Fright Fest 2019: DOOM (2005)
Directed by: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Writers: Dave Callaham, Wesley Strick, et. al.
Starring: Karl Urban, Rosamund Pike, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, et al.
Released: October 2005
Review by: Jonny Numb (aka Jon Weidler)
“Didn’t you just greenlight another movie based on a VIDEOGAME?!” – Cecil B. Demented
The bane of PC/videogame adaptations – outside of the creative stigma that puts most critics on the offensive from the start – can be attributed to one simple fact: you’re taking an active medium and stripping away a level of engagement that adds to the visceral experience of playing. And when you think about it that way, it really makes the adaptation feel like an exercise in futility, no matter how high the budget or how skilled the crew. Why bother?
All that to say, I’ve come around to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series and Christophe Gans’ visually dynamic Silent Hill. I even have fond memories of seeing Mortal Kombat in the theater (I was fourteen, sue me). If these films aren’t completely successful, they still deliver on a certain B-movie fun factor (or, in the case of Hill, a truly idiosyncratic approach to world-building and creature design). Ironically, their general lack of pretension places them on a level of pure entertainment. It’s just a matter of embracing said purity.
But what of Doom, based on the 1993 id Software PC game that was something of a taboo Holy Grail during my teen years? Controversy swirled as politicians and PTA groups went after its then-edgy depiction of violence against space-pigs and cyberdemons. I didn’t get to play until the Super Nintendo version was released (in 1995), and by then, the hubbub had died down (with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) serving as an MPAA-styled compromise to put out-of-touch minds at ease). If anything, the martyrdom of Doom and Mortal Kombat opened the floodgates for stuff like Resident Evil (with even harder-edged fare to follow). So it goes.
A film version of Doom was teased and rumored for a long time, to the point where the ultimate irony was in how far-removed it was from the PC game’s initial release. The plot of this 2005 effort (and there is a plot) is established with great efficiency: some hellish whatsits have entered through some sort of portal, killing off some scientists at a top-secret research facility. A ragtag group of space marines with cool nicknames are called in to contain the threat. But things are not what they seem.
Driving the proceedings is Andrzej Bartkowiak, better known for his work as a cinematographer (Falling Down, Speed, and Species, among many others). He directed several films prior to Doom, and is quite adept at juggling action, exposition, and special effects. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “rich” in terms of characterization or theme, the cast is clearly invested in this space epic, and Bartkowiak, for his part, takes the proceedings seriously while maintaining a sense of fun.
Have we seen Doom before? Only in the sense that a majority of film plots, when stripped to their basics, are not new. It owes a great debt to Aliens and all the rip-offs that followed, but one element that sets it apart is the fact that a major studio – Universal – supplied the funds. It would be impossible to justify an adaptation of a high-concept game – with a wide array of elaborately-designed monsters – on anything less than the highest budget possible (though according to the IMDb, the film was shot for a relatively conservative $60 million). That said, the mind boggles at what a Roger Corman production of this would’ve looked like, circa the early 1980s (stuff like Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World – with their damned, deep-space explorers – laid the groundwork for it, after all).
Much of the game is about feelings of dread – the anticipation of some awful thing hiding in the corner of an otherwise deserted room. Screenwriters David Callaham (The Expendables) and Wesley Strick (the Cape Fear remake) make this notion organic to the overall structure of the story, while using it to seamlessly incorporate elements from the game. Characters use keycards, inspect inventory, pick up weapons, and increasingly run afoul of horrific, half-human creatures. The first act is essentially character introductions, plot setup (some technobabble spouted by a very funny Dexter Fletcher), and getting a feel for the facility. This leads into the start of the body count, and culminates in a “things-gone-to-hell” third act.
As by-the-numbers efforts go, Doom works extremely well. It also succeeds because, like the 2-hour Silent Hill, its world feels fully realized.
Bartkowiak favors a metallic, blue-gray color palette, to the point where the film feels monochromatic in its less-brightly-lit moments. This lends a moodiness to the proceedings, and ensures that the monsters, when they appear, don’t become a CG eyesore. We see just enough – until the rambunctious “first-person” segment near the end – to get a tease of the creatures. I also like how the screenplay takes a page from Jaws and doesn’t give a clear glimpse at a monster until the 43-minute mark.
It’s also fitting that the character names are whittled down to a single distinguishing trait: Sarge (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the obvious team leader; Goat (Ben Daniels) is the god-fearing guy; Destroyer (Deobia Operai) has the heavy artillery rig; and The Kid (Al Weaver) is the nervous rookie with an itchy trigger finger. I enjoyed Richard Brake’s performance as Portman, the oily sleaze of the group (a character he’s reprised – to various levels of homicidal delirium – in 31 and 3 from Hell).
The film is peppered with odd yet amusing references. The character who instigates the chaos is named Dr. Carmack (after id Software co-founder John Carmack). One of the early victims is named after stuntwoman Patricia Tallman (most clearly seen in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead). And a creature autopsy is pulled right out of John Carpenter’s The Thing (so to speak). The film would also make for a fine double feature with Carpenter’s underrated sci-fi space western, Ghosts of Mars. And I liked how, in the end, Karl Urban was cast for his resemblance to the square, symmetrical head of the game avatar.
Given its big-studio backing, Doom could’ve easily devolved into a brainless shoot-em-up filled with lousy CGI (imagine if Michael Bay had signed on to direct). Instead, Bartkowiak, Callaham, and Strick respect the source while not taking it too seriously. The moments of humor work because the characters have such a lived-in feel, and there is even a bit of dramatic impact when they start to get picked off, one by one. The fact that we’re never truly ahead of the team ensures that we dread what’s around any given corner, or behind any locked door, just as much as they do. Like its PC namesake, Doom has enough awareness of action, sci-fi, and horror to deliver a compelling ride. It has no delusions of “high art,” and that’s precisely what makes it so enjoyable.
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a part-time assassin for Videodrome, and a full-time drone for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He co-hosts The Last Knock horror podcast with Billy Crash (aka William Prystauk), and his online opinions can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.