Friday, 5 September 2008

Dystopian Sci Fi Movie Face/Off! (Doomsday)

Released earlier this year (and on DVD this week), Neil Marshall's Doomsday was heavily anticipated by those of us who adored his previous movie The Descent. In contrast to the majority of British movies released in recent years, The Descent was ambitious, uncompromising, serious, and unabashedly a genre film. It was cold, brutal, terrifying, and unforgettable. Not only was it ballsy, with its bleak finale and shocking take on female relationships, it was made with consummate skill. Once the protagonists are trapped within a series of caves, all of which are pitch-black, Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy have to come up with ever more inventive ways to light the film. Most British films are not in a position to paint themselves into a corner like that, so we rarely get to see anything but the most perfunctory displays of filmic technique (how do we make this stately home/Hoxton bar look pretty?), which made The Descent doubly impressive. It didn't back down from a challenge, and the result was cinematic genius. I do not exaggerate when I say it is my favourite British film of the decade so far.

Doomsday could only disappoint. The Descent raised the bar so high, managing to be that rarest of things, a genre movie that didn't feel like a third-rate cousin of movies made in countries that make more confident product. Too often British genre films are hamstrung by budget constraints or reflexive ironic detachment, as well as the inability of British actors to look like anything other than a posing fool when handling guns (see: Torchwood). Marshall's confident handling of The Descent, and his seriousness of purpose, were a refreshing change, but even so, that was a psychological thriller that also featured subterranean monstermen. He handled it all brilliantly, but Doomsday was a different kettle of fish.

The action movie is a genre that Britain has never been able to master. Many great British directors have travelled to the US and shown they are capable, but within this country there has been little success. It's a genre that seems antithetical to the British mindset, depending as it does on a lack of irony which comes naturally to the US but not to us. I'd happily attribute that to an innate snobbery towards US culture, meaning many UK filmmakers have a tendency to add reflexive japery to the movie as an apology for daring to make something that seems so definitively American.

Notably only Hot Fuzz has worked as a homage to US action cinema, and even then it operated as a spoof/homage hybrid that took the tropes of the genre and transposed them to a British locale, complete with incongruous English actors, phrases, and in-jokes. Any other tough guy movie made in Britain has seemed kind of embarrassing, with poorly constructed action scenes and UK actors spouting unconvincing macho dialogue. Don't forget, it's because of the British film industry that Paul W.S. Anderson is polluting cinemas even now. Sorry, everyone in the whole world who has ever seen one of his movies.

Doomsday looked to be another attempt to make a straight, unironic actioner mimicking American (and Australian) films, with British actors pretending to be hardcore, low-budget action scenes poorly shot and edited, and no awareness of how embarrassing it is to see our culture trying to jump onto a genre bandwagon that belongs so completely to another culture. Not only that, but Doomsday was also co-opting entire plot threads from other movies. The concept, that a virus breakout in Scotland leads to an enormous quarantine operation that separates the entire country from the rest of the world, leading to the survivors becoming feral punks, is already shamelessly lifted from other movies, before we get to the other similarities. Was Marshall, by trying not only to make a proper US-style action film but also one that evoked some of the most beloved examples of the genre, biting off more than he could chew?

Well, yes, but not only do I bow to him for trying so damn hard to pull off the impossible, but also for figuring out how to make a US-style action movie on UK terms. While Hot Fuzz managed to credibly reference action movie tropes and cliches by taking them out of their usual context and then playing them fairly straight (which of course made the whole thing funnier), Doomsday steals from tongue-in-cheek actioners and then treats them with the same amalgam of irreverence and seriousness as they originally were. By stealing from John Carpenter and George Miller, he can use their sense of humour to stand in for UK irony, while not sacrificing the integrity of the movie. That the film is only funny when it is being grisly or over the top is both a regrettable flaw and one of the best things about it (while the dialogue falls flat, the visual gags, either gruesome or silly, are top-notch).

For the first hour of the movie the "homages" to other movies are shockingly blatant: the central concept from Escape From New York, the denizens of Glasgow from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the plague visuals from 28 Days Later, a setpiece involving armoured vehicles that Nathan Rabin notes is very similar in rhythm to a scene from Aliens, a battle in a hospital is straight out of the original Assault on Precinct 13, Tyler Bates' impressive score featuring some hilariously brazen John Carpenter riffs, and on and on.

It's disconcerting to see how openly Marshall has stolen whole scenes from other movies, with only a few concessions to alteration (Mitra's character, Eden Sinclair, is a Ripley/Plissken hybrid who was born in Scotland and escaped just as the wall was finished, and the feral Glaswegian survivors are militant cannibals, which manages to top George Miller's post-apocalyptic crazies). Though I was pleased to see Marshall had actually pulled off some impressively constructed setpieces, it was not enough to salvage it. I was ready to consign it to the dustbin, especially when the "homages" were as in-your-face as this graphic.

And then a funny thing happened. First, cannibal leader Sol whips his followers into a frenzy by dancing to Good Thing by Fine Young Cannibals. Then he joins in a ska-beat can-can with a group of kilt-wearing male dancers, which is all a lead-up to the act of cooking Sean Pertwee (his appearance, seemingly a prerequisite in all British films, is mercifully short), and feeds the masses who are all waving paper plates in the air (coloured red, white and blue; surely a satirical dig at the Union Jack). It was exactly what you would expect from a post-apocalyptic action film, being both morbid and absurd, but it was also quirky. Movies of this type are often sledge-hammer subtle, but this was sneaking in odd visual details that made the experience even sillier.

Not long after that, while being chased by a tooled-out coach called the Beelzebus, Shakespearean actor Adrian Lester exhorts his co-escapee to "leg it!", and Sol berates his hapless minions by calling them "fucking numpties". You don't get that in US actioners. Best of all, neither phrase felt out of place. Usually when UK movies try to pull off action, they end up snarling American phrases with inept sincerity despite the cultural inappropriateness of the lines (worst example ever; Alien 3), rendering their machismo unintentionally comedic. Here Marshall just uses British phrases, and they're the right kind of funny while being perfectly appropriate. Why has no one else done this before?

It was as if Doomsday suddenly clicked into place. Thinking back to the start of the movie I realised that what had seemed so derivative was a clever play on the natural antagonism between Scots and Englanders, and "the thorny issue of devolution", with Hadrian's Wall rebuilt as a 35ft high deathtrap. It's as if the only way devolution could ever happen with the backing of the English government would be as an act of hostile self-preservation, consigning Scotland to the dustbin of history, the sting in the tail being that England becomes a global pariah into the bargain. Certainly it could be read as a critique of the north/south divide, with both Scotland and London suffering at the hands of a Geordie film director.

It struck me as a funny choice when I saw it, but only because I was under the mistaken impression Marshall was Scottish. Now I know he was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne, I'm amazed at the size of his balls. Apparently some Scottish commentators are offended by the suggestion that Scots would become anarchic cannibal thugs in that situation, but seriously, if being isolated from the world as approximately 90% of the population dies of an agonising and grisly viral outbreak, all while being denied medical help, power, and sanitation by an uncaring and selfish English bureaucracy, doesn't make the surviving populace become a crazed band of anarchic cannibal thugs, then nothing will.

Not only that, but Marshall is quite happy to take the tropes of the post-apocalyptic action genre and either reclaim it for Britain or introduce previously unused British iconography. The feral Glaswegians may look like the post-apocalyptic marauders of George Miller's Mad Max movies, but those marauders were inspired by the punk fashions of early 80s Britain. The assault on the armoured vehicles might be heavily influenced by Aliens, but that movie was filmed in England, had a crew that was almost entirely English, and was the sequel to a film directed by a Brit.

Later on, our protagonists hook up with a Will-Scarlet style scavenger, prior to travelling through an underground military base in an echo of the trek through the Mines of Moria (Lord of the Rings was, of course, written by an Englishman, though one born in South Africa, which is, coincidentally, where a lot of Doomsday was filmed).

Upon leaving that "mine", they are ambushed by knights on horseback, which was apparently the image that inspired Marshall to make the film.

They are taken to a castle ruled by Malcolm McDowell in full-on Sheriff of Nottingham mode, and policed by a Guy of Gisborne clone. Eden Sinclair is made to do gladiatorial combat with an enormous warrior, with sackcloth-wearing peasants baying for her blood. It was at this point that I realised resistance was futile. It was not just a proper schlock-action movie, but was also the first British-to-the-bone schlock-action movie I have seen.

The movie ends with a Mad Max homage that sidesteps any technical limitations or budgetary restrictions by being as silly and exaggerated as possible. That the cars are obviously travelling at 5mph matters not a jot; heads fly, cars explode, and blood gushes. It's a hugely entertaining scene. Following that we get more homages to Escape From New York, though the very final scene owes as much to the end of Chronicles of Riddick and The Descent. Despite the overlong wrap-up (potentially setting up a sequel), it was rather pleasing, and especially after the trauma inflicted by reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it was great to kick back with a post-apocalyptic film that showed how much anarchic fun you could have driving a Bentley (another British icon) while being chased by cannibals. Kudos to McCarthy for illuminating the human condition and whatever, but eating humans and dismembering bodies can be fun too.

Though I was impressed by Marshall's handling of the action, and his ambition to fill a movie with as much referential iconography as possible, what pleased me most was his handling of tone. Doomsday strikes a perfect balance between earnest machismo, hysterical action, and pitch-black humour, just like the movies it pays homage to. The actors all treat the subject matter with deadly seriousness, never winking at the camera that it is all nonsense, with humour coming from gore or little touches of absurdity (I especially liked the throwaway shot of a medieval archer lazily chewing gum). I'm glad to say that that unironic acting approach is becoming commonplace, as filmmakers realise that, as I said regarding Hot Fuzz earlier, if you play something straight, it's far more effective than winking at the audience.

That said, he might have made a mistake with the lead character, who is so stoic as to barely register. Rhona Mitra is no one's idea of a screen icon, despite her striking looks, and the blankness of her performance might have seemed like a good idea at first, but ends up leaving a hole in the middle of the movie where a character should be. Marshall may have been inspired by the action icons of his youth, but though they are often impassive, there's more going on there.

Snake Plissken, the most obvious inspiration, might be an amoral hardass with a wicked cool eyepatch, but Kurt Russell is incapable of removing his natural charm, and so Snake is lovable despite (or because of) his cynical and cruel nature. Max Rockatansky is even more stone-faced, but he is haunted and tragic, the first in a long line of tortured, messianic characters to be played by Gibson. Ellen Ripley also has her tough guy moments, but she also has vulnerability as well as its emotionally conjoined twin, terrifying ruthlessness.

Eden Sinclair has none of those things. She's grumpy, and she'll kill you if you get in her way. Marshall has tried to make the character more compelling (she has flashes of temper when things don't go her way, for example), and wisely keeps the wisecracking to a minimum, but there's little going on. Her casting isn't a disaster, though. If her fight training looks like it wasn't completed (she's not the most convincing brawler), she has a physical presence that works perfectly. The definition on her arms puts my sludgy "guns" to shame. Compare her to the sylph-like Milla Jovovich, the go-to gal for lead action femme in shoddy genre shit like the piss-poor Resident Evil movies. Mitra is far more effective as a bruiser than her. Shame Doomsday's poor box office will almost certainly put a stop to any franchise dreams Marshall had. Though Eden disappointed, there is room for improvement, especially considering where she ends up.

Luckily, if Mitra is not the ideal action heroine, she is backed up by many other entertaining performances. Bob Hoskins, as her only real ally, is Britain's Ol' Dependable. He has a shtick, but it's a great one, and I've been guilty of taking him for granted in the past. Just a couple of weeks ago Canyon finally acquiesced after much annoying prodding and watched Louis Leterrier's Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog) with me, and it struck me just how much fun Hoskins can be when he sinks his teeth into a role. He was despicably evil yet human in that, and lovable and sad in this. Smart casting from Marshall.

Also spot on is Adrian Lester as Sgt. Norton. Seeing the respectable Lester running around with body armour and roundhouse-kicking bad guys in the head was huge fun. It's an underwritten role, and most actors would have had trouble making anything of it, but with Lester adding humanity and heft to the part, he supplies the audience empathy that Mitra cannot. As a result, the movie suffers when he's not on screen. It's not a killing blow, but it's noteworthy.

While the heroic side of the cast is a bit unbalanced, the villains are terrific. Alexander Siddig is amusingly bland and oily as a beardy Blairite PM, with a granite-faced second in command played with frightening intensity by David O'Hara. His quiet amoral persona is the tonal opposite of Craig Conway's Sol, who shrieks and rages and chews all the scenery like a Scottish Vernon Wells, but much closer to the imperious (and obviously insane) Kane, the Colonel Kurtz-like faux-king played by McDowell in sneer-mode.

It's probably fair to say that all of these characters are exactly as you would expect them to be, but getting serious actors to play them mitigates any charges of unoriginality that can be levelled at Marshall. Even as cliches, there is life in them. Perhaps Babylon A.D. would have benefited from more colourful villains. Instead we get Charlotte Rampling being all confusing and Mark Strong hiding his evilness behind his wig. I'm sure Kassovitz would say that Manichean good/bad dichotomies are not his style, but my God how much a film is enlivened by some shouty villains.

Technically the movie is impressive as well, even on a small budget. Sam McCurdy's photography is clear, colourful and varied, capturing the carnage with enough clarity to aid in comprehension. This sounds like faint praise, but it's a rarity to see action photography so dedicated to communicating what the hell is going on. McCurdy's work is a breath of fresh air, and is worthy of emulation by other directors. He films the battering of many many talented stuntmen with great skill.

Simon Bowles' production design (and that of the entire crew) is wonderful, turning Glasgow into a desolate, overgrown wilderness that echoes New York in I Am Legend. Praise also to the effects teams Double Negative, Framestore-CFC and The Senate VFX, who create some lovely matte shots that give the movie an epic feel.

I'm getting all emotional here. You can argue that Doomsday should be considered nothing more than an exploitative rehash of better movies, or you could be generous and say Marshall is trying to reclaim these films from the 80s and remake them for a new generation, paying full tribute to their gleefully shlocky nature. It's a matter of taste, I guess. I expected to be underwhelmed, but even if the dialogue is tin-eared, and even if the lead performance is forgettable, and even if the editing needed to be toned down a lot, the exuberant embrace of the material by everyone involved completely won me over, as did the gratuitous violence. I got all nostalgic by the end, which was surely Marshall's intention. I'd be lying and crazy if I said it was a total success, but for the most part it is just the ticket, especially after being soul-maimed by McCarthy. Recommended, then, as long as you are likely to laugh at decapitations, well-timed explosions, and crazy clashes of genres instead of actual jokes.

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