Doomsday (film, 2008)
This review, from Death Ray 13, suffers from what I call “the magic of cinema”, like, I was really excited when I went to see it, there was free beer, and it was loads more fun on the big screen than on DVD… Okay, okay, it was nowhere near a Five Star movie, not even close, but I did enjoy it. Ahem. Sorry.
Director: Neil Marshall Writer: Neil Marshall
Starring: Rhona Mitra, Malcolm McDowell, Alexander Siddig
Everything in a genre movie the 13-year-old you could have possibly have hoped for.
Doomsday is a glorious, pulse-pounding paen to the SF films of the 1980s. Knights in armour, car chases, cannibal gangs, plagues, bionic eyes, dystopian governments, zombies (almost) and lashings and lashings of gore – this is a film born in the mind of an adolescent, high on sugar and testosterone, happily welding together umpteen thing’s he’s seen into some unlikely heroic narrative as a geography-lesson busting daydream.
Depending on which way you look at it you could see it either as a) a sprawling, offensively violent, barely coherent mess of teenage wish fulfilment, or b) the best film ever. Though we could flip the critical prism and view it as a) we’re going to plump for b) – Doomsday might not be a lot of things, but it certainly is a huge amount of fun.
Its defiance of all film sense is there right from the curtain going up. Doomsday has about three beginnings, all tied together with a McDowell-voiced opening narrative. The upshot of it is this: in the near future, a deadly plague breaks out in Scotland. There is no cure, so the whole of the northern kingdom is cut off by a new Hadrian’s Wall, and the inhabitants left to rot. Cut to 25 years later, and the plague is back, this time in London. Salvation comes a-calling in the shape of satellite images of living, breathing Scotties on the move, which means that there is probably a cure.
A crack team is sent through the wall, hoping to hook up with Dr Kane, a top scientist left behind after the wall went up. Leading this merry band of gun-toting commandos is bionic-eye wearing Eden Sinclair, who has personal reasons to head north – Scotland was home, until she was bundled into a helicopter by her mother the day the border was closed.
Marshall intends this as an homage to the films of his youth. So when we say this could only have been cooked up by a 13-year old, we mean a 13-year old circa 1983. There are references to Escape From New York, Flesh and Blood, The Road Warrior and a half-dozen other flicks. Some of these, like the computer graphics showing the wall being raised, are obvious, others less so. Marshall set out to capture the essence of these films, eschewing CGI frippery in favour of actually risking people’s lives to get his shots, but by golly, did he manage it – the film is rammed with impressive stunts. It’s delightfully British, too, owing as much to the comics Eagle, Commando and, especially, 2000AD, as it does to any stateside movie.
If we’re going to lay the quibbling gauntlet on the table, we could go on for a week. For example, surely it’d be obvious pretty quickly if some people were resistant to the disease? Why are Kane’s men so avowedly medievalist, right down to the velvet doublets? Why does the Bentley start first time after 25 years in a cave? How come the disease is halted by a wall? Etc etc. And we’re pretty sure the Scots would not start living like cannibal maniacs, especially if 90% of them were wiped out – this is a country, after all, awash with land and natural resources. But hey, you won’t care, you’ll be too excited.
There’s no philosophy to Doomsday, no smart subtext, though by the same degree there’s no angst. It’s simple, high-octane fun. A six-pack of beer movie, with all the tight characterisation, sharp dialogue and wit that we’ve come to expect of Marshall. Importantly, it is at least coherent within the terms of itself, something the very best of 1980s/90s flicks managed, but a great many did not (the likes of otherwise entertaining Split Second leaps to mind). Amazingly, Marshall manages to infodump us without us noticing. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a complex world set up would have fractured the film, but Marshall pulls it off. It’s so often overlooked by passionate fanboy directors, but these things are absolutely crucial to the audience buying such larger than life SF, even as a joyride. Doomsday‘s plot might creak like an overburdened tea cutter caught in a cyclone, but it holds together until the end. And this is what makes the quibbling hard to make stick, as mad as the movie’s collection of ideas seems to be when recited piecemeal, altogether it just somehow works.
You’re not going to come out of the pictures full of deep questions, nor are you going to be enlightened in any way, but Marshall did not set out to provoke such, he set out to create an homage to the films he loves and give us a thrill along the way. By those parameters, he has more than succeeded. Audiences will either get it or they won’t, but if you’re reading this magazine, you almost certainly will. Simply put, this is the most perfect 1980s, post-apocalyptic Scotland movie ever. Go and see it now.
Did you know?
Neil Marshall was also inspired by British weekly comics. There were a couple of post-plague stories in these, both featuring worlds where adults are wiped out and kids take over (these were boys comics, after all). Kids Rule OK! was a highly controversial strip in the equally controversial Action comic. Its unremitting, anti-authoritarian violence helped get the comic banned, and the strip did not return when the comic was resurrected. It’s unlikely Marshall read this, however, as it was published in 1976, when he would have been six.
More gentle, though not much, was ‘Survival’, in 1982’s rebooted Eagle comic, where a boy makes his way across an empty England, spending some of his time in the company of an elephant.