48. Doomsday

Doomsday2Again, I think I may have exhausted anything I’d really be able to say about this movie in an episode of the podcast. Not that there’s only 20 minutes worth of discussion to be had, but my own ideas about the movie were hardly original — I only found out about this movie through another podcast, and my opinion was doubtlessly swayed by them.

Of course, it’s in the top 50 of this list, so their praise only had so much influence. When it comes down to it, Doomsday blew me away. I fell in love with both Rhona Mitra and Neil Marshall forever, and even though both those crazy kids don’t always do things I’m interested in, I eagerly await their return to things like this. Centurion was good, Underworld 3 was good, but let’s bring it all together. In the meantime, here’s Episode 21 – The Essentials: Doomsday

So the first thing that comes up when I think about Neil Marshall’s Doomsday is the prospect of rejecting a film purely on the grounds that it is derivative. When this movie was being advertised in 2008, it was very clearly a weird mashup of Escape from New York and the Mad Max series. And that was enough for people to be like pff rip-off and never think about it again. There’s this presumption of arrogance, a kind of projection that the audience makes upon the director — who could be such an asshole as to think I won’t be fooled? I know what this is, and to show that I know what this is, I’m not gonna see the movie. Which makes sense but is completely illogical because primarily, Escape from New York and The Road Warrior are two awesome movies. And second, and this is harder to get just from the trailer, the director is really passionate about these genres, this is not the work of a filmmaker who wants to make a fast dollar.

But you only really get that if you see the movie, and if somehow you still don’t get it, if you hear it from the man himself. To me Neil Marshall is in a league with Guillermo del Toro, maybe not always with genre but in terms of doing what he likes, regardless of the financial consequence. And it just so happens that I like what he likes, but it’s dangerously niche. Doomsday bombed at the box office, and I can’t say I went and saw it, so this and Slither are why I make a point to go see cult movies before they’re cult movies, like 47 Ronin and Cloud Atlas and stuff. Just so I don’t feel as bad afterward. Although I think 47 Ronin is pretty much out at this point. I guess people don’t love Keanu Reeves as much as I do — well, truly nobody can, but come on, people.

The second thing about Doomsday is that it is derivative. And yet somehow, it is so goddamn inventive. It takes preexisting concepts, like the sealed off environment, and uses them as a playground to show the craziest stuff Marshall can think of. The violence is so frank, that while it isn’t necessarily ultraviolent, it doesn’t flinch, and makes the action going on seem so par for the course, where it couldn’t possibly be because it’s so fucking insane. Basically every moment is unpredictable, although the broad strokes you see coming. So there’s this very satisfying reconciliation of the familiar and the new, and thus falls into my working Escape trilogy theory, but we’ll get to that later.

As important as those two aspects are, easily the biggest thing is the main character, and the choice of actress. Leading Doomsday is Maj. Eden Sinclair, played by Rhona Mitra, who’s one of my favorite actresses because of this movie. She is believably physical in the role, and the character itself is extremely entertaining to watch despite being as deep as every other action movie character you can think of.

In terms of live-action American film, Eden Sinclair has always been my go-to for the Strong Female Character archetype, and that’s so weird because this movie is so throwaway for a lot of people. But that’s the major effect you can make with such a tiny inciting incident as casting a female lead and putting all your nerdy passions into a movie. That’s like the dream, if all movies were like that maybe movies wouldn’t suck.

And this will be a major point I’ll make on the podcast dedicated specifically to Neill Marshall but in at least three of his movies, he’s featured strong female main characters, the ringleader of course being Eden Sinclair, but you’ve also got Etain in Centurion, played by Olga Kurlyenko, and then with The Descent, you have the inversion of John Carpenter’s all-male cast in a horror film with The Thing.

Which in a slightly better world might be allegory to the greater representation of women in film. But because it isn’t, Eden and Doomsday are all the more important. I’ve known for quite some time since Episode 7 of this podcast that I haven’t ever really talked about feminism proper, instead focusing more on gender studies and specifically transgender, even though the podcast was called Ghost in the Shell and Feminism. I have mentioned the Strong Female Character from time to time, and my maybe unjustified relationship to it.

But with that Ghost in the Shell episode, I noted how even a controversial character can have a tremendous impact, and ultimately an audience may only interface with certain parts of an image onscreen, a representation or an archetype. With the Major, the nudity is theoretically more for the older audience who understands that she’s got an identity and body crisis, but the fact that she is strong in the moment-to-moment and kicks a whole lot of ass in a number of ways creates a model for young Japanese girls to think about and take lessons away from. They don’t have to model that behavior but understand that that’s something you can be if you want, because you can be anything, which in the end, is the point of that movie if we’re taking a gender studies or existentialist reading of that movie.

With the other Major, Major Eden Sinclair, what must be highlighted are her physical attributes, and the way the camera looks at her. There is one shot that could definitely be construed as exploitative, but maybe we might say economical, because it’s when she’s telling her watch to record from her robot eyeball, and her wrist just so happens to be dangling right next to her butt. Marshall definitely knows that he’s filming a gorgeous woman, but never lets that get in the way of the character, who cinematically is characterized very frankly, no different than a male action hero of the same breed. She’s not sexualized, and she actually has a one-up on the Arnolds and the Sly Stallones of years past because she doesn’t pop her top off like Dennis Reynolds.

I suppose there’s always been that element of sexuality in 80s action movies, but it’s always been homoeroticism, and not exactly conscious. But the heavy sexualization of female characters is rampant in scifi, horror, and action, and this movie blends all three. You might think that Sol’s girlfriend is pretty hot, and you’re right if you look up the actress she’s a crazy beautiful woman, but she’s got this crazy face paint you don’t recognize her. And then she gets beheaded!

But anyway, the physical attributes. I think my appreciation for Doomsday was greatly augmented by the Greatest Movie Ever Podcast about it, which made the very astute point of contrasting Eden Sinclair to the 90-lb. Joss Whedon girl who whoops everyone in the room, often these girls are superpowered and are probably the western equivalent of Magical Girls. I think that suspension of disbelief should play into it, but I’m more interested in the educational responsibility and power of film.

Look, I know for a fact that Summer Glau could beat me up and hang me from the flagpole in an instant because I’m not a very physically adept body and she does like ballet or something, or dance? But the way Joss Whedon and obviously other people (but he’s certainly got profile and it’s easy to be a Whedon-hater even if you don’t hate Whedon) the way these filmmakers portray their strong female characters is with this inherent air of fantasy.

In Doomsday, Eden fights a giant dude in knight armor. The way she takes him out is much the way Erin in You’re Next kills Tiger Mask, and how Snake Plissken kills the guy in the ring with the club. It’s a much more involved and nuanced physical engagement that actually involves weighing one’s abilities against the opponent. And it’s dramatically interesting because the hero has an overwhelming force to contend with, and the movie doesn’t have to strain to manufacture that tension, because the hero is otherwise impervious to bullets and beatings. The Magical Girl will just run through people, and so yeah it’s fantasy.

Eden is not one of these, and so she’s much more realistic. And one of the things that people say in response to that sort of emphasis on realism is to say ‘oh yeah, because it’s so realistic that they would quarantine all of Scotland and that the Ren Fair would be popular,’ harping on the science-fictional elements that come packaged with science-fiction film. That’s argument you’ll hear frequently about various things, but it’s not nearly as useful to account for how often it’s used.

That’s where the suspension of disbelief comes in, and that’s currency. We suspend our disbelief on the premise of the movie as it’s delivered within the first act because that’s part of our contract ensuring our enjoyment of the movie. You only get one — this is the David Hayter Principle, and Hayter was one of the writers on Watchmen from 2008. He did the first pass that was essentially a transcription of the comic, and then Alex Tse came in and did the second pass. But Hayter made the creative decision not to drop the squid on New York at the end, because you already had superheroes, that was the purchase of our suspension of disbelief, and thus, the David Hayter Principle.

So we buy that there was a Reaper virus in Doomsday, but in order to have those fantastic elements, you have to juxtapose it with a degree of realism, such that when she jumps in the air, Eden doesn’t just float, because it’s gravity and the law of physics. Well why does that exist, it’s a science-fiction movie! That’s the problem with that argument. Otherwise you’ll end up with something like Being John Malkovich, which was weird as hell before they found the portal into John Malkovich’s head, but that movie offers an example of you can only break the rules if you’re good.

But more important than that is the responsibility of the image. I don’t understand filmmakers who outright reject the idea that violent films are dangerous to society. They might be biased, but if they really feel that way, then they’re assuming a lot of their audience, including that they’re also taking nothing from the screen. If people aren’t affected negatively by violent images, then other people are positively affected by the other images. Unless there’s something inherent to violence only that it isn’t imitable behavior.

Well, we just want to entertain, that’s fine, but just like how Christopher Nolan can’t help but make a political statement with The Dark Knight Rises, a very right-wing statement in fact, despite his not trying to, because he’s involving those images, but when you put a gangster on screen and give him a blaze of glory exit, you’re glorifying that lifestyle. It’s the difference between Scarface and Michael Corleone. Same actor, much, much different characters. Scarface gets to go on a GTA shooting rampage killing everyone, and Michael Corleone sits alone thinking about the person he killed, his brother, all because of the business he got sucked into.

When you put an image on screen, somebody receives that image, and in the battle of intent vs. interpretation, interpretation is definitely king, so the onus is then on a responsible creator to tailor the image and experience in a way to guide the interpretation toward the original intent, such that in an ideal situation, the two are one-in-the-same. And how could they not be if this is your movie, your creation?

Now, Marshall was trying to make a fun movie with Doomsday, whose sole duty was to entertain. I don’t know the man personally, I’ve unfortunately never met him or spoke to him so I can’t confirm if he was even cognizant of how he was filming Rhona Mitra as this character. But because you’ve also got the cast of The Descent, highly unique, and Etain from Centurion, even if he isn’t fully aware it’s still fine because it’s a preoccupation of his to demonstrate female strength in a variety of ways and in a variety of characters.

Eden Sinclair is believably tough, and so that realism is able to convey to the audience that this is what women can be, when most other movies and media are seemingly trying so hard to define a woman through harmful and oppressive stereotypes. Those images are certainly much more heinous than the 90-lb. magical girl.

So important in that regard but also just plainly entertaining. I sometimes hesitate in expressions like these podcasts and on the blog or Twitter to talk about just how much strong female leads mean to me, because I don’t know I have this weird mental issue like I think people are just gonna think I’m jumping on the bandwagon or I’m just trying to suck up to women or something but no — when I was young, one of the most stirring images I’d ever come across was in a magazine, maybe Nintendo Power but maybe not, and it must’ve been in 2001, because it was an early in-development image of Metroid Prime. It was Samus fighting two beetles, and I looked at that picture of Samus I said to myself that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Metroid Prime 7

And later I discovered that Samus was a female character, and so my appreciation for strong women and my appreciation for art design and the aesthetics of science-fiction were kickstarted at the same time.

And my two favorite movies when I was a kid were Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, coincidentally my current two favorite movies, so that’s how much I’ve grown, but much as I might’ve liked the Terminator more than Sarah Connor, that Sarah Connor became a normalized image. She was tough, so I had no reason to assume that women couldn’t be tough. And with Jurassic Park, Dr. Alan Grant isn’t some muscle-bound hero. He definitely exhibits heroism, but it’s tough to fist-fight a velociraptor unless you’re a 12 year old gymnast. And his character arc, which critics always pass over, is one of sensitivity by the end, so I learned that manhood wasn’t one-dimensional either.

So that’s why seemingly minor characters like Eden Sinclair really excite me, and even though she doesn’t say much, I think her character is strong enough to be consistent with the movie, which just keeps moving.

Characterization is another interesting aspect of Doomsday, particularly with the two soldiers toward the end of the movie. Although it’s only a brief section, when the two guys are escaping from the castle they share a repartee that is so reminiscent of two-player co-op in video-games, and unlike how other people compare movies to video-games, that’s high, high praise, because I doubt I’ve ever had more fun with a piece of media than playing Conflict: Desert Storm on the Gamecube, which is what military shooters used to look like, before Call of Duty 4.

They throw each other weapons and compliment each other’s kills; what I like about it is that it’s very light, that at this point in the narrative the horror is over, and now it’s all about getting back at ‘em, and ripping shit up. This is very on-the-fly characterization, to abuse a term very economical, and I really like that, because I feel like in action movies, pace is king, and sometimes writers don’t know how exactly to fit conventional elements of story into something that’s supposed to be breakneck. Total Recall 2012 was very good at keeping a consistently non-stop pace, but they were lucky because the main character was a tabula rasa. But that movie had another fantastic strong female lead in a science-fiction movie, with Kate Beckinsale’s character. It’s very simple — she was so tough that she pretty much beat up the lead in every encounter.

That’s how you might characterize an action villain pretty effectively. Why is Mad Dog from The Raid: Redemption so memorable? Because he had honor, and because he was the toughest guy in the building of badasses. The final battle with him was two-on-one, with Mad Dog all by himself. That does not happen in action movies.

Neither Mad Dog nor the characters in Doomsday require lengthy blablabla scenes to set up who they are. Because of this movie’s lineage, it’s able to communicate certain ideas about who they are by using cinematic shorthand. Sinclair has an eyepatch in the beginning and sneaks onto a ship like Solid Snake — even if we don’t know who Snake Plissken is, or what the plot of this movie is, we know that this is a kind of anti-hero, though Eden’s conscience is much better than Snake’s.

And so let’s talk about that lineage to close out this episode. I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the content of the movie, because I basically did — Eden is a badass, and the things that happen are totally badass. Watch this movie and prepare to see something you did not expect, despite how familiar it may seem at first.

And it’s familiar because the story structure and setup is Escape From New York. Like I said in The Purge episode, this is totally not a problem for me. Because it was really Escape from LA that set the precedent off of the foundation of New York, that this is a movie where anything can happen. This is a crazy city, and in Escape from LA, John Carpenter was able to satirize the city that in movies depicts itself as the absolute center of the universe. It’s a twisted, demented, plastic surgery nightmare, and the perfect setting to then insert this incredibly potent character of Snake into.

I think Escape from LA and Doomsday would make the perfect double feature, because they’re both insane, but totally aware. And it would be good to measure which one has the crazier stuff. Surfboarding at Steve Buscemi or Surprise, Ren Fair?

Now that issue of being aware is the last thing. This movie came out the same year that the neo-grindhouse trend was kicked off, with the movie Grindhouse, and that pretty good movie led to a flood of throwback genre flicks, and people didn’t exactly notice because the found footage subgenre became the maligned subgenre of the following ten years.

But the grindhouse trend made sure that movies could be made deliberately cheap, much unlike Planet Terror and Death Proof, and that they’re constantly winking at the camera and so earnestness is out. What Doomsday represents is a very talented creator doing something very passionate and in the end very fun, with mass appeal, and as byproduct introduces the bizarrely rare and important image of Eden Sinclair, played expertly by Rhona Mitra.

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