Monday, February 2, 2009

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Doomsday

I haven't done one of these in a while but Hoosier Daddy was waxing enthusiastic on the charms of Rhona Mitra (whom I only know as the hot next-door neighbor chick that Kevin Bacon rapes in The Hollow Man) so I thought I'd have it on when Cinemax showed it in high-def. In Doomsday, Mitra channels Milla Jovovich through Kate Beckinsale. (And she does it in a cast that includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell; those English can turn out a cast regardless of the movie, can't they?)

The movie itself--well, as I've said before, there aren't really a lot of "sound" post-apocalyptic thrillers. Even the best usually suffer from some logical fundamental flaw. In Doomsday, writer/director Neil Marshall--who also wrote the surprisingly cogent The Descent--doesn't even try.

This is one where knowing the director set out to lift things directly from other films doesn't really help. You keep recalling where you've seen what you're seeing, and remembering how much more you enjoyed that other film. For a complete neophyte, that wouldn't be the case, of course, but unless the viewer is totally swept up in fairly run-of-the-mill effects--maybe hasn't seen any film ever made--the whole thing is a head-scratcher.

The plot is that there's a virus outbreak in Scotland (reminiscent of the disease in Planet Terror) so England decides to wall it up (Escape from New York). A little girl is rescued at the last moment but loses an eye (a la Snake Plissken) which later is fitted with a remotely-controllable prosthetic (Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire). As a grownup, she is a super-duper fighting machine (Resident Evil) working for some sort of special forces group that needs her to go behind the wall to retrieve the Mad Doctor working on a cure (Escape from New York again; actually, unless otherwise noted, assume the plot point came from Escape from New York).

Behind the wall her highly unprofessional SWAT-like team (Aliens) is beset by gang members (The Warriors) who destroy their vehicles (Dawn of the Dead-remake style) and the gang members even eat one of the crew (A Boy and His Dog). Escaping from these guys on a train (another Harry Potter reference?) they find themselves in a newly reconstructed medieval Scotland (Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness) where Mitra must fight a gladiator (Gladiator) before they can escape with the goods.

Malcolm McDowell plays a Colonel Kurtz-type character (Apocalypse Now) and the whole thing climaxes with a chase scene straight out of Road Warrior. The ending is a reasonable transposition of Escape From New York with Mitra betraying her ostensible bosses and then, inexplicably, becoming queen of the punk gang who tried to kill her? I think that's what that last scene was about but I wouldn't swear to it. It was very Escape, too, though, reminding of the "boxing" scene where Snake Plissken kills the big guy to everyone's approval.

I just didn't give a damn.

You could say, cruelly but not unfairly, that this film swam in cinematic greatness and never got wet. For all the budget, acting and fetching costumery, it comes off like any of 500 low-budget movies made after Road Warrior.

But since our topic is post-apocalyptical fun, we should look at how ridiculously constructed the apocalypse part was. One nice touch is that it's just Scotland and the wall that fences it in is right where Hadrian's Wall was.

OK, quarantining is fine. Logical even. Most of the movie takes place 20 years later, when nobody with the disease is left alive. The entire population is immune. Yet the plan is to send someone in to get the guy who may have found a cure. Though, really, why would anyone assume that? Diseases peter out without human intervention all the time. And what possible system could a guy cut off from all support develop to inoculate people? Scotland's under surveillance the whole time, how bad could their intel be?

Given that all of Scotland's immune, why keep up the wall at all? Especially after the disease turns up in England?

"Well, it's there. And we had a divil of a time putting it up, so there it stays!"

The first thing they show us when we're in the newly recovered Scotland is a veritable horde of cattle. So whither cannibalism?

And why, with plenty of food around, and the legendary resourcefulness of the Scots, do these post-punks just hang around waiting for someone to come through the gate to terrorize and kill them? Especially given that it had never happened before (or at least not very often)?

How do they keep their S&M gear so neat and shiny?

Where'd the cars come from? And if they had them, and gas, why not use them? And can you really unbox a 20 year old Bentley and have it run like it was fresh off the line? (If so, I suppose that would explain the expense.)

I can sort of see why there wouldn't be any old folks among the punks, but where were the children?

Why does everything explode when a car hits it? Are they storing boxes of explosives everywhere? Why?

Is movie violence really more entertaining when you show everything getting reduced to a bloody pulp?

Why is it that there always seemed to be plenty of whatever technology that was needed around but nobody had bothered to try to turn that into a sustainable lifestyle? Why, if they were dealing with a limited supply, was use not strictly rationed and substitutes found?

Obviously, I'm overthinking this: The movie never rises above "ooh, look at the pretty explosions" and it was clearly never meant to. It was meant to be "outrageous" in the director's own words.

But you have a problem when you can't even be bothered to give us some characterizations that we care about. Even the Resident Evil movies (which you borrowed so heavily from) manage to do that. And you can't blame it on the actors.

Note that this all could've been done with a more plausible storyline and it would have worked--well, it would've worked better. Or it could've been done completely outrageously, a la Shoot 'em Up. Then it would've been funny, at least.

It seems instead like, on the one hand, they were going for an honest homage (like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark) while on the other they wanted to show they were too smart to be sincere about this stuff.

Until next time, mutants: Stay radiated!


  1. Oooh! A Boy and His Dog! I haven't thought about that movie in years. I saw it at the theater with my big brother and my oldest sister. I'll never forget how mad she was at my brother for recommending this movie. The ending was highly offensive to her.
    Ha ha. I thought it was funny.

    Wasn't the last line something like "Pretty good taste, too."?

  2. Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, Albert, if not particularly good taste.

    Fun fact: Harlan Ellison hates that ending.

    The novella ends with (IIRC), "Love is what a boy has for his dog."

  3. Ahh! Well, I was kind of close for all those years ago. Hee hee.

    Did you like the movie, Blake?

  4. Best name for a movie protagonist...ever: Snake Plissken.

  5. This was a disappointment to me, by the way. I had high hopes for Neil Marshall. I think a lot more thought went into the story and the characters in The Descent than the average horror flick.

    I remember in an interview with him he said he wrote the entire script one way, then someone suggested he make all the characters women; he went back and rewrote it. Wonder if/how any of the complexity changed with that big change.

  6. Re The Descent: The all-female dynamic of the descent meant that he couldn't rely on stereotypes the whole time, I think. (It could have also served to think about reversing the male and female parts; that can be revealing.) It also removed any gratuitous sexuality, which can completely undermine atmosphere. The characters' relationships had to become a lot more complex.

    I had the same hopes you did, but avoided Doomsday in the theater, for which I am grateful. I'd have been irked and The Boy probably still wouldn't be talking to me.

  7. Darcy, which movie?

    A Boy And His Dog I love, though it's been years.

    Doomsday? No, and I wanted to. Or feel like I should have.

    There's a famous story of Beethoven being solicited along with 30 odd other composers to write a variation on a theme--I forget who wrote the theme, but I think it's someone now best known as a guitarrst--and him being so miffed that he wrote 31-odd variations on the theme, all better than those written by the other composers.

    What does this story tell us? For one thing, Beethoven was an asshole. But the important thing is that if you're going to take themes and play with them, you'd better know what you're doing lest you be made a fool of.

    There has to be sense to things. It doesn't have to be realistic, or even logical, as long as it feels right to the viewer. The J-horror pics have been very good at creating fear and suspense without making sense in the traditional way.

    Hell, Road Warrior doesn't really make sense on a lot of levels, but it makes a kind of aesthetic, comic-book sense.

    It's just vital to creating any sort of suspense. There have to be rules that the audience can perceive and relate to enough to care about what happens.

    A lot of the recent supernatural actioners flunk this basic element: It's not enough to have a fight scene that goes on until you figure you've had enough action, and you arbitrarily decide the result for dramatic purposes. (All fight scenes are like this, of course, but you don't rub the audience's nose in it.)

    Simple counterpoint: Star Wars. Even while we concede the absurdity of the notion that a massive project like a Death Star would have an unshielded port that could be used to pop it like a balloon, the last scene in Star Wars works because there's a distinct goal and you're made to feel like you don't know if the hero's going to win.

    This is what makes a good action scene: The audience has to feel doubt about the outcome combined with a sense that what's going on isn't just jazz noodling.

    The Matrix had this, too. Even though the ending is practically a literal deus ex machina, it made sense.


    I think, mostly, I'm just disappointed. They had $30M to make this.

  8. I was asking whether you liked A Boy and His Dog, but enjoyed your whole reply. I kind of figured you probably liked it, and I would like to see it again myself as I've only seen it the one time.


  9. A lot of the recent supernatural actioners flunk this basic element: It's not enough to have a fight scene that goes on until you figure you've had enough action, and you arbitrarily decide the result for dramatic purposes. (All fight scenes are like this, of course, but you don't rub the audience's nose in it.)

    Worst recent fight scene: 30 Days of Night. We were laughing at the "climactic" fight scene at the end.

  10. Darcy,

    You haven't seen my list of the best apocalyptic movies and shows. A Boy and his Dog comes is #3 and there's even a link for watching it or even downloading it. (It's apparently lapsed into the Public Domain.)

  11. Worst recent fight scene: 30 Days of Night. We were laughing at the "climactic" fight scene at the end.

    Yeah, The Boy had the same reaction.

    After Underworld 2, I was just glad they didn't drag it out for 10 minutes.

  12. Oh!! Great list!

    And thanks for the link to the download. I own The Day of the Triffids. Love that movie.

  13. The "Triffids" movie of Janette Scott fame is okay, but the BBC movie is best.


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