In 2015, George Miller drove the fourth instalment of the Mad Max series: Fury Road into the consciousness of unwitting audiences. It grossed a cool $378.9 million and bought a new heroic female to the forefront in the way of Imperator Furiosa. Charlize Theron’s performance steals so much of the film from Tom Hardy’s titular Max that Ronnie Briggs would have bulked at the thievery. Miller’s shift of focus from Max to Furiosa was a masterstroke for our socially conscious, social media, woke world, but it is one which makes us realise how much attention is placed on the current present over history when it comes to post-apocalyptic actioners. Fury Road’s presence seemingly did little in reminding people of Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in Miller’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), or Lori Petty’s Tank Girl in the film of the same name (1995). Only a few main sites seemed interested in bringing up the connections.
For some reason, not many reviews were interested in bringing up Neil Marshall’s Doomsday either. A shame, as despite its issues, the film was not only a particularly unique Hollywood calling card with its director, it gave audiences the type of female, leather-tough survivor that people started clambering for seven years ahead of the curve.
Neil Marshall’s cinematic work has always been willing to push female characters to the forefront while questioning areas of typical masculinity. Dog Soldiers (2002) wisely placed Emma Cleasby’s Megan as the main source of exposition in a film in which an all-male special forces group are systematically hunted down by werewolves. The Decent has been hailed by the likes of Den of Geek as a text which redefined women in horror movies with its female-led cast, womblike visuals and atmosphere and its estrogenic point of view. Even Centurion (2010) has the likes of Olga Kurylenko’s Etain as an integral part of the story, a revenge-driven woman out to avenge her murdered family against the Romans who have forcibly silenced her by cutting out her tongue. Her primal and tactile performance is one that we could so easy attribute to a male.
Doomsday is the second feature film for Marshal, however, to have a female as a lead as opposed to supporting. Rhona Mitra plays Eden Sinclair, one of the last survivors of the reaper virus which ravaged Scotland in an alternative 2008. The battle for her survival left Eden, losing not only one of her eyes but her mother as she is carried across the border to England. She becomes a top agent for an elite group of professionals who are ordered to return to the apparently dead Scotland in search of a cure. When Sinclair and her crew reach Scotland, they discover that Scotland is not as dead as they had expected, and in order to prevent the human race from ultimate destruction, they must look towards battling the ferocious, cannibalistic hordes which roam the highlands.
Marshall’s main references for Doomsday are very clear from the get-go. It’s grim Reaper virus homages 28 Days Later (2002), the main narrative thrust of the story is reminiscent of Escape From New York (1981) and the aesthetics, design and carnage witnessed once the action moves to Scotland are a clear nod to Mad Max (1979). It borrows liberally from these post-apocalyptic landscapes and narratives and tries to cobble everything together to form a cohesive whole. The portion of plot mentioned is the tip of the iceberg. Doomsday meshes its post-apocalyptic outbreak story with both feudal tribe wars and dubious political underhandedness which wouldn’t feel too far-fetched these days in our current political quagmire. In fact, watching Doomsday now, after watching parts of Britain fall into festering piles of division after the vote for Scottish independence and Brexit, ensures that aspects of Doomsday feel closer to the bone than we would like to admit. As one of the political characters notes “with a lie this big, we can get away with anything we want.” Quite.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of these parts don’t all gel. For all it’s referencing to the likes of George Miller and John Carpenter (whose surnames are attributed to minor characters), Marshall overstuffs the material and lacks the economy which makes the likes of Mad Max and Escape from New York so appealing. Interestingly, Marshall strips everything down to the bare bones in Centurion, which was criticised for not having enough meat on its characters. In Doomsday, between the manic swordfights, gun battles and crazy car chases, is a heap of complicated family ties and government shadiness as well as a viral outbreak. One feels that if Doomsday was more stripped back it would have a little more focus, and yet despite this, Marshall’s command of visual language is still strong enough to give these characters heft through their exchanges and reactions that they remain engaging, despite the plot feeling somewhat haphazard.
The film’s biggest strength, next to its ambitious action sequences is the creation of Eden Sinclair, a character obviously based on Carpenter’s Snake Plissken, with her cold, bitter cynicism and single good eye. The changing of gender brings forth a change in dynamics which still feels like a breath of fresh air, against the vast volume of male protagonists who have copycatted the likes of Plissken. While the likes of The Descent sweep up the plaudits regarding gender politics in genre features, Doomsday deserves some credit for its no-nonsense protagonist. A character who misses the mother that sacrificed herself to spare her life doesn’t fall into the trappings of motherhood to assert a style of femininity. It’s no surprise that Mitra was given a role in the third Underworld movie in 2009, a film series which despite its blandness was yet another genre franchise which was at least trying to subvert some well-trodden paths.
Mitra, who began her career as a model and rather, unfortunately, is possibly more well known to some as one of the Lara Croft Models than an actress in her own right. If it’s clear that Doomsday was aiming to be a calling card for its director, allowing him a larger budget and sandbox for him to play with, it also seems clear that Mitra’s casting would have been a chance for the actress to show that she can mix it with the best of them after a string of unremarkable supporting performances. She does well here, giving Sinclair a cold, world wariness that melds well with her brute force. Mitra’s performance is the type of solid B-Movie display that’s needed for material like this and performance mixed with some of Marshal’s subtler direction gives us some enjoyable moments. An example of this would be the in-film relationship with Adrian Lester, who plays nicely against type as Sinclair’s no-nonsense Sergeant. A wordless exchange between the two of them near the film’s climax shows the difference between what a film like this looks like in the hands of a director like Marshal in comparison to someone who’s only into the nuts and bolts.
The larger budget also allows Marsha to flex some considerable action muscle. This writer isn’t particularly sure that half the set pieces in Doomsday are whole needed, but they certainly allow it’s director to show what he can do within a larger sandbox. The film’s action gem is a frenzied, Mad Max style car chase with Sinclair ragging a Bentley around Scotland. It’s a sequence that doesn’t get enough praise. It’s not just a homage to Mad Max, but it captures some of the same chaotic energy that flows through that franchise. The film is also far more violent than one previously remembers, so much so that I was a little surprised at how bloodless mainstream filmmaking seems to be a decade on.
While Doomsday wasn’t the springboard to bigger Hollywood projects, it did more than enough to highlight the talent and ability of Neil Marshall as a genre filmmaker with a larger budget than he’s previously worked with. After this and Centurion, Marshall moved to TV and became one of the prominent directors of Game of Thrones, with his episode “The Watchers on the Wall” winning a primetime Emmy for outstanding directing for a drama series. One wonders if Marshall will make the move back into feature films. Doomsday isn’t the strongest work in the filmmaker’s oeuvre but is an interesting reminder of what he can do.