‘Doomsday’ has Apocalypse Wow
(An expanded version of my story from the NY Daily News, March 11.
by Justine Elias
(Doomsday opens March 14. Universal’s official movie site is here.)
Forget all quaint notions of plaid kilts, malt whiskey, and Highland terriers: In the futuristic action movie Doomsday, Scotland, circa 2035, is a walled-off quarantine zone. A virus has wiped out 99.9 percent of the population. When a new outbreak ravages London, the government forms team of commandos to seize survivors north of the border and find cure. But the remaining Scots are hostile. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in would be insane. Who’ll be tough enough to lead the mission?
For DOOMSDAY director/writer Neil Marshall, 37, the heroine is Maj. Eden Sinclair, played by Rhona Mitra. (Picture a female Snake Plissken, the badass hero of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) Sinclair’s got guns, a posh accent, and a mechanical camera-eye. “Eden’s a child of the apocalypse,” says Marshall. “Her mother sacrifices herself to save her, and she remembers that moment. Rhona was great at showing those feelings.” And like Kurt Russell’s Snake, Eden’s got a mean streak. Says Marshall, “Rhona’s got a very cruel smile.”
Suspense with swagger is nothing new for Marshall, who’s scored big with horror and sci fans.
DOG SOLDIERS, a worldwide hit on DVD, pitted a sextet of British soldiers against a clan of werewolves. THE DESCENT (2006), a cult favorite about a cave-exploring trip gone terrifyingly wrong, grossed $57 million worldwide.
New York Daily News critic Jack Mathews wrote, “This is one of the scariest movies featuring female heroines since the ALIEN series, and what makes it uniquely scary is where these women are — in tunnels two miles under ground — when they realize they are not alone.”
But “Doomsday,” which opens Friday, seems poised to break Marshall out of the horror niche and into the top tier of action-movie directors.
The movie is a throwback to such action films as “Escape From New York,” “The Road Warrior,” “The Warriors” and “Zulu.”
“Those movies are huge inspirations to me,” he says. “In that era, the landscape shifted. The villains were everywhere. Seeing those movies changed my life,” he says. They are hugely inspirational to me. In Doomsday, there’s also a sense that there are villains everywhere. No one can be trusted.”
Not for nothing, it seems, does the future British prime minister, named “Hatcher,” speak in the soothing tones of former head of state Tony Blair- while the shifty military advisor looks and sounds exactly like current PM Gordon Brown.
“Is Britain looking for any excuse to shut its borders to outsiders? Well, yeah. It does look that way,” says Marshall. “All those elements, I think, are there in the movie for the seeing.”
Doomsday stresses old-style movie action – filmed on location, achieved with actors and stunt performers, over computer-generated special effects. “The image that started me writing is sort of Terry Gilliam-esque,” says Marshall. “The idea of band of futuristic soldiers in body armor squaring off against a medieval knight, the horse rearing up – and thinking, what kind of story could that fit in, that wasn’t a time travel story?”
Relax, action fans: Doomsday goes straight from that fantasy flick moment to a cage match between the heroine (clad in a tank top, naturally) and a sword-wielding knight.
Marshall, who recently moved from his hometown of Newcastle, England and got married (to horror writer Axelle Carolyn), says he’s “always been a movie fan. “I remember my mother taking me and my sister to see Time Bandits on a double feature with some kids movie,” he says. “One the preview trailers was The Incredible Melting Man. A guy with a melting face! I was stunned and horrified. Yet at the same time, really interested.” He started making his own movies at age 11, using his mother’s movie camera, and later attending a city university’s film program. School advisors didn’t think much of his final project, a zombie movie, but his technical skills landed him a job as a film editor.
Doomsday’s budget was a mere $26 million – three times more than Marshall spent on his first two films. He put the cash toward “action, weapons, costumes, armor, horses – the warriors of the future meet medieval knights, crazy vehicles, and hundreds and hundreds of extras going wild, and more action.”
The movie’s climax is a ten-minute, multi-vehicle car chase, a smash, crash and-burn battle along a winding highway, inspired by The Road Warrior’s classic desert highway showdown. In Marshall’s version, “inspired by the Mad Max movies, but I hope not a duplicate,” the Scottish marauders and the heroine’s gang fight inside and atop speeding cars. The music? Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “War,” which Marshall secured the rights to before he started filming. “As essential, to me, as going 80 miles an hour and having stunt people jump from car to car,” he says. “Great song.”
Despite the dangerous choreographed stunts, only one went wrong: cast and crew: a motorcycle rider was dragged when he meant to roll safely aside. He was not injured.
The scene that bedeviled Doomsday starred neither knights nor warriors, but a rascally rabbit plus computer effects. In the shot, a rabbit hops too close to the north side of the Scotland-England divider and goes directly to bunny heaven.
“I knew exactly what I wanted,” says Marshall – describing the many frustrating attempts to create a simple gag showing the wall’s automated defense system. “It was a delicate balance of whether it would be offensive – Oh, no! A bunny suffered! Or just laugh out loud stupid. When we finally composited the shot together was, we saw a moment in the footage when the rabbit kind of flinched, as if it knew what was coming. And I said, you can’t show the rabbit flinch, because then it’s not funny. You’re showing the rabbit scared. People won’t like that. If it’s just sitting there and then explodes, that’s funny.”
To Marshall, that moment “sums up the entire tone” of Doomsday. “If you find it funny, you’re on safe ground for the rest of the movie.”
Marshall’s reputation as a fan favorite has taken him, this spring, to horror conventions and high-pressure Hollywood meetings: he’s a candidate to direct a remake of Conan the Barbarian. “Yes, I did attend a meeting to discuss it. I wore a loincloth. Look, I can’t say anything else. There are a lot of talented people up for this job. But they don’t even have a script yet.” If Doomsday is a hit, he’ll be able to make his dream project, a WWII-set action movie that harkens back to WHERE EAGLES DARE, the Clint Eastwood-Richard Burton. The twist: it’ll be set in Scotland. “The unknown battleground,” he jokes. He waits, for now, until Doomsday strikes.