One of the easiest, and consequently hackiest, ways to pitch a show, book, or movie is the simple formula X meets Y. There’s a whole universe of content out there, and while this isn’t a good way to get across all of the idiosyncrasies that explain why you happen to like this particular incarnation, but it can give you the broad strokes. It’s a bit like the “it tastes like chicken” of the movie or TV world. Crank could be “Speed meets D.O.A.” while Outlander is “Beowulf meets Predator.”
This is useful shorthand only because we, to a greater or lesser extent, share the same pop culture vocabulary. While nearly everyone will understand what you mean if you pitch “Star Wars meets Sophie’s Choice” (although no one will understand why), it’s when you start getting into slightly more obscure movies that you can determine someone’s pop culture pedigree. I know I’ve met a true sibling on the winding road when they casually throw out references to Big Trouble in Little China, Joe Versus the Volcano, or Streets of Fire. It becomes that much more exhilarating when a filmmaker you already admire proves to have the same geeky reverence for the same trash culture you do. Watching Neil Marshall’s Doomsday turned my fandom for the man into something either endearing or creepy, because now I want to hang out with him and be pals.
“Derivative” is often used as an insult, and rightly so. It’s always because something is derivative of exactly one thing. There’s an old saying: Steal from one person and it’s plagiarism; steal from lots of people and it’s research. The same is true for derivation in the arts. If you remake just one movie (without explicitly declaring it a remake), you’re derivative in a bad way. If you decide to remake every movie from the ‘80s at once without first bothering to see if they fit together or even if you should stop mixing your medication, you get Doomsday.
The movie lurches between genres like a drunk desperately trying to get to the bathroom. It starts out as a relatively normal super-plague disaster movie, before morphing into Escape from New York with a dash of The Warriors, then into Excalibur, before wrapping up with a straight homage to The Road Warrior. Marshall just decided to gather up all his favorite movies from the ‘80s and graft them to one another, even naming minor characters after the greatest directors of that time, a practice he borrowed from John Carpenter (who gets one of these shout-outs).
A plague called the Reaper Virus breaks out in near future Scotland, killing boatloads of people. The area is quickly walled off, which has been the solution for Scotland for literally two thousand years. The quarantine remains in place for twenty years, and presumably, everyone north of the wall dies of acute face-rot. When the Reaper Virus makes an unexpected return to London, the government reveals that satellites have seen survivors. If there are survivors, there must be a cure.
They send in their version of Snake Plissken, the one-eyed badass Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) and a team of soldiers and scientists who should be very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Neil Marshall movie. This group quickly learns that the survivors have turned into a flashy cannibal gang that mixes showmanship with brutality and seems to have forgotten that Scotland is, by and large, long sleeves weather. Sinclair and her dwindling team (including her ridiculously awesome second in command Norton) fight their way through this gang only to run into the other source of power in the north.
This group is led by Malcolm McDowell from an honest-to-god medieval castle (though in a nice nod to what these are used for now, there’s still a sign denoting the Gift Shop visible in one shot), and they are living as though it were still the Middle Ages. McDowell’s character is the scientist the people back home believe will develop the cure, but he has some bad news: there is no cure, there is only people who are immune and people who are not. Really, their only option is to try to engineer a vaccine from the blood of one of the survivors.
Sinclair finishes her mission, but not before fucking over the man back home who was trying to use the plague as the means to seize power. Missing an eye unites her visually with Snake (and where was the first snake found but in Eden), but it’s this act that places her alongside him. She’s more noble than he ever was, as he fucks the world simply because they tried to use him. Sinclair is on the side of the angels, no matter how brutal her methods might be.
Doomsday is pretty much required viewing for anyone who came of age in the ‘80s. I’ve remarked many times that it’s the last truly experimental phase in the movie industry. The fact that much of this experimentation was confined to genre films sadly guarantees that it lacks the respect of the hallowed ‘70s. Marginalizing genre entertainment is nothing new, but it does disappoint me whenever I see it. There’s also the simple fact that I view this time period through rose-colored glasses. These are the films that formed my own aesthetic, readily becoming more apparent as more of my own books come out.
I regard this as Marshall’s weakest film, though it’s also his most fun. There’s an intoxicating aura of friendliness to it all. Marshall loves all the movies that form the patchwork quilt he’s weaving, and he wants you to love them as much as he does. He’s not being derivative because he lacks creativity — that would be literally the dumbest thing to say about a man as joyfully mad as Marshall — but because he wants to make the movie he saw in his mind when he was a child. When we play with our action figures, we gleefully mix characters, vehicles, and monsters from different sources. Want to have Han Solo, Snake Eyes, and Bumblebee team up to take down a dinosaur? Who the hell wouldn’t?
Pop culture can be great, delirious fun, especially when it’s cross pollinated. Disney is making all the money ever as they’re figuring it out with the Marvel Universe. Marshall did something like that, far more quietly, and in the darker, odder corners of genre.