in the film.  

Perhaps Marshall was hoping to channel Romero's Knightriders (1981) too?  

Nonetheless, the scenes featuring knights and castles feel entirely disconnected from the rest of the movie, which concerns savage human behavior, both in social interactions and political ones. I would understand if the castle and its surrounding society were meant to represent a nobler, more dignified time in human history.  But the savagery and dangers Eden finds there are just as bad as in the other parts of the Quarantine Zone.

One fresh twist on the material is the casting of Rhona Mitra as our lead character and action hero.  

Post-apocalyptic films (at least before Imperator Furiosa) very rarely focus on female characters, and Marshall makes a play for Mitra’s Eden to stand on the same hallowed firmament as Snake or Max.  

Some scenes in Doomsday nearly accomplish that feat.  

One involves Eden's grace-under-pressure handling of physical abuse during an interrogation scene with Sol.  Another involves her brutal duel with Sol’s girlfriend.  In both these cases, Eden rises to the level of cult-movie hero.

The effort is undone, somewhat, by Marshall’s determination to give Eden a back story. She is a little girl when the film starts, and separated from her mother when the plague hits Glasgow.  So her journey in the Quarantine Zone is also one of self-discovery, of going home.  Snake and Max, by contrast, stand apart from the worlds and characters they meet, which in some way makes them more iconic

Although we know much about Max’s family (and the tragedy surrounding it), he isn’t engaged in some grand quest; rather a series of adventures that inform his character, and lead him toward the ultimate destination of redemption.  

But Eden has a much more stereotypical “hero’s journey” here, going on a quest that humanizes her, but at the expense of mythologizing her, if that makes sense. Max and Snake both come from the Spaghetti Western school of “The Man with No Name.” They are unattached personalities who ride into town to reluctantly save the day...and then they leave.  

Eden is much more emotionally connected to her story. I guess that could be read as a positive or a negative.  For me, it made her more recognizably human and less like a 'Man" (or Woman) with No Name." Eden should be a little more mysterious in my opinion, and not saddled with a pre-packaged history to overcome.

I came away from a viewing of Doomsday with a sense of shock at the violence, and an adrenaline rush.  And that’s, in some sense, the point of many of these movies. 

There were also times, however, I wished the film had more fun with its ingredients, and was willing to go big and mythologize Eden a bit more as a warrior of the wasteland.

In the annals of post-apocalyptic films, there are many, many failures, and just few successes.  

Doomsday utilizes its fine ingredients -- Mad Max, Escape from New York, Dawn of the Dead -- to get closer to the goal post than many, even if it falls a bit short.

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