Video game movies are never a safe bet. There have been moderate successes, but nothing on the level of, say, movies made from amusement park rides (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN). They do, at least, fare better than board game movies (BATTLESHIP, OUIJA, SCRABBLE). The biggest reason why they rarely live up to expectations is that games and movies are totally different mediums that don’t lend themselves to each other. Games tend to be 15% story and 85% doing shit. Even for the high budget titles featuring tons of cinematic cutscenes, most of the game is spent running around in real time dealing with repeating challenges. This method doesn’t fit well with movies. The only video game movie I can think of that was successful with this method is HARDCORE HENRY, and it isn’t actually based on a game. Most video game movies do the inverse. They expand out the story, rearranging or inventing key elements, and reduce the game play aspects to nods and references. This approach rarely leaves anyone happy, but it is exactly what they did with the 2005 first person shooter inspired DOOM. The good news is that there is still fun to be had, as long as you set your expectations low enough. I suggest subterranean.
It’s 2046 and bad shit is going down on a Mars research base. Scientists have unleashed a destructive force that endangers the compound’s entire population. If it breaches the teleporter, Earth itself may be at risk. A marine unit led by Sarge (The Rock, pre Dwayne Johnson, or even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is sent in for rescue/containment. As their numbers drop, they realize that all their firepower might not be enough to stop the unnatural menace lurking in the dark corridors. They will also need bombs and punching.
There’s no getting around it, this is a dumb movie. It hangs together fairly well on the surface, but if you start to really think about almost any aspect of the story, nothing makes sense. Say, for instance, you discovered that the ancient Martians were monkeying around with genetic engineering just before they wiped their entire species out. Should replicating those experiments – on death row inmates, for god’s sake – be your next logical step? It’s the kind of dumb that I find endearing, though. Like when a couple of marines are tensely searching the dead silent med lab and all the caged animals suddenly start making noise at once, as if they were waiting to yell “surprise” at a party. Or the fact that the small Martian compound has an elaborate, city sized sewer system. Also, instead of sneaking in the names of horror directors, the hunted scientists from the beginning have the names of the game designers.
The US Marine Corps must have really lowered their standards by the year 2046. The motley collection of grunts is clearly modeled after the Colonial Marines from ALIENS, but way more ridiculous. First of all, everyone goes by a nickname, even when they are talking to civilians. Is anyone going to take this guy seriously when he introduces himself simply as “Sarge”? Yes, because he is played by The Rock. You always take the Rock seriously, unless he’s playing a tooth fairy.
Fittingly, the team is introduced by their talking guns. Goat is an uptight religious weirdo who carves a cross into his forearm every time he blasphemes. I guess a cuss jar is too awkward to carry on a mission. Duke is the smooth talking lady’s man. Destroyer is the silent type carrying the big gun. Mac is the guy too insignificant to have a cool nickname. Portman is the white trash pervert who is a really big fan of Natalie Portman, I guess. They even have a nervous young rookie named The Kid, because why wouldn’t they?
Rounding out the team is Karl Urban’s Reaper, who is the only person to have a real name (it’s John Grimm, get it?). This is Urban’s dry run for playing Judge Dredd seven years later in DREDD. Reaper is a dour soldier haunted by a Childhood Trauma, which, of course, happened on Mars. He doesn’t have Dredd’s supreme confidence and resolution. Reaper is more quietly introspective and full of doubt, especially when dealing with his estranged sister, Samantha, who, coincidentally, works at the Mars base. Urban does a good job of portraying a man trying to keep both his pain and his potential locked down, but not always succeeding. His performance is more effective than his hokey, generic family tragedy backstory deserves.
Rosamund Pike (the GONE GIRL herself) does a nice job as Sam, being appropriately annoyed and concerned about him. She needles him about giving up on science for a career of shooting things. I believed them as siblings, though not necessarily as twins (one marine asks if they are identical, not sure if he was being ironic). She is the smartest person in the movie (not a huge feat) and is brave without needing a gun. Her American accent wanders a bit (Mid-West? Southern?), but otherwise, she’s a solid character. Aside from Sarge, Reaper, and Sam, everyone else is pretty disposable. It’s appropriate, since that’s what happens to them.
Several of the game’s iconic monsters are well represented by Stan Winston Studios (though not Stan Winston himself). When people are infected, they change from zombies into Imps (Alien/Pumpkinhead type things with detachable worm tongues) into Hell Knights (big ass Imps). The zombies are fairly standard, but the later stage monsters are all imposing and visceral. Professional freaky monster actor Doug Jones (HELLBOY, PAN’S LABRINTH) plays various different beasties, infusing them with his decidedly unhuman physicality and grace. There’s a cool scene where one of the imps gets stuck halfway through a futuristic door when it rematerializes, and he keeps twitching in the background. There are only a few monsters at first, but the floodgates open up near the end. One guy, a bureaucrat who lost his lower half in a teleporter accident, turns into a pink, eyeless demon bulldog dragging a Segway-like trolley behind it. That was a nice touch.
The most innovative – and goofiest – part of the movie is the first person shooter sequence. It was the gimmick the entire movie was built upon. Near the end, Reaper has to fight his way through the compound against a hoard of monsters. He picks up his gun and we go to his (sort of) uninterrupted POV through the whole segment. I remember being fairly amused the first time I saw it, but that was before HARDCORE HENRY. That movie managed to use a single person’s POV to tell a (ludicrous) story, include bits of character development, and maintain a frantic pace through the entire film. The DOOM FPS sequence does not hold up well by comparison. It actually seems like one of those mid-range amusement park simulator rides. Everything goes super slowly and precisely. It’s more like Reaper is having a casual stroll rather than a race against the clock. I guess the filmmakers figured that if it went by too quickly, as in regular speed, the audience wouldn’t be able to make out what was going on. Or they would get motion sickness. It is the complete opposite of immersion. It practically screams “Now let’s watch our video game sequence!” There are some things going for it, though. Like HENRY, it is punched up with comically over the top gore, at least in the unrated version. It also leads to some hilariously stupid gags, like when Reaper blows up a monster with a mine while standing three feet away. The explosion liquefies the beastie, but doesn’t even nudge Reaper. That wouldn’t have even happened in the video game.
Probably the best thing about the movie, though, is The Rock. At first, it seems like his no-nonsense, badass jarhead will be the lead. But interestingly, and rather suddenly, [SPOILER coming], he becomes the main bad guy. The genetic C24 “infection” (the science is iffy here) seeks out and mutates people with psychotic tendencies, but Sarge has a serious mental break well before the monsters ever tag him. Near the end, he goes into full containment mode, determined to kill everyone who was evacuated from the compound to avoid an outbreak, regardless of if they are infected or not. Any of his troops who object is shot for insubordination. At first I thought this change came out of nowhere, but on rewatching, I saw the signs earlier on. Right in the beginning, as he is listening to his mission orders through the radio, he robotically repeats things like “search and destroy” and “with extreme prejudice” and other phrases which sound like either action movie titles or Trump presidential campaign slogans. I got the impression that he was so indoctrinated to the corps that he would follow any order blindly. Sarge was just a well-disciplined psycho waiting for the opportunity to cut loose.
Being The Rock, his showdown with Reaper is impressive. Reaper himself is juiced up with the experimental C24, which gives nice people like him super healing instead of turning them into monsters. It makes things a bit fairer. Urban is a big guy, but he’s no The Rock. The action is shot wide enough to tell what is happening and the editing is clean. There’s a bit too much reliance on wire work for my taste, otherwise, it’s a solid knock down drag out fight. They start with the corny tough guy tradition of laying down their guns and putting up their fists. That always makes me smile.
It’s not all dumb fun. There’s some painful dumbness. It has a terrible score, generic synth and guitar bullshit. There is a nice Nine Inch Nails song for the credits, otherwise it’s a total loss. They make a huge deal of the BFG, or Big Fucking Gun, that Sarge carries around, but for all the fetishistic attention, he only shoots it twice and misses both times. It was a bit of a let down. Some of the dialogue is creaky, and not always matching the situation. Someone says “we need to destroy these discs,” while holding up some props that are in no way disc shaped. On a side note, one of the marines knocks around a Hell Knight by swinging a 2046 era CRT monitor. We have teleporters and nano doors in this future, but flat screens are out of our technological league.
This movie can be an amusing distraction, as long as you don’t raise the bar higher than ankle level. The main actors do a decent job with what they’ve been given, and there are enough weird touches to make it interesting, when you’re not rolling your eyes. I picked up the DVD for $3.99, and I can confidently say it’s worth every penny. Before tax.