Doom, the latest video game turned into a movie, presents us with a cinematic first. In the film a character dies and then gets a free life. It’s during the much vaunted “first person shooter” scene – our hero is overtaken by an enemy and knocked down. In a truly amazing moment of bizarre filmmaking, the first person perspective continues as the hero’s soul leaves his body, showing us his husk. Everything goes black, until white light flashes and then – zoom! – the soul is back in the body, and we’re back in the “first person shooter” mode.
I have to admit that I laughed and clapped at that scene. I actually laughed a lot during Doom, and to the film’s credit I’m not entirely sure I wasn’t supposed to. The film is a big, dumb lumbering behemoth of a movie, slickly coated with the f-word and passable special effects, but it’s not without some strong points, and a sense of humor is definitely one of them.
Doom is probably the best video game movie up to this point. That’s slight praise, and I mean it just as slight as it sounds. The film deviates quite a bit from the plot, such as it is, of the game. Things start off at a brisk pace – something is loose in a science facility on the planet Mars (the film originally took place on another planet in another galaxy, but fan uproar caused the filmmakers to change it back. This leads to lots of dumb dialogue, as characters do things like ask if monsters live on the planet’s surface. In fact, Mars is only mentioned in voice over and in subtitles; every line of dialogue in the film refers to Olduvai. In the film it’s been turned into the name of a Martian city, but I get the impression that was the name of the planet in the script). The opening clues us in as to what to expect as a young scientist is running from the monster, towards the safety of closing blast doors, and her arm gets caught and severed at the last minute. Good stuff!
The Marines get called in. The Rock is Sarge, leading a ragtag team of men who really wish they could be in Predator. There’s the new kid, who is given the imaginative call sign The Kid; there’s a religious guy named Goat; a lecherous guy named Portman; a black guy named Duke; another black guy (that’s really their whole characterization) who looks a lot like Mac from Predator; a guy who is actually named Mac; and Karl Urban as John “Reaper” Grimm, whose parents died up at Olduvai years ago, and whose sister is still there, working as a forensic archeologist.
Our Marines gear up and head to Mars via the “Arc,” an ancient teleportation system that was discovered in the Nevada desert, apparently once used as a set for Stargate. Once up at Olduvai they begin getting knocked off one by one by mysterious monsters, while trying to figure out where the heck these things come from.
It turns out that these monsters bite you and turn you into zombies, and in turn the zombies evolve into monsters. Sadly these monsters are fairly crappy looking, but the good news is that they stick to the shadows of this oh so shadowy movie, and eventually show up and do cool things like knock the heads off of people and engage in fairly ludicrous wrestling matches.
I have to give Doom credit for being fairly original in some ways. The origin of the monsters is different from the game, where they came from Hell. That’s a quick and easy origin that would have worked fine here, since the alien transportation device has been introduced. The Arc is a MacGuffin, though, and the truth of the monster’s origin is far more complex and retarded than you might have imagined. And retarded isn’t just a figure of speech here – the chromosomes of these monsters make them almost Downs Syndrome sufferers. But you have to give the film a pat on the back for not taking the easy way out – and the origin presented here has the advantage of being fairly laughable. After suffering through The Fog last week, I found that being able to laugh at a movie makes a pretty big difference.
The other bit of originality is actually the best bit, but it’s one that I can’t divulge here, since I think that spoiling it would rob the film of some of its charm. Suffice it to say that Doom has the balls to turn some genre conventions right on their heads.
Somewhere under the surface of Doom is a pretty good movie trying to get out. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak simply doesn’t have the chops to make this movie work. Scenes that are supposed to be tense plod, and aside from The Rock (whose charisma and seeming awareness that all of this shit is highly silly makes him a joy), the film is poorly cast. That’s what separates Doom from Predator, a film it apes (along with Aliens, of course). Predator had some great casting, and was filled with actors who breathed a second dimension to their characters. Doom’s succession of cannon fodder Marines have enough personality (read: they contain one trait a piece) to be distinguishable, but the actors never make them really interesting.
There’s one great moment in the film, all irony aside, where the Marines have to decide whether to kill a group of innocent people who may or may not have been infected by the monsters. It’s hard for me – being me, and the world being what it is – to not see this scene as some sort of commentary on the nastiness of war, especially the one we’re in now. It’s nice to watch an action film, normally one of the most conservative and reactionary genres, make the case against just following orders.
I recommend Doom with a lot of hesitation. I don’t think you should pay money to see this film in theaters – there’s not much in the murky proceedings that won’t be improved by your TV’s contrast control. Except for a completely insane hand to hand fight at the finale, most of Doom feels terribly TV sized. And it’s not a very good film, although it’s entertaining for what it is. But if you’re going to go see a stupid action film this weekend, despite the number of excellent, intelligent options available, you can do a lot worse than this one.