Ironically, the end of the world as we know it never seems to end; at least on the big screen, the fat lady simply never stops singing. Technically, the latest chorus in this endless string of end-of-the-world arias is not about our planet at large, just a large chunk (i.e., Scotland); nevertheless, DOOMSDAY justifies its title by incorporating motifs from its apocalyptic predecessors. You will find bits and pieces of THE OMEGA MAN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and THE ROAD WARRIOR, among many others. The result feels a bit like a medley of greatest hits performed by a hot, young talent who brings a new vocal inflection to the tired, old standards, revitalizing them for a new generation of listeners. You may not like the new version as much as you loved the originals, but it is fun to hear the various verses and choruses reprised together, creating something simultaneously familiar and new.
The film launches with one of its best sequences, portraying the outbreak of the “Reaper” virus (whose bloody pustules suggest Poe’s “Red Death”), which leads to the quarantining of Scotland behind a massive metal wall. A mass exodus toward the border becomes a violent free-for-all, with trigger happy guards shooting both the infected and the uninfected, turning the formerly orderly march into an uncontrolled riot. However, the sequences works less as a spectacular set-piece than as an introduction to our central character, Eden Sinclair, a young girl who is lifted to safety on the last helicopter out of the hot zone, forced to leave her mother behind.
Twenty-five years later, Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is a major in a special ops team taking out some drug dealers. When the Reaper virus erupts anew, this time in the heart of London, the British government needs a cure. Unbeknown to the public at large, satellite photos have revealed survivors in Scotland, suggesting that there may be a cure. Department of Domestic Security Chief Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins) selects Sinclair to head a mission into the quarantined area to search for Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who was working on the problem when the wall went up.
Searching the doctor’s old facilities, Sinclair’s team runs afoul of a band of cannibals led by Sol (Craig Conway), who hopes to use Sinclair as his key to circumvent the wall. Sinclair and her surviving team members escape and, with the help of Kane’s daughter, find their way to the doctor, who has set himself up as a local king in an old castle, having renounced modern technology in favor of a return to medieval mode of living. Natural selection, rather than medical science, is the reason for their survival…
Although the screenplay has a fairly clear, linear through-line, writer-director Neil Marshall explores other motifs like a jazz musician wandering off on a solo that diverts from the main melody. Besides Sinclair’s quest for a cure, she also has a personal quest to reconnect with the memory of the mother she lost. She has to confront three different factions of survivors, two of which appear to be at war with each other. And back in England, there is a political corruption sub-plot in which the prime minister (Alexander Siddig) yields to the suggestion of advisor Michael Canaris (David O’Hara) that they let the Reaper virus thin out the population before taking advantage of any cure that Sinclair might find.
These elements are meant to add complexity to the main storyline, but they feel more like loose improvisations than like a tightly structured symphony of melodies and counter-melodies. The war between the rival factions is barely glimpsed, let alone resolved. Sol turns out to be Kane’s son, but the film does nothing with the idea (you could drop it without changing the story). Sinclair’s personal quest is pretty much on the back burner until the ending. Her search for Kane suggests Marlow’s trip into the Heart of Darkness, looking for Kurtz, but DOOMSDAY only hints at the potential doppelganger theme: like Martin Sheen’s Colonel Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW, Sinclair even ends up enclosed in a wooden cage while Kane pontificates on his new philosophy; Kane comes across like a surrogate father figure (as he talks about losing a wife and a daughter, you briefly fear that the film is going to make the connection literal), but the dramatic implications drowned out beneath a crescendo of genre-required action scenes.
Marshall has so much fun with these sequences that it is hard not to be swept up into the sheer post-modern joy of seeing him cram in one darn thing after another (a gladiator style duel between our heroine and a hulking killer, a la Snake Plissken’s last-reel battle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, is soon followed by a ROAD WARRIOR-style multi-car chase on the open highway, with hardly a breath wasted on how Sol knew where to intercept Sinclair). Relying on old-fashioned physical stunts, rather than modern computer-generated imagery, Marshall recaptures much of the rhythm and percussive power of the films he is referencing. He also supplies more than enough gore and splatter to appease horror fans who fell in love with his previous efforts, DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT. (Besides decapitation, brains splattered with a shotgun, and a victim cooked alive, there are a couple moments of gratuitous cruelty toward animals that are meant to provide either a sick joke or a satirical statement about the Fascist nature of a government that could cold-heartedly turn its back on its citizens. I’m betting on the former.)
The only real problem with the action scenes – and it is a major one – is that they over-edited, obscuring most of the stunt choreography beneath a glissando of hyper-fast cuts. One could also nitpick about the ease with which Sol’s band of savages overcome the modern tanks that Sinclair’s team drives into the hot zone. (In the reviled tradition of RETURN OF THE JEDI, high-tech armor-plated equipment is vulnerable to bows and arrows.) Marshall makes an effort (including a Trojan horse-type gag to take out one tank), but to be truly convincing, the take-down should have been a little more difficult.
A British beauty playing a lethal warrior, Mitra comes across like this year’s model of Kate Beckinsale in UNDERWORLD, but she does handle the Sinclair role well, even if Marshall’s screenplay does not provide as much depth as his previous efforts. Although their scenes are brief, Hoskins and McDowell manage to register forcefully on screen, justifying their presence as something more than cameo casting. O’Hara is excellent as the power behind the prime minister; his super-stiff body language is enough to tell you he’s a bastard the first time you see him. Conway has a blast as the savage Sol, but Vernon Wells (who set the standard in ROAD WARRIOR) is probably probably in no danger of being eclipsed by this upstart. And Lee-Anne Liebenberg is memorably in a virtually silent role as Viper, Sol’s main squeeze.
DOOMSDAY is a blast from the past, filled with familiar echoes that should please fans. Marshall acknowledges his sources with the use of character names: Carpenter (as in John, director of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK); Chandler (as in Raymond, the hard-boiled mystery novelist with a sentimental streak); Talbot (as in Lawrence, the Wolf-Man in the classic 1941 horror film); and even Viper (a kind of snake, as in Plissken). There is also a fair share of original invention, like a removable mechanical eyeball that Sinclair can use to spy on her targets.
As a step up from Marshall’s smaller-scale horror films, DOOMSDAY makes it only halfway. As an ode to ’80s action and exploitation movies, it delivers the goods far better than both halves of GRINDHOUSE combined (it feels like the real deal, not like some stoners whacked out recollections). Unfortuantely, for the first time the genre requirements seem to outweight the story requirements. Unlike DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT, we do not see a dramatic depiction of a tight-knit group unraveling under pressure; with one or two exceptions, the members of Sinclair’s team serve as disposable bodies, obliterated almost as off-handledly as those red-shirted subordinates on the old STAR TREK. Even if the point is to show how emotionally detached Sinclair is, she should show some concern as the team leader who bears responsibility for the lives of her soldiers.
One would be tempted to conclude that Marshall simply conceived a score that was too big for him to orchestrate and conduct, but the film’s rousing coda overturns these doubts almost entirely. Avoiding the conventional ending, DOOMSDAY riffs on an idea from APOCALYPSE NOW, blatantly and brilliantly setting up a potential sequel. If there have been so many themes that not all of them could be resolved, it is only because we have been watching a dense prelude what what will come next. Far from the frustrating set-ups in many Hollywood films (that simply cheat and leave the audience wanting more), DOOMSDAY takes Sinclair to a point that satisfies the needs of this film but leaves her poised for an encore that could be even bigger and better than the opening number.
DOOMSDAY (2008). Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Cast: Rhona Mitra, Bob Hoskins, Adrian Lester, Alexander Siddig, David O’Hara, Malcolm McDowell.
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