Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Movie Review: Doomsday

Neil Marshall, director of the recently released Doomsday, is still in the early stages of his career and as of yet it is difficult to assess his overall ability, especially when each opus sends a different signal. His first movie, Dog Soldiers, was a surprisingly decent flick that could very easily have been pure schlock. After that he made Descent, another opportunity for awfulness that he adroitly turned into a very respectable effort. After these two lower budget, minimal scope efforts, he graduated to something grander in reach and far more expensive, but in doing so revealed that his ability, at least as of yet, is not up to the task of a bigger production.

The Scottish director, even with his more successful efforts, never demonstrated much proficiency in screen writing. Descent’s plot, which he penned, is very simple, even rudimentary. It involves getting a group of female spelunkers lost in a cave system and then stirring in some humanoid monsters. It does not, on the whole, delve very deeply into character, but the different roles do at least display distinctive personalities, and with careful craftsmanship Marshall makes the most of the premise. Doomsday is his attempt at a more intricate plot, but its failure as a story may be an indication that Descent’s simplicity was not obscuring a latent talent in writing awaiting an opportunity to better express itself, but rather may have been the very extent of that talent. It is the viewer’s further misfortune that, during his latest project, the director’s abilities, which indisputably are there somewhere, either abandoned him or retreated deep inside.

Doomsday is another post-apocalyptic tale, this one, like 28 Days Later, set in the British Isles. The entire nation of Scotland has been quarantined due to the outbreak of what is called the Reaper Virus. When, decades later, the virus shows up again in London, a team of trained specialists, led by Rhona Mitra, is tasked with penetrating the quarantined land to find a man believed to have the cure. Things, the good reader will be unsurprised to learn, do not go as planned.

Directing talent can be a mercurial thing and oftentimes one gets the feeling that certain director’s are good without them knowing exactly why. A director like Hitchcock who grows into his talents over time is no mystery at all; it is the Francis Ford Coppola, the George Lucas, the Wolfgang Petersen who requires an explanation. Perhaps some directors grow too self aware and begin to strangle their art with wrongheaded, over-deliberated decisions where, in their better efforts, instinct would have gotten them smoothly through. Maybe they lose courage, or success satiates the hunger that drove them to excel. Whatever the reason or reasons, Neil Marshall has been stricken with the same syndrome, which I shall name after Lucas, whose fall from ability exceeds in depth those of Coppola, McTiernan and Petersen, among others, as much as the Pacific Ocean does the Olentangy River.

Mr. Marshall’s mistakes come early and often. The beginning of Doomsday, when the scene is set and the characters and obstacles introduced, moves at the pace of a hurricane, almost eager to be done with itself. This is in stark contrast to Descent, which was far more circumspect about its first act and never seemed to be in a rush to move on. Anyone who has ever gotten into trouble at school and was made to wait until Dad or Mom came to mete out a punishment knows that the anticipation is often worse than the sentence. So long as the wait is not too drawn out, this same principle of tantalizing expectation can work to augment just about any sensation and Marshall used it to good effect in his previous movies. Its absence is a disappointment as well as a harbinger of things to come.

There is a scene when the team first enters Scotland whose basic premise recalls a bit from James Cameron’s Aliens. Transported by armored vehicles, the team, in pursuit of their objective, enters an abandoned building where they come under attack and must make a chaotic retreat. One could do a case study on the difference between lazy, uninspired filmmaking and the better crafted variety by comparing and contrasting the scenes from these two different movies. James Cameron did not do profound character studies in his sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, but what he did quite expertly manage was to give each role a distinguishing personality as well as establish an interesting and believable group culture and dynamic. By the time Cameron’s space marines must infiltrate the seemingly abandoned compound, we are already quite invested in what happens to them. When things start to fall apart, skillful directing and editing tell the tale from multiple perspectives, and each step along the way is a well developed mini-story all on its own. No such brilliance is to be found in the Marshall version, which is a haphazard collection of action and gore which would almost make as much sense and be just as emotionally satisfying if the shots were randomly rearranged. If he had spared half the attention to detail, tension and development in this scene as he does to the scene in Descent where the spelunkers must cross a chasm while hanging from its roof, it would have come out alright. Sadly, he seems to have contracted indolence during the preparations for shooting.

In depicting the quarantined savages, Marshall does not seem to be concerned with much detail, a further indication of lassitude. The traditions and institutions of a society of that sort must be rooted in basic survival, shaped by the austere environment in which they live. If the bulk of a nation were to die off and the remainder cut off from the rest of the world, the most immediate concern for any survivors would be clean water and food. Do they farm? Do they hunt? How do they live off the land? Shelter was provided, of course, by the dead civilization before them, but how do they eat? The director is quite unconcerned with such questions, but these are questions which could lead to a fuller, more satisfying development of the world in which the story takes place. Instead of a society, we just see wave after wave of heedless warriors who, when not engaged in battle with the forces from London, are engaged in grotesque partying, thanks in part to gasoline and electricity which is still, apparently and inexplicably, readily available.

Apart from the aforementioned problems, the movie suffers from the usual illogic whereby the importance of motive, perspective and even location is sacrificed to bring us more violence and gore. By illogic of motive I mean that characters do things to help maximize gore rather than behave like the individuals they presumably are. Like automatons in a video game, they leap out in front of automatic weapons, maniacally screaming, so that we may see their bodies erupt and blood spurt. By illogic of perspective I mean that villains suddenly show up at the right time and place, as if they were omniscient, when a character with more human-like senses and less mystical knowledge would not have known where to show up to try to foil the heroine’s plans and, as it happens, have a high-adrenaline car chase. By illogic of location I mean that all matters of travel time, distance and location are forgotten so that the right confrontation or meeting can be had, whether it be a character implausibly hiding nearby in enemy territory with an available train so that a serendipitous escape can be made, or characters ranging, by automobile or helicopter, all over the island of Britain in mere moments.

But none of this is appreciably worse than scores of other forgettable action movies through the years. What makes Doomsday stand out as particularly bad is its ridiculous depravity. The survivors of apocalypse, Marshall would have us believe, will groom themselves like punk rockers and behave like inebriated teenagers at all times. There is no event in this fictional Scotland that is too mundane to be greeted with a wide open mouth, a strident howl, and a furious shaking of the head. Physical violence is the norm, and great delight is taken from the most degenerate and horrific rituals, all accompanied, of course, by open mouths, eye makeup, and screaming. Humans devour one another, and cadavers are abused for pure shock value. There is no tenderness in these people, no refinement, no culture, no humanity. And yet there have been numerous peoples, throughout history, who have been subjected to terrible emotional trauma and who have lived at a subsistence level without descending to the sheer wantonness we see in Doomsday. An exploration of the pathologies that result due to the Reaper Virus and the quarantine could be interesting, but Neil Marshall gives us only monstrous caricature.

It may be that at no time does a critic do more important work than in eviscerating the bad art of a promising director. Rather than let him continue to stray down the path begun with Doomsday, rather than let his Lucas Syndrome go untreated, let us ridicule his mistakes so that they can be corrected. We’ll stop of short of the point reached with David Lean where, after Ryan’s Daughter was roundly criticized, he stopped making films for fifteen years, but let us proceed far enough to nudge Mr. Marshall onto a different course, the one suggested by his first works. I add my weight, meager as it is, to the collective effort. This way, we might yet enjoy the long career of a talented artist rather than suffer through decades of similar offal wondering what became of that guy – what was his name? – who made Descent.

Final Grade: D

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