Last night D and I went to see Neil Marshall’s new film “Doomsday,” mainly because we needed to get out of the house, and we are both devotees of “The Descent.” We’d decided before going in that we didn’t really care whether it was brilliant or not; if it was a competent, bloody, “Escape from New York” ripoff, we’d feel we’d gotten our money’s worth.
As the closing credits began to roll, I exclaimed, “I LOVE THAT MOVIE. I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT.” Because I do.
The movie is, as the few U.S. critics who’ve reviewed the film all comment with some level of derision, a competent, bloody, “Escape from New York” ripoff. But what their sneer blinds them to is the way a new kind of director (and the two examples that come immediately to mind are both male Brits, interestingly—Marshall and Danny Boyle) is playing with his ability to render pitch-perfect genre movies that are a million times more intelligent and cinematically satisfying than the reels upon reels of derivative materials aiming flaccidly at some mythological “innovation” and “originality” inspired from beyond the formal boundaries of the movie form. And I mean “movie” as opposed to “film.” The most thoughtful comments I’ve read on “Doomsday” all home in on how it’s mired in its Movie-ness, and so fails to be (like “The Descent”) what we would call a respectable Film. Matt Zoller Seitz writes in the NYTimes,
In terms of story, “The Descent” and “Doomsday” are as different as two genre films can be, but the falloff in artistic quality is still quantifiable. Where “The Descent” was a slow, quiet, exquisitely modulated, startlingly original film, “Doomsday” is frenetic, loud, wildly imprecise and so derivative that it doesn’t so much seem to reference its antecedents as try on their famous images like a child playing dress-up. Homage without innovation isn’t homage, it’s karaoke.
Yes. It is karaoke—and y’all know how I feel about The Karaoke—and it understands itself as such. Instead of grabbing an acoustic guitar and hitting the open mic with a bunch of soul-searching, navel-gazing “originalia,” this movie decides to produce something people already know they want to hear, and explore where that preformed desire comes from. It’s not just Entertainment for Entertainment’s Sake, but a really smart pastiche of old—even outdated—popular forms injected with a dose of ingenious energy that animates those materials back into life. “Doomsday” is Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it knows it. Its roots go way beyond John Carpenter and ’80s punk to the British Gothic of the late eighteenth century—a good third of the action takes place in a revived medieval community housed in a Scottish castle, for Christ’s sake. The Mad Max heroine battles an honest-to-goodness Black Knight. (And kicks his ass, obviously.) Back in “modern times,” the castle had been drained of its historical force as a bastion of British primitivism by being transformed into an English tourist trap, humorously evidenced by the decaying “Gift Shop” and “Emergency Exit” signage. As in “Jurassic Park,” the movie taps into the visceral thrill of seeing real barbarism burst through the veneer of commercial modernity. But Marshall’s movie, true to its British roots, recognizes this experiment in stirring excitement in the hearts of disaffected modern individuals as a reprise of something popular writers attempted a couple centuries ago. “Doomsday”‘s relationship to the Gothic tradition is like an awesome karaoke rendition of an awesome cover of something no one can really remember the original of—because the original doesn’t matter to an audience in need of revival.
To put it another way, “Doomsday,” like the Gothic novel (which I’m teaching right now, so you’ll have to excuse the fact that I obviously have it on the brain), is committed to the idea that the memory of something can be a thousand times more affecting than an “original experience,” whatever that means, precisely because it is fashioned for an audience who has no access to original experience because they’ve inherited an excess of experience. Everything in our world already comes from somewhere else. Go back to an “original,” and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find it a disappointing derivative of something else just as disappointing. The only way to pursue meaning and satisfaction is to go forward—i.e. the karaoke bar, where cultural crap is revived night after night until, against the odds yet inevitably, something brilliant happens. The quintessential karaoke moment in “Doomsday”? When the leader of a tribe of neoprimitive Scots who have taken over a decayed Glasgow, during what Variety describes as “a sort of Burning Man-meets-Circus-Maximus setpiece,” comes onstage and performs a stirring rendition of Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” before they barbecue and eat one of the captured English soldiers. The Fine Young Cannibals were postmodern cannibals—their music (which I loved in middle school, and now) did to melodies what their band name did to the word “cannibal”: drained them of viscera to transform them into endlessly reproducible forms, references enjoyable because of their alienation from anything truly stirring, which is to say frightening. But you send something like that into circulation, and eventually it is bound to return to the real, to be picked up as the theme song for some actual cannibals, returning the song to a home it never knew it had, making it more hilarious than ever before as it fuses with a kind of terrified hysteria absent from its so-called original.
I have to go watch a college basketball game now, so I’ll wrap up by saying:
1. Screw The New York Times. If you don’t get The Karaoke, that’s your deal; it’s not my problem you have no idea how to have fun in the 21st century.
2. I am so planning a course on “The Postcolonial Gothic,” inspired directly by this movie.
3. If you can stomach blown-up bunnies and severed heads, go see this movie immediately and think about nothing but how much fun you’re really having as you watch it. Then come back and tell me about it.