For criticism there is no easier method by which to offer commentary than to say such-and-such reminds one of something else: this film reeks of another, this novel’s a mere semblance of another, this painting appears similar to another. It allows for a common point of reference and works considerably to fill up the required word count.
Opening a review with opaque remarks on how references permeate the edifice of fiction is ominous for the object of criticism. To say Doomsday is a shallow collage of film references would be too simplistic but not untrue. Scenes progress as transparent tributes to preceding films. Plot points and stylistic devices are brandished with no attempt to mask their source. Granted, in interviews Neil Marshall speaks openly about the films Doomsday pays homage to. The usual clatter of Mad Max and Escape From New York are present, proudly erected audiovisual prayers offered to the cinema gods. There is intention and that’s fine, what the film can’t be accused of is trying to conceal its nature. All is on show, all is exposed, all is honesty driven across the filmic.
Where the painful castigation must begin however is at the point where we attempt to look beyond the references. What is beheld, alas, is of little substance, a mixture of the trite and the tired, the dull and the dry. It’s especially painful as Neil Marshall was proving himself to be one of Britain’s top young directors. Dog Soldiers was a buoyant debut, a fun slice of werewolf carnage in the Scottish highlands. It gave smiles to bloodlust and signified great works to come. The potential was brilliantly realised with his follow-up, The Descent. Claustrophobia and menace mingled superbly in this tale of a group of women trapped down a cave populated by vicious humanoid creatures. Perhaps the best film released that year, it was enough to make the words Neil Marshall a selling point in themselves. Whether Doomsday is a hiccup or the harbinger of creativity’s demise, we’ll have to wait and see.
The film is set in the near future. A virus has descended on Scotland, killing much of the populace. The country is sealed off, use of air space is prohibited and a wall runs along the border with England. Anyone trying to escape south is shot on sight, trigger-happy patrols line the border wall. A few years later, the virus breaks out in London. The government, impelled to take action in the face of mass panic, assemble a military team to go into Scotland where a number of survivors still roam Glasgow. Amongst these survivors is a scientist who apparently has the cure for the virus. The team, led by Rhona Mitra, must track down the scientist and acquire the cure. In the process, they discover legions of loutish survivors intent on murder and pillage. Will they combat the nasty people and successfully requisition the formula they desire?
Sadly I was too distracted by the endless parade of cinematic references gracing the screen to care about that. When Mitra and co stampede into Glasgow in armoured vehicles, the locals that ambush them might as well be Giger’s aliens, for the scene feels like a complete reproduction of the bit in Aliens where the marines arrive on LV-426. The Glaswegian locals, I presume, are also big fans of Mad Max 3 – their mincing around wouldn’t seem out of place next to Mel Gibson. The fortress city, the nest of danger that Glasgow has become, could be New York or LA, targets for one of Snake Plissken’s infiltrations; the immoral postures of the officials that send Mitra and co on their mission only go to reinforce the comparison. Films like these worked on the back of their grit, a dirty low-budget atmosphere that gave texture and nuance to the plot. Doomsday’s carefully crafted visual sheen lacks even the faintest ounce of grit; it fails where its antecedents succeeded.
Like I already remarked, references are inevitable hallmarks of cinema. The best directors don’t balk at the looming figure of influence, such impossible wishes are needless. But when surface is all there is, when all we have is a collection of references inserted sans content, then we’re left with a bland and disappointing film that can only argue its ‘watchability’ with silence. The concept of the infectious virus spreading and causing havoc has long drifted into cliché (cf. The Omega Man, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, etc). Early shots of London look like and shots of a crowded bridge look like Children of MenCloverfield. John Carpenter-worship assumes a new low when the rioting of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells sparks memories of Ghosts of Mars. This is not to say that the action sequences are not competently shot and choreographed, they are, but this is not enough. Where oh where has dynamic originality absconded to! Marshall seems to be asking “what if all my favourite flicks was set in Scotland, wouldn’t that be cool?” Well not even the shades of Mad Max meets Trainspotting can enable to me to answer yes to that.
Any characterisation is senselessly mauled from the off by the dire quality of the dialogue. Mitra, still clearly playing Lara Croft, is the stoic leader, a badass with a goal. But in ways similar to how Doomsday transposes gritty narrative tropes into a glossy visual feast, in turn heralding its failure, Mitra prompts disinterest and indifference, for she is not the terminator. Drab characters mumble awkward lines of dialogue throughout the film. Even Malcolm McDowell’s cheesy Shakespearian villain, who sits in his Scottish castle brooding, isn’t enough to salvage the film. (Thoughts on Sean Pertwee will remain unsaid.)
The polished visuals, as well as negating the very elements that made Assault on Precinct 13 and its ilk so great, frequently work make the film look like an advertisement. Fittingly perhaps, because adverts are also assemblages of images with no content, all signifiers with no signified. Airborne shots of Mitra ploughing through the Highland countryside in a sports car bear a likeness to an ad for Nissan or Hyundai. Again competent, but the mix of gritty plot and glistening cinematography does not work. No glorious amalgam, no interesting juxtaposition, it just does not work.
The final car chase sequence aspires to be fun, a throwback to the ethos of Dog Soldiers. Exaggerated vehicular madness, crashes, explosions, all run to the tune of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”. The light-heartedness and the clear revelry in violence make the sequence enjoyable, but the straight-faced tedium that preceded it is not forgotten. It’s a shame that this is where Marshall has gone to, all we are left with is hope that his next venture will be an improvement. A task that shouldn’t be too difficult, for in Doomsday he has created the Underworld of virus movies.