If there is such a thing as hell on earth, that's it." Detective Eddie Valiant
For a few minutes, at the beginning of this film, I wondered if I was watching the next great science fiction masterpiece. The references to Mad Max, 28 Weeks Later and Blade Runner had won me over; this was no genre hack, but a filmmaker well-educated in precedent, who interwove shots of the military beating back poor schlubs infected with the reaper virus with visions of our heroine, Eden Sinclair, popping out her synthetic eyeball so that she could hold it around a corner to see what naughty shenanigans the bad guys were getting up to.
However, I soon realized that the film doesn’t live up to its homages. It’s a weird, fun film, a Frankenstein’s monster of moments from almost every horror, science fiction, or action flick you can think of, but it’s also deeply flawed.
OK: plot. It’s 2035, and England has partially recovered from the Reaper virus, a contagion so vile and deadly that the powers-that-be saw fit to wall off all of Scotland in a desperate attempt to contain it.
Scotland has been isolated for twenty-five years, and everyone there has been assumed dead, but virus reappears, and there are new signs of life from the world north of the wall, both of which raise some questions. Perhaps the survivors north the wall found a cure? The government sends Eden Sinclair and her team to find out.
I don’t think I’ll be giving much away to say that they meet some people up there, and those people are almost all insane, though their types of nuttiness vary. There’s a pack of cyberpunk cannibals, who allow for some nice Mad Max and Blade Runner references, and then a pack of SCA throwbacks, who allow for Braveheart and Beastmaster homages.
The references in this film are almost overwhelming: Indiana Jones rubs noses with Gladiator, which then has its hand firmly on Danny Boyle’s firm buttocks. Pulp Fiction, James Bond, and I Am Legend play Parcheesi in the corner.
For fans of genre films, like me, it’s a fun exercise picking out the myriad references—not just in the plot and visuals, but also in the music of the scenes, which makes it extra double fun.
However, when a film is this deeply intertextual, it has to go in one of two directions in order to succeed. Either the film must live up to those references (take them, and surpass them); use the best parts of all those films in order to create something new, vital, and fresh; or it must sacrifice any pretense of seriousness and revel in its repetitiveness, self-consciously winking at the audience at every turn. Perhaps even it could do both at the same time.
This film, ultimately, accomplishes neither; its plot is fairly derivative and unsurprising and it largely seems to take itself too seriously.
It has weird, annoying holes and plot devices [SPOILERS].
Why does this post-apocalyptic Glasgow already conveniently have all the cars moved off the roads so that Sinclair’s tanks can get through? The conflict between the two groups of survivors is so oversimplified as to seem ridiculous: it’s punk soccer hooligans verses Celtic twilight SCA hippies, with all the attendant stereotypes. One side wears leather and spikes, one side wears hemp and practices archery.
The lines that they put in Malcolm McDowell’s mouth about natural selection and the survival of the fittest are so overused in postapocalyptic dystopias that I found myself groaning aloud. The startling reason that people remain alive above the wall turns out not to be startling at all, but the film acts as if we’re supposed to be surprised by this "revelation."
Then there’re some coincidences that just beg belief, which don’t need discussion here.
All this is to say that the film is, overall, a disappointment. Through all these references, it encourages viewers to see it as part of a pantheon of classic genre films but it can’t quite limbo under that bar. It’s too graceless.
I found the film entertaining, however. Marshall, who you may know from Dog Soldiers and The Descent, has a creative touch with gore. The film is steeped in blood, body parts, cannibalism, decapitation, and all good things for horror fans. Especially zombie flick aficionados, who have a special place in our hearts for dismemberment and cannibalism.
This film should please gorehounds of all stripes, despite the fact that it’s not actually about zombies. At least three decapitated heads are featured in the film, and one of them flies from some distance to, lo and behold!, smack the camera with a bloody thud.
The film is creative and excessive in its attention to the dismembered and otherwise violated human body. Good times!
The film also has something to offer a connoisseur of a fine female form. Rhona Mitra, who has previously starred in films like Spartacus and The Number 23, does a superlative job as Eden Sinclair, who combines a bad ass attitude with skintight outfits as well as any previous female action star ever has.
She’s not only gorgeous, but believable; the muscles on her thin frame stand out, rather like Linda Hamilton’s in Terminator. She’s buff, she’s dangerous, and she’s up for some decapitation.
I have a fondness for the director, Neil Marshall. The Descent is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. He is capable of great characterization, surprising gore effects, and compelling plots. And this film, though it fails to accomplish its goals, attempts great things, and provides some solid entertainment along the way. I’ll be happy to go see his next film, but I hope that he learns from his mistakes.
Pulp Fiction and The Beastmaster don’t mix. Or, at least, when they do, it tastes like a quesadilla stuffed with manicotti.