Written by Matt Bowes
Ask any fan of HBO’s massively popular show, Game of Thrones, which episodes were the most earth-shaking, and without a doubt they will point to the ninth one of each ten-episode season. So far these installments have seen beloved characters get killed horribly, long-gestating plans put into motion, and gigantic battles that have shook the Seven Kingdoms to their core. The two episodes that focused entirely on those big battles, Season Two’s “Blackwater” and this season’s “The Watchers on the Walls,” were both directed by a man named Neil Marshall. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Marshall is not a bigger name among genre film lovers, especially horror fans. Hopefully his recent successes on the small screen will lead to some traction in the theatres.
In my opinion, Marshall should at least be held in the same esteem as someone like Robert Rodriguez, if not higher.
In an ecosystem which has spawned endless sequels to Paranormal Activity and Saw, etc., the films in his oeuvre consistently find interesting things to do with their low budgets, an asset he has since put to excellent use in the TV world. In addition to his two highly acclaimed episodes of Game of Thrones, he’s also directed a fun Roman Legionnaires vs. Ancient Britons picture (2010’s Centurion, featuring Michael Fassbender and the inimitable Dominic West), two fantastic horror movies (2002’s Dog Soldiers and 2005’s The Descent) and, finally, one of my favourite genre mashups of the last decade, 2008’s Doomsday. In my opinion, Marshall should at least be held in the same esteem as someone like Robert Rodriguez, if not higher. His cinema shares some of the same traits as Rodriguez, such as the ability to craft fun genre cinema with small budgets, and a similar affection for over-the-top gore effects. In addition to this, Marshall also shows the additional ability to craft great roles for women equal to James Cameron, and a knowledge and interest in UK history and folklore much like contemporary Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, A Field in England).
As most of you probably haven’t seen Doomsday, which fared very poorly at the box office, here’s a quick primer. In the near future, a horrible virus known as the Reaper has begun to decimate the British Isles, starting in Glasgow, Scotland. A desperate attempt to stop the infection is put into place by the British government, as Hadrian’s Wall, the former northern barrier of the Roman Empire, is rebuilt, sealing Scotland off from the rest of the world. Among the few Scots who escaped confinement was young Eden Sinclair, who went on to become a badass Special Forces operative played by Rhona Mitra (fun fact: Mitra was the second model to portray video game heroine Lara Croft for EIDOS Interactive).
In the film’s hilariously gruesome opening scene, young Eden is accidentally shot in the face and survives (!) as a frantic group of Scots attacks the English barricade as it closes (the grown up Eden has a fake eyeball/surveillance camera, an homage to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken). When the Reaper threatens to rear its ugly head again in London, Sinclair and a group of hard-bitten soldiers and scientists are sent back into the remains of Scotland in a desperate attempt to find Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), a researcher who stayed behind for 30 years to study the disease.
It’s no coincidence that two members of Sinclair’s expedition are named Miller and Carpenter. The whole film is a love letter to the genre filmmaking of the 1970s and ‘80s, especially the works of George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior) and John Carpenter (The Thing, Escape From New York), with a bit of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later thrown in for good measure in the form of the Reaper’s disgusting effects. Carpenter’s influence is especially felt in the film’s pulsing, driving score, which alternates with selected ‘80s new wave hits to create entertaining cognitive dissonance.
As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this film and, to be fair, it threatens to burst at the seams at some points.
Immediately after getting through the fortifications, Sinclair and friends encounter a degraded society of Scottish punk-rock barbarians headed up by Sol, a consummate showman who roasts his victims/dinner alive in the middle of a musical number set to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing.” After Sinclair escapes confinement and kills Sol’s paramour in the process, her and the remnants of her squad find Kane, who has set himself up in a remote castle as a medieval king in exile. There’s some extremely sly humour here, as the castle still retains a lot of the tourist signs, pointing towards exits and gift shops. Kane has adopted the biohazard symbol as his sigil and has even taken the time to adorn his stained glass walls with it. Finally, Sinclair wins a trial by combat (more shades of Game of Thrones here), defeating a massive armoured opponent then engaging in some Road Warrior-style highway carnage back down to the wall.
As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this film and, to be fair, it threatens to burst at the seams at some points. I think this is one of the reasons it didn’t catch on: it’s a little bit schizophrenic, moving from pandemic narrative, to near-future totalitarianism, to New Wave-music apocalypse, to semi-ironic medieval times, and then back again. If you can get into the groove of the film, though, you’ll see that Marshall is equally adept in all of these arenas. It’s also wickedly funny, with a sense of humour that recalls Terry Gilliam at his grossest, or George A. Romero at his most sardonic. Rhona Mitra’s Sinclair is a very well executed character, not falling into the classic Hollywood “strong female” trap of falling in love with some guy during the adventure and moving to the background of the story. Sinclair has a strong working relationship with her commanding officer, played by Bob Hoskins, and the two have a kind of sweet father-daughter vibe mostly concerned with her bumming smokes off of him. Sinclair also comes to merit the respect of her second-in-command, played by Adrian Lester, but at no point is romance even hinted at between them. In one of my favourite aspects of the film, Sinclair even comes to realize her destiny as a Scottish émigré; at the end of the film, once the job is completed, she declines to go back to London, choosing instead to take over the remnants of Sol’s barbarian gang. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, sort of thing.
I feel like the generic title might have also led to the lacklustre box office returns. To me, “doomsday” conjures images of boring Roland Emmerich disaster porn, or dreadfully earnest Biblical portent like the Left Behind series, and none of the tongue in cheek genre exploration that this film truly delivers. It might also have suffered from the similar themes explored by Robert Rodriguez in his half of the Grindhouse experiment released the previous year, Planet Terror). If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic stories with a sense of humour, a fan of things like Fallout, Borderlands, Dead Rising and Six String Samurai, Doomsday’s definitely worth checking out.
CC photo credit: Rogue Pictures