Let's get this out of the way: I love The Descent. I use the word "love" in a fairly unhealthy manner, too. I was infatuated with it from the moment I sat down to watch it in the crummy little theater in Longmont when it finally made its way Stateside, my adoration was rekindled a few months later when it came to play at the International Film Series here at CU, and infatuation finally gave way to full-blown adoration when Neil Marshall's "real" version of the movie finally made its way to DVD.
I also like Dog Soldiers, a movie I didn't expect to have any real interest in. It is, in most of the ways that count, The Descent: The First Try, but it's a compelling enough monster movie on its own terms. Nothing near its virtual remake/sequel, but... werewolves. In the forest. Against British military men (now that I think about it, you could probably make a few reasonable parallels between Dog Soldiers and Assault on Precinct 13 - the Carpenter original, not the remake, and let's avoid getting into how Carpenter's movie was, for all intents and purposes, a remake of Rio Bravo...). It's imperfect, but interesting.
That, I suppose, brings us to a weekend or so ago, when my roommate Matt and I decided to trek to our local cineplex to catch Mr. Marshall's latest project, Doomsday. I have to admit, the title alone gave me pause. It seems "extreme" in the same way that Paul W.S. Anderson movies try to be "extreme" (and that is not, NOT a good thing). The trailers also weren't doing a good job of advertising it, and it's tough to imagine him making the same quantum leap in quality that he made from Dog Soldiers to The Descent in the transition from The Descent to Doomsday.
Trepidation had grabbed on with both hands, basically.
Like Matt said, though, it's Neil Marshall, and we should support his work.
It's happening more and more often that we're among the small contingent of people that show up for these weird, off-the-wall kinds of movies (when we went to see Grindhouse, there were maybe thirty other people in the theater. Doomsday? Maybe half that, maybe. Admittedly, this was around 11 in the A.M., so that should be taken into account). I just wish people would, instead of complaining about the same stupid romantic comedies being shoved down their throats week after week, actually go to something that's weird and different. Action needs to be taken, people; we don't all want to end up like Hamlet.
It's worth taking a look at what some of the more prominent members of the critical press said about Doomsday, at least in blurb form:
"Marshall cribs whole sections from other movies (Aliens and The Road Warrior, most blatantly) so baldly that you have to wonder how he'd like it if someone ripped off The Descent this egregiously." - Gregory Kirschling (EW)
"I still believe with all my heart that no movie with real car stunts, a tough-chick hero, and a severed head that thunks directly into the camera can be all bad. But this is pushing it." - Jim Ridley (Village Voice)
"Most fantasy-action films blow their budgets in the first half-hour, and limp home with their makeup smeared. Doomsday is unusually patient, smartly saving most of its fireworks for the later innings." - David Hiltbrand (Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Writer/Director Neil Marshall’s entertaining, sorta-cheesy, if at times derivative homage to post-apocalyptic cinema delivers exactly what action fans of the genre crave." - Peter Hammond (Boxoffice Magazine)
With reviews like that, even the most foolish, most bull-headed, most reactionary filmgoer should know exactly what s/he's getting into: a dumb, testosterone (by way of estrogen)-fueled, B-movie action romp. If you like them, you'll like it; if you don't, you don't. And if you think you're smarter than everybody else, you'll probably hate it.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I loved it. And you know why? Because Marshall's smarter than all of the critics combined (though, I have to admit, I never thought I'd be in agreement with Peter Hammond about anything. I just don't think he takes it far enough).
Yes, the U.K. of Doomsday deals with a killer plague (the "Reaper" virus - could've stood some more originality, I'd say) by building a huge wall all around Scotland and cutting the country off from the rest of the world. Sure, the society that develops within that wall is half 80's U.K punk scene and half Middle Ages, knights-and-squires-and-all-that (and why the hell don't we get any real resolution re: the Malcolm McDowell character? I wanted to see him get his head blown off by a cannon or something). And, yes, it's a nightmare of a production design, mostly because it's all Sex Pistols meets Mad Max meets Aliens, but you know what? That's the fucking point.
Marshall wants to be John Carpenter (a man who also proved himself to be more than the sum of his influences), I think that's pretty clear by now. So, what better way to declare yourself a candidate for his throne than by totally bypassing trying to make one of his absolute best films (Escape from New York) and putting your own spin on one of his most tragically misunderstood projects: Escape from L.A.?
I'm not going to steal John Kenneth Muir's entire critique of EFL.A. here (but everyone who's interested should take a look at it - Muir's written/writing some of the best genre criticism of anybody else out there), but suffice to say, the movie is not meant to be taken as a serious, foreboding tale of the grim things to come if we don't watch our backs, nor is it a straight-out, balls-to-the-wall actioneer. The whole thing messes with your expectations, subverts the way barely serviceable action movies try to twist and turn our emotions around their fingers (while doing a damn fine job of it pretty much throughout), and tells us that, sometimes, what we're expecting to get is not even close to what we find.
That's why all the action-film-genre-hopping works here, and only here. He's fucking with our expectations; he's giving us what we want, but in the most ridiculous way he can. That's why this train-wreck of a production design is a blessing, not a curse - THAT'S THE FUCKING POINT! That's the only way to make a movie like this any good anymore, to just let go of it and allow it to land in the most ridiculous place possible. That's why the car chase (that fantastic car chase - Bond meets Mad Max) works as well as it does. He doesn't want you to gasp in terror, he wants you to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, to cheer in triumph as our heroine finally extricates herself from the mashup of worlds in which she's landed.
This is why Matt and I were the only two people in the theater laughing; we were the only two that got it.
And it's all held together by Rhona Mitra, who plays Snake Plisken's daughter by Ellen Ripley far better than anyone ever could've believed. Beneath this toned, tanned, infrequently eye-patched exterior beats the heart of an orphan, saved only by the decency of a soldier willing to sacrifice his life, his expensive equipment and his more expensive training for a little girl that has no practical instant benefit to the world, certainly not the same sort as his machine gun-carrying ass.
I'll end my ranting while the ranting's good, and leave you with the words of one member of the press I vow I'll pay more attention to from here on out:
"Marshall reveals himself to be a terrific showman of chaos and comic savagery. This is Baz Luhrmann's Mad Max." - Wesley Morris (Boston Globe)
Amen, sir. Amen.