Monday, August 18, 2008

Doomsday ain't what is used to be, only more so

When I was much younger I was into role-playing games and wargames. I was also very concerned about the threat of nuclear war. A friend of mine told me “The Road Warrior” was the most awesome movie ever, but I was too young to go see it on my own, and my mom wouldn't take me. Then I found the game Car Wars. And I thought that this must be what the Road Warrior is about. Then finally I was old enough to see the movie in a revival theater in a double feature with Blade Runner (which I had also never seen).

I was totally blown away. This may have been my first post-apocalypse movie ever, and it was certainly the most exciting. Who knew the end of the world could be so exciting? The fast pace, the sense of speed, the production design, the action, it all left a very big impression on me. I watched that movie every time it came to the revival theaters (this being years before owning a VCR. I hunted down every bit of information I could fins about it,and when I was at a friend's house who had cable, snuck down to the living room to watch Mad Max for the first time.

I can quote chapter and verse on those movies. I would talk about nothing else for years. I even adapted Shakespeare's MacBeth to tell the story of the Nightrider. At one time I had three different Road Warrior T-shirts. My girlfriend called me her “Little Road Warrior.”

I then hunted down post-apocalyptic films like a fiend. 42nd street gave me “Warriors of the Lost World” “Warriors of the Wasteland,” and “Steel Dawn.” Revival theaters gave me ”Night of the Comet,” “A Boy and his Dog,” and repeated showings of “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior.” TV gave me “Damnation Alley,” “Dead Man Walking,” “The Day After,” and “Weeds.” Videotapes gave me “Defcon 4,” “Radioactive Dreams,” “After the Fall of New York,” “Wheels of Fire,” “Six String Samurai,” "Gas-s-s-s-s-s or We Had to Destroy the World in Order to Save It,"and many more. I still have yet to find a copy of “No Blade of Grass.” I would judge every movie by how realistic the post-apocalyptic landscape was, how believable it was that the world had gone to hell, and how exciting it was compared to “The Road Warrior.”

In time, the Cold War ended and the fear of nuclear holocaust faded. With it, the post-apocalypse genre fell out of favor. Recently, however, it has come back with a new scourge: zombies/plague.

I am not the sociologist/historian to fully analyze the whys and wherefores of this development, but I suspect it has something to do with th acclimation of the world to the AIDS epidemic and the popularity of the zombie movies created and inspired by George A. Romero. There is probably something about the purity of zombies as an adversary: they have no soul so there is nothing wrong with killing them (again,) they are unstoppable, and they are ugly; like vampires without the sex appeal. Thus they can appeal to horror fans who don't want their terror interfered with by soul searching and sexual tension.

There is also something appealing about exploring the story of last survivors of mankind. They pick through the ruins of the old world, using familiar items in unfamiliar ways. Stylings frequently have a s&m/punk/heavy metal look, which is exciting to look at. There is usually a lawlessness that resembles the Old West, and who doesn't like a good western? There is also the opportunity to explore fright and terror, as with the collapse of civilization, there is nothing stopping the rampages of the truly depraved.

So put the appeal of the post-apocalypse film together with the modern concerns about disease and the popularity of the living dead, and you've got a new genre of film, the zombie/plague post-apocalypse film, who's most notable entries include “Land of the Dead,” “I am Legend,” “28 Days Later,” and the “Resident Evil” series.

Now put all these films together into one, and make that film not quite as good as the best of them,. And you've got “Doomsday,” which I saw last night at a midnight screening. Just about everything in it is borrowed/stolen from another movie. All of Scotland in quarantined due to a plague, like New York in “I Am Legend.” 20 years later, the land is scorched, like in “Reign of Fire,” and the plague appears in London, like in “I Am Legend” again. A team is sent in to Glasgow to find the doctor who had stayed there working for a cure, like the search for the last fertile woman in “After the Fall of New York.” They travel in large armored vehicles like the ones in “Damnation Alley” with a crack military team equipped with two-way video devices, like in “Aliens.” Also like in “Aliens,” most of the team is killed and their vehicles destroyed early. The survivors are led through a “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” type culture but escape, and find another society living in a recreated medieval culture (one of the few bits I could not place the inspiration of). There is a “Gladiator” fight scene, and then our heroes escape again, which leads to a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” type storehouse, which leads to a highway battle scene that is straight out of “The Road Warrior.” There is also a subplot involving the government that echoes “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and “Dr. Strangelove.”

In the near six decades since the post-apocalypse film first appeared, action, horror, and violence in films has seen a steady increase in intensity. This has been due to improving technology, makeup technique, and the drive to one-up each previous film. “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior” were breakthrough films in that regard, and future car chases and post-apocalypse action films were all compared to them, frequently failing.

“Doomsday” does not fail in trying to be harder, faster, and more intense than any similar film before it. Where earlier movies may have tastefully or strategically looked away from a beheading or a body on fire, this one showed it right on screen, front and center. With the fast pacing and quick cuts of the car chae, the pace was made even faster and the cuts even quicker. However, this extreme graphic violence and frenetic camera work and editing did not really improve the film. Instead it distracted from the story and sometimes made it too confusing to know what was going on.

I must especially say this about the car chase scene in the end. Several notes that were hit in “The Road Warrior” were blatantly copied, but were either lost in all the chaos, or were simply not done as well or were too obvious.

The thing that I thought was most specifically interesting was the medieval culture. As a well-known medievalist, I of course dug the idea of a post-apocalyptic society that chose to bring back an age of chivalry. However this culture was not one of goodness and hope that the heroes had been looking for. Instead it was ruled by a cynical madman, and ultimately was just as ruthless and evil, in its own way, as the Glasgow cannibals. Whereas in every medieval movie you would see a skeleton in a cage hanging from the castle walls, in this one, you actually saw people on the verge of death in cages right next to them. The cruel Darwinian philosophy of the ruler of this kingdom was just an excuse to kill, in as entertaining a way as possible, outsiders. The modern primitive tribal punk s&m-styled culture in Glasgow also killed outsiders in as entertaining a way as possible for them, they were merely more simplistic about their reason, their hatred of the outsiders.

So the film gets point for effort, and for showing that they know what they were trying to do, and the film did not lack pace. But if there was a lesson in there, something about a warning for the future and about how it is bad to kill people, or even let them die, that in that way we lose our humanity, but it was kind of lost in the graphic violence and hyper-kinetic editing.

Postscript: since I originally wrote this review, I saw another review that pointed out that this was a "tribute" to post-apocalypse movies. Ok, there it is then.

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