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Doomsday was the third feature written and directed by Neil Marshall who had previously made Dog Soldiers and The Descent, two of the more interesting horror films of the 2000s. It’s an ambitious action thriller that blends familiar elements from horror and science fiction into a gory hybrid that somehow manages to avoid the worst excesses of terrible genre film.
In an alternative 2008, Glasgow has been struck by an outbreak of the deadly and highly infectious Reaper virus. The disease rampages through the city killing thousands while the authorities struggle to respond. Unable to find a cure, they decide on a brutal action to protect the rest of the country. Scotland will be cut off using a resurrected Hadrian’s Wall built from steel to contain the virus and the infected.
As the wall is being sealed, a mother begs the army to take her small daughter to safety. It’s a desperate plea to men who have already become indifferent to the suffering of their fellow humans. Somehow, it succeeds and the girl is saved from the plundering and destruction that follows in the quarantine zone. To use the immortal words from Thomas Hobbes’ Levitation, life inside this Scotland becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Social order gives way to chaos as the fight for survival creates an apocalyptic place dominated by violence and cannibalism.
Jump forward to 2037 and the Reaper virus has re-emerged in a grim, rain-soaked London. The decision to quarantine Scotland might have paused the spread of the virus but it didn’t prevent economic isolation. Unemployment is high, prospects are few and the poor are a burden on the resources of a cynical government. The Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) and his advisor Canaras (David O’Hara) know that some survived the original outbreak and have hidden the truth. But, now it’s become politically useful to reveal their discovery and send people up north to find the cure. As they inform Police Chief Nelson (Bob Hoskins), all they need is someone to lead the team.
To save the city, a group of soldiers and scientists must find Dr Kane (Malcolm McDowell) who was trapped inside when the wall was erected. They are led by Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), the rescued girl, who is now a tough but troubled cop. On the other side of the wall, Glasgow is a city controlled by a nihilist gang intent on mayhem and destruction. Meanwhile, a neo-medieval society has emerged with its own murderous intentions. All the time, the clock is ticking. If Sinclair doesn’t bring back a cure in 48 hours, the city of London will be abandoned to its fate.
On the positive front, the film moves at a frantic pace. The fight choreography and special effects still stand out, particularly a sequence with a Bentley (see above). There isn’t much humour but the bleakness is cut through with several visual gags that might not be spotted on the first viewing. Watching the film now in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the bleakness of future London has become rather pointed. The city is not a bustling metropolis, but rather a place where desperate people eke out an existence.
However, at times, Doomsday is too knowing of a homage to everything from Escape from New York, Mad Max, 12 Monkeys, Judge Dredd, 28 Weeks Later and Dawn of the Dead to be a true original. Also troubling is its representation of women. As I re-watched the film, I also noticed the blurb on the Doomsday DVD describes Sinclair as “deadly and beautiful”. The 2000s featured many female-led action films like the Resident Evil, Tomb Raider and Underworld franchises where the main character was depicted as a warrior but also represented in highly sexualised ways. Sinclair may be a disillusioned cop on a mission, but it’s unclear to me if she represents a less problematic take on the woman warrior character that was prominent during this time. It doesn’t help matters that the few other female characters in this film are one dimensional. While I think Doomsday is an enjoyable action film, its poor representation of women does spoil the fun for me a bit.
Doomsday is a film powered by punk sensibility and a bleak cynicism about humanity. In this story, the strong prosper and the weak get eaten.