Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Something You Don't See Every Day

So much of Neil Marshall’s DOOMSDAY is lifted from John Carpenter films, especially those which feature Snake Plissken, that there’s no getting around discussing it. For cryin’ out loud, even the credit font is borrowed from Carpenter. Somebody reminded me that Marshall’s THE DESCENT, which I liked a lot, used the font as well, but considering how close DOOMSDAY is, it still has to be brought up. I mean, aren’t the Movie Police supposed to watch over things like this? Does this mean that if I make a romantic comedy set in New York I can use Woody Allen’s font? If I make a wacky comedy filled with wanton destruction can I use John Landis’s?

But, honest admission here, as derivative as DOOMSDAY is, I honestly kind of enjoyed it. It’s such a pastiche that it plays like an alternate PLANET TERROR script commissioned for GRINDHOUSE in case the Rodriguez version didn’t work out and seems to revel in everything it’s trying to do. True originality may be at a minimum here, but at least the movie commits to what it’s doing, I’ll give it that much. Ultimately, it works well enough as a popcorn movie that I wound up wishing that I’d bought some popcorn before it started.

The film begins in more-or-less present day as a new strain known as the “Reaper Virus” spreads through Scotland and the British government has no choice but to seal off the entire island. After a lengthy voiceover explanation informing us of the nature of the quarantine and its aftermath, using full animation to display the layout of the setting, the narrative picks up again in the year 2035 (or, as the titles inform us, “2035 NOW” in case we still hadn’t caught on to the inspiration). The virus has resurfaced in London just as satellite photos evidence that there is still life on the other side of the wall. Desperate to find a cure, the government dispatches a team of specialists led by ruthless operative Major Eden Sinclair (HOLLOW MAN’s Rhona Mitra), to locate who or what may still be alive on the other side. Sinclair, by the way, is missing an eye, in case you weren’t clear on what character she’s supposed to resemble. Instead of a patch, she is outfitted with a bionic eye which is actually pretty cool, but never quite utilized as much as you’d think. A few of the team members are given the names Carpenter and Miller but hey, I guess if ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK had characters named Romero and Cronenberg then it’d be petty to complain about that. Anyway, the ultra-tough Sinclair has her own personal connection to the beginning of the original outbreak, but none of them have any idea what to expect when they reach the other side.

What they find is not just some MAD MAX/ROAD WARRIOR chocolate to stick in their ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/L.A. peanut butter but, in addition to some Romero and Gilliam echoes as well are some surprising structural similarities to APOCALYPSE NOW. There’s the framework of a lone soldier sent with a team on an official trip up north (not upriver, but close enough) in search of a mysterious figure, an evening show setpiece staged in a way that recalls the Playboy Bunny USO sequence as well as an vague overall feeling of the “going back in time to earlier periods of the country” notion that Coppola always claimed he was going for—I could be more specific, but some of this is genuinely unexpected so hey, experience it for yourself. And once Mitra and her team reach their destination, they encounter the Kurtz-like figure Kane, played here by Malcolm McDowell in a role that should have “Special Guest Star” attached to the billing, espousing of all his mad philosophies as he is framed in shots which strive for enigmatic Brando-like compositions.

It is fun and it is extremely gory and I did have a surprisingly good time, but there really isn’t much to chew on here and whatever else you want to say about John Carpenter’s films back in the day that was rarely ever the case. The climactic car chase, one of the many George Miller lifts throughout is pretty damn good and there is something pretty cool about the futuristic world created here by Neil Marshall, which has enough going on for use not only in potential sequels but also any graphic novel series that he might have in mind as well.

Rhona Mitra is great to look at, fun to watch and actually a pretty believable ass-kicker. She’s also more enjoyable in the role than a number of other attempts at female action heroes from the past few years. Her character never reaches the mythic levels that Snake Plissken resides in but really, how many ever do? Bob Hoskins is likable in the what is pretty much the avuncular Lee Van Cleef role and there are also plum roles for Adrian Lester, Alexander Siddig and THE DEPARTED’s David O’Hara as well as McDowell’s extended cameo. Unfortunately, one director Marshall seemingly hasn’t lifted from enough is James Cameron and his penchant for casting interesting people in small roles, like in ALIENS. Here, most of the team members are pretty much non-entities.

But one of the big problems with DOOMSDAY is that THE DESCENT was promising and effective enough that I’d really like to see a new Neil Marshall film, not just something he directs and is loaded with homages to other movies. Still, I don’t regret having seen it. It’s not all that memorable but it is fun and on DVD it’ll be ideal to enjoy with some beer and pizza. But really, Marshall has already displayed enough glimmers of talent that he should try to genuinely form his own identity as a filmmaker. And he could start with coming up with his own font. Seriously, if he does that, he’ll feel better. But he can feel free to keep on casting Rhona Mitra in roles where she kicks ass. Her, I have no complaints about.


Jeremy Richey said...

I agree with a lot of your thoughts here especially in regards to Rhona, who I think is really excellent in everything she does.
I found myself really responding to the first half (the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK section) but it lost me in the second part for some reason...I think I finally just felt that he was attempting to ape too many films and it lost any kind of consistent tone for me. I really liked THE DESCENT and DOG SOLDIERS as well so I felt a bit let down by DOOMSDAY. That said I suspect it will play better on DVD with the pizza and beer you mentioned and I suspect a bucketload of extras...
note to Marshall and any other directors...MORE RHONA MITRA! What a gorgeous and compelling performer this woman is.

Anonymous said...

Which Carpenter font, from which films are you referring to?

Mr. Peel said...


I absolutely hear what you're saying and while I may have enjoyed the second half a little more than you did, it's not a point I'm going to argue too strongly. And yes, I look forward to seeing more of Rhona Mitra in the future as well.


It's bascially the standard credit font which John Carpenter has used in most of his films and should be instantly recognizable to a fan of his. I think it's called Albertus.