Sometimes, it’s difficult to distinguish theft from homage. Two years ago, I bolted from Steve Pink’s Accepted mid-film because it dared to recycle, practically line-for-line, the dueling parties scene from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfied romp, Back to School. It was a flagrant lift, but what was truly offensive was the attempt to win over the audience by forcing an association with a beloved comedy from the 1980s. Had Accepted actually been funny or affectionate in its derivativeness, such unabashed appropriation might’ve been excusable; instead, it was just derivative junk with nary a classic Dangerfield one-liner in sight (akin to Carmen Ronzonni mimicking Catfish Hunter’s windup and missing the strike zone by a backstop-rattling fifteen feet).
If it were simply a matter of liking the same movies from back in the day, filmmaking would be as easy as replicating an “Adams Atoms” t-shirt. But you’ve got to have more than just affection; you’ve got to bleed this shit. You’ve got to possess the mutated DNA of a kid who watched way too much cable and rented way too many videotapes. And, even then, you’ve really got to know where to put the fucking camera.
Neil Marshall evinced all of these qualities with his last film, The Descent, so when it was announced that he intended to shoot a full-blown cover version of Escape from New York and Mad Max… it still felt unnecessary, but you couldn’t argue with the man’s qualifications. Though such a film far would far outstrip his previous work in terms of sheer physical scale, it seemed pretty harmless as a one-off stylistic exercise.
Having finally seen the film (which Universal puzzlingly withheld from critics), I’m shocked that he didn’t go all the way and call it Neil Marshall’s Doomsday; it would certainly go well with the font.
From the antiquated computer graphics depicting the walling off of a disease-ridden Scotland to the very familiar shots of soldiers patrolling the top of the barricade, you are acutely aware from the get that you’re in John Carpenter-land. And if the electronic Tyler Bates score weren’t enough of a dead giveaway, the “2036: NOW” title dispels all doubt: if Marshall can’t go back in time and make Escape from New York himself, he’s at least going to relive the experience on someone else’s dime.
But Marshall’s shameless evocation of the Carpenter aesthetic would completely wear out its welcome if he were incapable of stringing together a serviceable story. Fortunately, he hits just this side of serviceable by ramming together the Reaper Virus nonsense – it’s a nasty, highly contagious disease that causes massive skin necrosis whilst Ebola-fying the internal organs – with the sad saga of Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), a Plissken/Ripley hybrid who lost her mum during the 2008 evacuation of Scotland (really, Sinclair is essentially Plissken with breasts; she’s only comparable to Ripley due to her gender and her very limited capacity for sorrow). Sinclair’s backstory ups the stakes ever so slightly when she’s charged with leading a strike force into the condemned constituent nation in order to find a cure for the resurgent virus; for all of her tough-chick posturing, she understands the human toll of the outbreak better than most.
This emotional depth comes into play once or twice during the course of the movie, and all it does is bog down the blissfully stupid narrative. Sinclair and her unit (comprised of vaguely familiar actors like Adrian Lester, Darren Morfitt and Nora-Jane Noone) are supposed to be tracking down Reaper survivors and/or Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who was developing a cure before the sickness engulfed the region. Whatever. Their real use to the plot is getting ambushed, captured and summarily tortured by the cannibalistic urban dwellers of Glasgow (who appear to have emerged from a Motörhead/Krokus show circa 1983). And once they escape the clutches of these lovely derelicts, they wind up getting, um, ambushed, captured and summarily tortured by the bloodthirsty rural residents of a feudal village lorded over by the quite cuckoo Dr. Kane.
At this point, Doomsday unexpectedly begins referencing Lord of the Rings, Ladyhawke, Army of Darkness, and whatever else is handy – which is hilarious but kind of distracting. While I like these movies, it’s hard to square their very disparate conventions with all that’s come before. But then Sinclair winds up in a fallout shelter housing a sleek black Bentley sports car (among other items incredibly helpful to the third act), and you fall right back in love with Marshall’s fan flick. Why make sense when you can make more mayhem? And, honestly, shouldn’t all medieval epics venerate British automotive engineering?
This carries us right into Mad Max portion of the film, and that’s pretty wonderful, too. Marshall’s not a master of staging vehicular calamity just yet, but he’s got the right go-for-broke mindset; and while the smash-ups may not cut together seamlessly, the stunt work is suitably insane (though Zoe Bell would probably scoff). Finally, for all of Marshall’s technical missteps, it’s so very hard to hate a movie where a severed head splats into the lens of a camera.
Doomsday would unquestionably work better had Marshall cut it down to ninety minutes, but what’s a labor of love if it ain’t a little self-indulgent? Most filmmakers of my generation would give their left eye to play in the Carpenter sandbox for the better part of a year (for the record, Sinclair loses her right eye). This is one for the faithful. And given the box office returns from this weekend, I’d say you have approximately forty-eight hours before it vanishes from theaters. If you’re a little late, no more Maj. Eden Sinclair.