Escape from New York. The Road Warrior. Conan the Barbarian. Terminator 2. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Total Recall. Aliens. Robocop. 28 Days Later. Highlander. These are some of the cult standbys director Neil Marshall lovingly references — through image, character, or soundtrack — in Doomsday. Marshall’s latest is nothing like his minimalist werewolf tale, Dog Soldiers, and it lacks the cohesion and slow-build tension of The Descent. Doomsday is what happens when an interesting genre director, whose love of classic SF and fantasy flicks scrambled his head, gets access to budget and decides to indulge. It’s a mash-up that deliberately tangles several kinds of movies together, thwarts your expectations, and thumbs its nose at unity of place. It’ll either work for you or it won’t—it’ll polarize audiences the way Reign of Fire and Equilibrium have polarized Pajibans, and after it’s had a few years to age and gel on our plasma screens, it’ll be argued over in comment threads with the same degree of disdain or passionate defense. The movie, in fact, shifts between two kinds of apocalyptic futures — the dystopic tech of an Equilibrium and the filthy feudal of a Reign of Fire — and all of this back-and- forthing will disconcert people who need their films surrounded by a stable genre frame. Doomsday is a slippery wet pig of a movie that refuses to be pinned down, and if you’re not a postmodernist type of viewer, it’s probably best to stay the hell away.
I’m a fan of Marshall’s earlier work, and I have a weakness for “prison planet/prison city” flicks, so seeing Doomsday on the big screen was a given. The film opens in a Glasgow besieged by the Reaper virus, which spreads so fast and kills so effectively that Scotland must be walled off as a quarantine zone. Those trapped inside the zone are left to die, but the draconian measures succeed and the virus is contained. Scotland wastes away after a fitful, chaotic death. The rest of Britain, meanwhile, is snubbed like a pimply freshman by the larger world and left to struggle economically for the next quarter century. The opening sequences of outbreak, civil disorder and containment are outrageous fun, and so are the massive steel walls of the quarantine perimeter. There are Planet Terror levels of violence to enjoy and a cold, authoritarian government to jeer. The walling off of Scotland involves plenty of soldiers shooting into frenzied crowds, and the camera focuses on a woman caught on the wrong side of the border with a little girl in her arms; she convinces a soldier to take her wounded child out of the country moments before it’s transformed into a prison of mayhem and hemorrhagic fever. The little girl grows up to be Major Eden Sinclair, of the Ellen Ripley-Sarah Connor School of Ass-Stompery, and how well Sinclair learned her lessons at the academy will probably depend on how much you think Rhona Mitra rocks her gun and tank-top. Personally — and I know better than to say this lightly — I think Mitra comes closer to her foremothers than most of these cut-outs ever get, but the levels of silliness that surround her onscreen flatten out her awesomeness.
When the Reaper virus makes a reappearance in London 25 years later, and when signs of life in the streets of Glasgow are caught on satellite image, Major Sinclair is recruited by a sinister suit (David O’Hara, Britain’s answer to Michael Wincott) to lead a recovery team into the hot-zone and find whatever cure saved the Scots from total annihilation. What they discover, instead, is a tribe of surviving virus hooligans led by Sol (Craig Conway, Britain’s answer to Hank Azaria — if Azaria were buffed to a high gloss). Sol spends his first few minutes of screen time channeling Highlander’s Kurgan as he entertains his raving masses with kilted can-can dancers and a buffet of roasted cop; he’s a roaring lunatic who takes sustenance from the cruelest types of violence and, like the Kurgan, he’s five kinds of scary. His first scenes are easily the best of the film. After a while, though, Conway throws himself into the skin of another cult-classic villain, The Road Warrior’s redhead Mohawker; Sol’s Mohawk is blond, but the allusion is unmistakable. Marshall even recreates one of The Road Warrior’s highway battles with near-identical vehicles — it’s too damned bad he’s jumped on the Berserker Editing bandwagon and blends Doomsday’s action sequences into an impressionistic pulp (who do I have to kill to put an end to this trend?). It’s also too bad the conclusion of the film turns into an expensive Bentley ad; I can forgive genre mash-ups, but I hate to see a chase sequence made to look like a run-of-the-mill car commercial — lit, shot and over-exuberated the way Mazda and Toyota package their products nowadays with copycat intensity.
Sinclair fights her way through what looks like three different films, winding up eventually in a Medieval enclave ruled by Kane (Malcolm McDowell), once an esteemed scientist gifted enough to find a cure for the virus. Kane’s part of Scotland, which was shot at Blackness Castle, comes complete with dungeons, gibbets, and gladiators pimped out in plate-mail. He’s more interested in lording over his mini-kingdom (which is at war with Sol’s) than digging up a vaccine, and Sinclair has to improvise her way out of her mission with nothing but her tank-top and some fancy moves. This film, in fact, is little more than a palette of fancy moves and production design; Sinclair as a character is lightly sketched and static, and Marshall (who wrote the script) puts more energy into subtext and allusion than he does story or character. The plot is generic and asinine (though the tension holds), and the story barely knits together as a whole, but Marshall lathers up a bit of glue by exploiting the traditional English idea of Scotland as a barbarian region of unteachable primitives, complete with cannibals; the quarantine wall, we’re told, originally follows ancient Roman conquest lines, and there’s no denying that Marshall is playing on Britain’s history of internal imperialism — hilariously, I’d say, in the figure of Sol and his hooligans. This little nod at subtext gives Doomsday some traction and makes the movie, despite its BloodRayne tincture, a lot stronger than anything Uwe Boll can cop, no matter how many maces and morning-stars he throws onscreen.
Marshall’s mash-up is addled, no question, and shaky, and outright ridiculous in moments, and paper-thin, but it’s got some charm to recommend it, and (like I said), it’s hardly boring. I can’t hate a movie as over-the-top provocative as Doomsday, which features hooligans on motorcycles decorated with skeletons; it conjures up a vintage John Carpenter kind of soundtrack in parts; it generates the iconic fanboy image of a buffed future chick dropping her gun at the feet of a Medieval horseman; it clashes out Frankie Goes to Hollywood when two tribes sort of go to war; it has the balls to give us a decapitated head implausibly shouting in fury as it flies through the air; and it throws in a little Bob Hoskins for good measure. After a while I stopped asking the obvious questions: Where do the virus hooligans get the petrol for their Mad Max contraptions? Who taught them to make and use Medieval weapons? Why do they eat humans when the country is teeming with livestock? How could such a drastic cultural shift happen in the span of only one generation? Why would O’Hara’s sinister suit blithely fly into the hot-zone at film’s end, when he felt only tanks and highly trained operatives in bio-armor could stand a chance at the outset of the story? Doomsday as a film is a little bit like the hooligans it portrays — it’s wild, colorful, stupid, blustering, and it pounds you senseless with its size and works best in a crowd, but it also roars in the face of Bill Hicks’ old joke about spineless British roughnecks and beats Hollywood at its own game. It’s kind of spectacular in its lameness, all told, if you’re in a forgiving, yielding mood and walk into the theater with your sense of humor cranked to 10. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on March 15, 2008.)