I Watched This On Purpose: Doomsday

I Watched This On Purpose: Doomsday

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.

Cultural infamy: Doomsday didn't so much achieve infamy as indifference upon its release in March 2008. It breezed in and out of theaters both here and in Britain, home turf to director Neil Marshall and his cast and crew. Over at Metacritic, it scored a 51 out of 100, almost respectable for a film not screened for critics. (Note to studios: That trick doesn't work. Better to score a lone voice in the wilderness saying that Glitter is some kind of masterpiece than all but admit you're trying to slip a stink bomb out under the radar.) Dispatched to a lonely opening-day matinee in Milwaukee, The A.V. Club's own Steven Hyden didn't find too much nice to say in his review, either. Like a lot of critics, he found it derivative, noting that it played "more like a series of mini-remakes than a single, cohesive film." Meanwhile, over at The Hater, Amelie Gillette offered some backhanded praise when she called it "the best awful movie in theaters now."

Curiosity factor: It wasn't on my radar before Hyden's review crossed my desk, but after reading it, I knew I was going to see Doomsday. For one thing, Marshall directed The Descent, one of the best horror films I've seen this decade. (To refresh your memory, that's the one about the female spelunkers who run into trouble, and a group of feral sub-humans, while exploring a cave in Appalachia. It's a fine piece of suspenseful, well-crafted, psychologically complex thrill-making that made the most out of its already terrifying setting. Plus, as the son of a Kentuckian and a Virginian, I'm within my rights to say that I find the notion of feral sub-humans living in Appalachia unsettlingly plausible.) Then there's this sentence from Hyden:

Doomsday is sort of like Grindhouse for film fans who grew up 10 years after the '70s exploitation era, and got their kicks from watching the same blockbusters over and over on Cinemax.

I'd still want to see the worst possible version of the movie he's describing.

The viewing experience: Fortunately, I didn't get the worst possible version of that movie, though I'm not sure I got the best possible version of it either. Hyden and others weren't kidding when they talked about the film working best as a series of homages. Star Rhona Mitra is essentially doing a female version of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken from Escape From New York, right down to the eyepatch and an expression that looks forever on the verge of saying either "No shit?" or "Fuck you."

Unlike with Plissken, however, the eyepatch is there to cover an empty socket usually filled with a removable artificial eye that her character can use to spy on her surroundings via a video watch. It's Dick Tracy meets the Bionic Woman meets CCTV. I wish the movie could have been as creative with its innovations throughout. The premise, for one, is pretty bold. As the film opens, a virus has swept through Scotland, prompting its neighbors to the south to build a 21st-century Hadrian's Wall. Flash-forward a few years, and a survivor of the plague (Mitra) now works as a badass super-spy helping the police crack down on smugglers, slave traders, and sources of contagion in the violent, overcrowded London of 2035.

Bob Hoskins—whom I wish I saw more often these days, but then again, I didn't see Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties—plays her commanding officer. When video surfaces that apparently shows survivors walking around a long-abandoned Glasgow, a well-intentioned Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine semi-fame) and his intimidating right-hand man David O'Hara order Hoskins to send his best man over the wall to see what's up, and whether there might be a cure for the virus, which has resurfaced in London, possibly necessitating an unthinkable act of urban genocide.

Enter Mitra, who heads north to join a crack team of soldiers and scientists on the trip to Scotland. They quickly wind up in over their heads, as a bunch of post-apocalyptic barbarians straight out of The Road Warrior start going all Aliens on their high-tech adversaries. How Aliens? Is it just me, or does this scene, in which a barbarian attacks a tank driver, have the exact same rhythm as the scene in which a stowaway alien attacks a pilot in James Cameron's movie?

That hellscape, by the way, is supposed to be a disaster-stricken Glasgow, a place where toughs ride bikes outfitted with human skulls and the city buses have gun mounts. (Unless Belle & Sebastian has been lying to me, it's much rougher than the Glasgow of today.) One of the best bits of commentary I've read about this movie comes from a Glaswegian named Oskar Matzerath, in a comment posted to Alison Rowat's reviewat Scotland's newspaper The Herald:

So let's get this right; without the civilising effect of England, the Scots are gentically programmed to become cannibalistic savages intent on mayhem and self destruction…?

Almost. They would actually seem to be programmed to turn into extras from George Miller's Mad Max series, which projected the then-current high-punk fashions into a post-nuclear future. Apparently that was good enough for Marshall. In fact, it isn't the only part of his fantasy rooted in another era: The Glasgow punks set their Thunderdome-like gathering/sacrifice/vaudeville revue to the tune of Fine Young Cannibals' "Good Thing." Does the joke come from the inappropriateness of that song, or the fact that what follows reveals them to be, well, fine young cannibals?

Mitra doesn't stick around long enough to find out. A nicely staged chase sends her off into the countryside, but first, Doomsday provides the one litmus test anyone needs to decide whether this is a movie they'd enjoy:

What more can I say after that? Oh yeah, Malcolm McDowell shows up. He's the "king" of a bunch of survivors living in a medieval castle in an attempt to recreate feudal times, though they haven't eliminated all the contemporary signage. (Unless that prominently placed "Gift Shop" plaque dates back to the 14th century.) Also, there's a transition that, to my eyes, switches from an homage to Roxy Music's Avalon cover to an homage to the "Do you like our owl?" shot in Blade Runner.

Then again, that may be because I've spent a lot of time with both Blade Runner and Avalon over the years, just as Marshall has clearly spent a lot of time with the things he loves. So much, in fact, that he made a movie out of them.

How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? It never really felt like a waste of time, honestly. If I were straight-up reviewing this, I don't know that I could rate it too highly, since Marshall doesn't bring anything new, and the whole thing feels like it's about to collapse under its efforts to revisit what's come before. Hyden's "C+" feels about right. But in the lowered stakes of home entertainment, I was seldom bored. I liked The Descent a lot, and I hope Neil Marshall resumes making Neil Marshall movies at some point. But if he wants to commit another elaborate tribute act, I'd show up. Eventually.

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