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Doomsday (Test Screening Review!)

…The plot may seem like a conglomerate of sci-fi/action yarns of decades past, but Neil Marshall has cemented his role as the best genre filmmaker alive today…

[Editor’s Note: Neil Marshall’s Doomsday is released in theaters this coming Friday – our own Jameson Kowalczyk caught a test screening back in September of 2007. Here is that review.]

Doomsday is the third feature film from writer/director Neil Marshall, his follow up to last summer’s The Descent, the award-winning horror thriller about six women squaring off against vicious subterranean humanoids (and each other) while on a caving expedition. He debuted with 2002’s Dog Soldiers, an over-the-top action/horror indie flick about a bloody battle between a group of Scottish soldiers and a pack of werewolves.

***Spoilers ahead***

The film begins in the year 2008, where the highly contagious, very deadly Reaper virus is ravaging Scotland, rapidly turning its citizens into bloody, pus-oozing, sore-covered corpses. Faced with a worldwide outbreak, an executive decision is made to contain the Reaper virus by constructing a 30-foot high steel wall around Scotland, cutting it off from the rest of the United Kingdom and letting it run its course within a contained area. Out of fear the virus hasn’t been completely contained, all travel in and out of England is banned.

Jump to thirty years later. England is on the verge of complete anarchy. Overpopulation (remember, no overseas travel) has lead to unemployment, poverty, widespread crime, and… disease. While raiding an overcrowded ghetto apartment, police find a room filled with festering Reaper-infected bodies. Low on options, government and police officials decide to launch a Hail Mary mission over the wall.  Satellite photos show evidence of survivors walking the streets of Edinburgh, the last known whereabouts of the enigmatic Dr. Kane, a scientist who claimed to be on the verge of finding a cure for the virus just before the wall was permanently sealed – reason enough to believe there might be a cure somewhere inside Scotland.

Leading the team is Eden Sinclair (Rhona MitraThe Number 23, TV’s “Nip/Tuck”), a highly trained special ops officer with a removable artificial eye that sends a live video feed to a monitor strapped to her wrist. Sinclair has a personal reason for taking the mission: She was one of the last to escape Scotland, handed over into an army helicopter from the arms of her pleading mother during the onslaught of death an mayhem that followed the closing of the wall. Other team members include Sean Pewtree, a Dog Soldiers alumni, cast against his usual lead-from-the-front toughness into the role of a quiet scientist. And Adrian Lester, best known stateside for his role as a charming confidence man in the TV series “Hustle.”

As you will probably guess from the posters and press coverage (and common sense), the surviving inhabitants of Scotland are not a peaceful lot. The society that has evolved in the wake of the Reaper virus and aftermath of anarchy looks, acts, and smells like the barbaric offspring of the gangs from The Warriors and the tribesmen from Cannibal Holocaust. Like the creatures in The Descent, they’ve evolved to thrive under unthinkable circumstances.

The plot may seem like a conglomerate of sci-fi/action yarns of decades past, but Neil Marshall has cemented his role as the best genre filmmaker alive today. Made for something like 30 million dollars, it looks more expensive than most $100 million action films. The script also operates with a bit more logic than apparent at first glance. The country encompassing wall is a major plot point from Escape from New York, but the idea of New York being turned into a giant self-contained prison in John Carpenter’s classic film is social commentary that’s hard to swallow, though a government building a wall to contain a viral outbreak seems significantly more plausible.

Though the film appears to be Marshall’s break from the horror genre, this is one of the bloodiest films I’ve seen all year. The Reaper virus effects are appropriately disgusting, heads are blown apart, limbs hacked off, a man is roasted alive and eaten, and blood spurts by the gallon. Battle is carried out with everything from futuristic automatic weapons, to crude clubs fashioned from table legs and metal spikes, to medieval weaponry, and martial arts. The action is extraordinarily well directed, and Marshall’s ability to create increasingly intense, eye-popping action sequences rivals what Jameson Cameron did in Aliens and Terminator 2. The film’s twisted sense of gallows humor is also a welcome element.

One of my favorite scenes happens early into the mission, when the special op team creeps through an abandoned hospital. The atmosphere is as intense as it was in the underground setting of The Descent as all the pieces are put in place, just before all hell breaks loose. I won’t ruin it by delving into specifics.

The art direction and set design deserve mention as both add invaluable atmosphere and texture to the film’s scenery, which ranges from a dystopian vision of England, to the war-torn streets of abandoned Edinburgh, to a medieval fortress. One touch I liked was the rocky, uneven ground in a gladiatorial arena, which made for a more interesting fight scene (and more plausible) fight sequence than a flat surface.

Rhona Mitra perfectly side steps the pitfalls of playing the action heroine role, playing Sinclair more like a female Jason Bourne than another Lara Croft or Buffy clone. Like Bourne, she’s missing a piece of her past and herself, she takes as many hits as she delivers, and she wins not with power or superior skill, but with her ability to outthink her opponents, to exploit their disadvantages. And yes, she is sexy (not to mention incredibly beautiful), though the camera does not treat her as a sex object (as it purposefully does other characters), and I found myself noticing her toned arms and back more than her curves or breasts.

I caught this at a test screening, so the version I saw will probably see some editing before it is release in theaters in 2008. I’m guessing some of the violence will be toned down for theaters (though hopefully it will come full circle on DVD), and the running time trimmed, and some necessary music and effects tweaking. But even in its unfinished state, it ranks as one of the best sci-fi/action films ever made.

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