Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On "Doomsday" and Broader Themes

The first half of Neil Marshall's "Doomsday" is so fun and so full of creative homages that I almost forgive its second half. Almost. Clearly inspired and dedicated to the camp greatness of John Carpenter and George Miller, Marshall manages to plunder the best of their work in a genre-smashing event that begins like "Escape From New York", plays out like a more technically savvy "Resident Evil" and then falls flat into "Mad Max" territory without blinking. As the heavily armed government agent leading a team into the virus infected 'hot zone' of Scotland to find a cure, Rhona Mitra definitely takes the prize from Milla Jovovich as kick ass babe of the year. It's interesting how the film works backwards. We start out with armored vehicles, laser scoped automatic weapons, then degrade back to homemade machetes and rusted tools when the "marauders" arrive- which are only extensions of the wacked out heavy metalers in Carpenters "Ghosts Of Mars"- and finally end up in spear and arrow territory. Honestly, one could nitpick "Doomsday" apart, but Marshall has such an appreciation for genre (horror and now post-punk apocalypto) that its almost infectious.

But then things took a turn for the worse. My problem is not with "Doomsday" as a whole, but the nauseous way in which its increasingly complex action set pieces are filmed. Things happen in such wham-bam fashion, that I literally became dizzy trying to follow the action. It's as if Marshall felt unable to logically film an action sequence (or any action for that matter), over compensated by filming from three different angles, then scrambled the images together in an MTV state of aggression. We're given a simple action in one scene as a man approaches our heroin (Mitra) and raise his axe towards her. She dodges his advances and hits him in the stomach, running away. This seemingly straight forward action is piece together in 6 different angles, each one lasting a second or less. This drove me nuts. I'm sure Michael Bay has a rule about using any shots for more than one second, but director Marshall must have even less patience. I can take all the be headings and flesh eating virus moments in "Doomsday", but it's the savagery of the artistry that's truly disturbing.

So where did this begin... this action as splintered images? Slate writer Dennis Lim recently wrote a piece on cinema fist fights that charts the stylistic differences from the late 50's to today's treatment concerning this very manly way of settling things. While I would expect that aesthetic and stylistic choices would be vastly different, have we also lost something in the process? The first slide examined by Lim takes place in the 1958 western "The Big Country" in which two men are placed in the foreground as they duke it out. The last few slides look at films such as "Batman Begins" and "The Bourne Ultimatum"... films in which all semblance of logistics and space are imploded on each other in a series of quick edits and handheld cameras. While I'm a huge fan of both films (and believe that the editing of Greengrass is just a few steps away from incomprehensible, yet he still manages to give us enough info to follow the logic course of events), I can certainly see where the action sequence has officially gone hyper-real. Marshall's "Doomsday" is a shining example. The exception to the rule in Lim's piece is Park Chan Wook's "Oldboy", in which we're treated to a 3 minute single lateral pan as our protagonist fights his way down a corridor full of approaching enemies with only a hammer. Some classical examples haven't been totally lost, I guess.

So is this all a sign of oncoming old age on my part? Am I losing touch with the technologically advanced youth weaned on electronics from inception? I mean, hell, I've got an Ipod and I love YouTube.... doesn't that count for something? But when a film like "Doomsday" squanders so much of its energy on ill-conceived and executed action sequences, what do we have to rely on for the future? Will the scenes get even shorter and diced up into surreal oblivion? It's a frustrating topic. Even the films I'm willing to accept ("The Dark Knight") feature some basic ineptitude when it comes to an action scene. If the genuine auteurs like Christopher Nolan can't get it right, we're in serious trouble.

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