After catching my attention with the vicious, perfectly-penned ‘Dog Soldiers’ (easily one of the best and most overlooked werewolf flicks to come along in decades) and reducing me to a whimpering puppy with the unbearably claustrophobic creature-feature, ‘The Descent,’ writer/director Neil Marshall had me wrapped around his cinematic finger. So when I found out the upstart filmmaker was packing a future dystopia, a viral outbreak, and the fraying madness of its survivors into a single film called ‘Doomsday,’ I was… let’s just call it excited. Still, I was cautious. As rather uninspiring images leaked out from the production, and a bland, by-the-numbers trailer dropped on the scene, I started to fear that Marshall was about to let me down.
In a future not far removed from our own, a deadly plague dubbed the “Reaper” virus spreads to millions of Scottish citizens. To prevent the disease from invading England, the British government constructs a massive wall along the border, quarantines their entire northern neighbor, and leaves all of the survivors to die. Twenty-five years later, a similar outbreak appears in London, forcing the Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) to dispatch a military team from the Department of Domestic Security to locate Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell), a brilliant, Scottish researcher who was close to finding a cure before he was quarantined with the rest of the country.
With a clichéd DDS team of hardened military soldiers and helpless scientists in tow, Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) heads to Glasgow to find the doctor, but encounters more than anyone expected. The men and women who miraculously survived the Reaper virus have divided into two rival camps -- a legion of cannibalistic anarchists called the Marauders led by a maniac named Sol (‘Dog Soldiers’ and ‘The Descent’ bit player Craig Conway) and an entire township of civilized inhabitants ruled by Dr. Kane himself. As Eden and the DDS team struggle to escape the warring factions, they meet a girl named Cally (MyAnna Buring) who may just be the only survivor willing to put aside her anger to help them complete their mission.
Disappointment is the name of the game when it comes to ‘Doomsday.’ There are individual subplots and scenes that really work, but taken as a whole, the film is disjointed, uneven, and can barely maintain its focus. The heroes are trite and formulaic, the villains are fun but shallow, and the rival factions lack depth. In fact, both the Marauders and the Kane loyalists are expositional forces merely developed to move the plot along -- there aren’t any intriguing revelations about the survivors, legitimate complexity in their motivations, or believable reactions to their predictable circumstances. I may be missing the point... Marshall may have just been aiming for big-dumb-fun with ‘Doomsday,’ but I can’t help but feel that an amazingly talented writer/director settled for something that any B-level filmmaker in Hollywood could have made.
Admittedly, I dug the exaggerated chaos of Sol’s Marauder camp, their brutal Thunderdome existence, and their complete disregard for law and order. I even enjoyed every scene in which an underused Bob Hoskins interacted with Eden, his colleagues, and the film’s true villain, a greedy conspirator named Canaris (played with scowling swagger by David O’Hara). Unfortunately, everything else felt like an underwhelming distraction from the real thrust of the film. Eden is a cardboard cutout protagonist with little to do other than shoot steely glares at everyone she encounters. She never tries to reason with the survivors, yet somehow develops compassion for their plight and patience for their reactions to her presence. Worst of all, most of the men on her team die before their characters have developed in the slightest, the benevolent Dr. Kane has a backstory straight out of an early ‘90s comicbook, and the oh-so-obvious government bigwigs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, just waiting for the chance to pounce on their own and take full political advantage of anything and everyone. And what of Kane's medieval, fuedalistic society? Ugh.
I know ‘Doomsday’ will find a fun-loving audience looking for the next dose of over-the-top violence and ludicrous chase sequences. However, dystopia enthusiasts, action junkies, and Marshall fans in particular will cringe at the paper-thin story, incredibly convenient plot developments, and bland, uninvolving design. At its core, I really believe ‘Doomsday’ could have been a phenomenal, genre-breaking film. In reality, it’s a conventional bore that doesn’t live up to its potential or the established talents of its creator.
Cannibalism has never looked so good. ‘Doomsday’ makes its high definition debut with a gorgeous 1080p/VC-1 transfer that should lay to rest any doubts concerning Universal’s commitment to Blu-ray. Blood, fire, and explosions splash across the screen with bold flashes of color, natural skintones, and picture-perfect primaries. The palette shifts subtly throughout the film, but never wanes or weakens at any point. When Eden and company roll into Scotland’s deserted streets for the first time, the steely-blue night looks just as impressive as Sol’s fire-lit Mad-Maxian compound and Kane’s sun-drenched castle. Detail doesn’t falter either. Whether I was staring at the cracked skin of a charred corpse, strands of Viper’s tightly-wound hair, or the weathered metal of a gladiator’s armor, I could count every flake, wrinkle, and dent in the image. Even the darkest scenes feature striking delineation that allowed me to naturally make out elements cloaked in shadow.
To top it all off, the image is quite clean -- there isn’t any significant artifacting, source noise, edge enhancement, or bothersome DNR. Black expanses don’t suffer from crushing, contrast is spot on, and brightly-lit scenes are comfortably stark (even when a few shots are flooded with intentionally hot whites). Granted, I could debate and criticize Marshall’s stylistic choices for the next three days, but Universal’s technical presentation of ‘Doomsday’ is nothing short of exquisite.
’Doomsday’ boasts a bombastic DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that doesn’t waste any time before it establishes a forceful, immersive presence in your home. The LFE channel doesn’t merely support the proceedings, it assaults them -- low end pulses aggressively govern the action sequences, undergird dialogue and more subtle effects, and add oomph to on-screen impacts. Better still, the rear speakers are populated with copious amounts of ambience (sometimes to a fault considering the film’s pulpy, sci-fi landscape doesn’t exactly sound realistic), effortless soundfield mobility, and proficient directionality. Regardless of a scene’s volume or content, I was pleased that the track remained consistent. Quieter character beats featured the same attention to sonic detail as the volatile car battles and mob attacks. I may not be so quick to compliment Marshall’s over-the-top soundscape, but I genuinely enjoyed letting go and sinking in.
Sadly, I had to contend with some fairly obtrusive prioritization mishaps that left quite a few character exchanges to the imagination. I rarely resort to using a subtitle track on an English-language film, but I was tempted to skip back and turn it on every time the characters muttered their lines during a chaotic scene or a crescendo in the score. Such a fundamental problem could have wrecked the entire experience, but I’m relieved to report that it doesn’t become an overwhelming distraction. Rest assured, ‘Doomsday’s lossless audio track does a great job spewing the full madness of Marshall’s vision into your home theater.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Doomsday’ features a decent audio commentary, but it doesn’t include any other individual featurettes or documentaries. Instead, Universal has slapped all of the DVD’s video-based content into a U-Control track that supposedly allows users to easily access the material (more on that in the next section).
Writer/director Neil Marshall and actors Darren Morfitt, Rick Warden, Sean Pertwee, and Les Simpson sit down for a pleasant, breezy chat about the genesis of ‘Doomsday’s story, the production design, the shoot itself, and the final cut of the film. There’s plenty of laughs and anecdotes to be had, but I was surprised how often the participants stopped talking to watch the movie. Let’s be honest though, most of the actors involved in the recording play fairly insignificant roles in the film -- had the commentary included some of the cast’s heavy hitters, this may have been a more engaging listen.
’Doomsday’ doesn’t feel like a Neil Marshall film. It’s predictable, plodding, and all-too-ordinary to live up to the director’s own canon, much less other films that have covered similar ground. Universal’s Blu-ray release, on the other hand, is more reliable. It features a flawless, reference-quality video transfer, an excellent DTS HD Master Audio track, and a decent (albeit slim) supplemental package. I may not have warmed up to the film itself, but this disc should please fans and give everyone their money’s worth.