Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Underappreciated Apocalypse

Doomsday (unrated)
Directed and Written by Neil Marshall

Rhona Mitra (hottie)
Bob Hoskins (that guy from Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
Alexander Siddig (Bashir from Deep Space 9)
David O'Hara (hey its that guy!)
Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula, etc. etc.)

Most movies are not original works of art. I'm not talking about the endless remakes or sequels that Hollywood keeps churning out. I mean that even films that exist in their own little universe tend to be heavily influenced by what came before. Genre conventions are established over time as more and more movies copy their predecessors' best ideas. Is this creative? Not really, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it plagiarism. The reason genre conventions arise to begin with is because those ideas, visuals, or character-types resonate with the audience. More importantly, genre conventions serve as a quick and easy way to communicate ideas without wasting precious screen time explaining the "rules" of the film universe. When you make a vampire movie, you don't need to explain why vampires drink blood. They just do, and the audience is presumably savvy enough to know this.

Doomsday belongs to that particular fusion of horror and sci-fi known as the post-apocalyptic genre. People are both scared and fascinated by the breakdown of civilization, but they're even more interested in what happens next. The post-apocalyptic adventure serves as a window into a world turned upside-down, where might-makes-right, and even the most taboo behavior becomes normal. Yet it also comforts the audience with the knowledge that strong, heroic individuals will eventually restore law and order. The conventions of this genre are well-established. Without government, people WILL become cannibals, wear shoulder pads, and ride around on motorbikes. The protagonist is always an anti-hero, and is often only slightly less violent than the bad guys.

The apocalypse in Doomsday is localized on Scotland, which suffered an epidemic outbreak of a terrible disease dubbed the Reaper virus. The British government responded in a perfectly sensible manner; by sealing off Scotland with a naval blockade, a no-fly zone, and a reconstructed Hadrian's Wall (complete with automated turrets). As a history major, that last part pretty much guaranteed that I would love this film, even if the rest of it sucked.

Thankfully, the rest of Doomsday doesn't suck. Flash-forward 20 years, Britain is a mess and London has become one gigantic ghetto. The main character, Eden Sinclair, who escaped from Scotland as a child, has now grown up to be a pretty badass police officer and a total hottie. She also has one fake eye, which she can remove and use as a portable video camera. When the Reaper virus reappears in London, Sinclair is dispatched north of the Wall with the usual mix of soldiers and scientists to try and discover a cure. Apparently, humanity has survived in Scotland, but they're not exactly friendly. The rest of film consists of Sinclair and her ever-dwindling team fighting off punk cannibals and neo-Medieval warriors, with a decent helping shootouts, sword-fights, car chases, and plenty of ultra-violence.

If any of this sounds familiar, that's because Doomsday makes no effort to hide its influences. Instead, Neil Marshall offers an homage to every post-apocalyptic story that came before. The idea of a virus wiping out Britain is obviously stolen from 28 Days Later. Urban cannibals come from Richard Matheson's novel, "I Am Legend," which was recently made into a (terrible) movie. A society reverting to Medieval technology and culture has been explored in a number of novels, including S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" series. Eden Sinclair, the one-eyed hero sent into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, is clearly based on Snake Plisskin from Escape from New York. But the most significant influence comes from George Miller's Mad Max films, particularly The Road Warrior. The punk aesthetic of the cannibals, the over-the-top violence, and the climactic car chase at the end of the film are all deeply indebted to Miller's cult classic.

Put simply, Doomsday doesn't break any new ground. It faithfully follows the standard script of a post-apocalyptic adventure and hits all the notes that a viewer would expect. Cannibals? Check. Car chase? check. At least one decapitation? Check plus. But as I mentioned before, genre conventions exist for a reason: they work. Doomsday may not be original, but the film is remarkably entertaining from start to finish. And it doesn't just utilize the conventions of the post-apocalyptic genre, it celebrates them with such conviction and glee that it's impossible not to get caught up in the filmmakers' enthusiasm. From the scene where a man gets char-broiled for hungry punks, to the scene where a Bentley is driven through a bus, it's obvious that everyone involved in this movie wanted to make a worthy entry into the genre.

Doomsday came and went in American theaters without much notice. The unrated cut is now available on DVD or Blue Ray (though the the latter is devoid of extras). If you're the type of person who likes seeing civilization get blown up, gives this movie a try.


Tucker Stone said...

whoa, Bob Hoskins is in that thing? I've meant to check it out because of the whole Descent connection, a movie I actually really liked, but it just sounded so terrible. But I'll watch just about anything Hoskins does. (and he does a lot of terrible shit.)

Richard Cook said...

Looking at Hoskins's filmography on IMDB, he really will do anything for money. Including "Son of the Mask" and the sequel to Garfield. Man's gotta eat I guess.