Escape From New York reinvented the B-movie action epic, Mad Max and The Road Warrior reinvented the post-apocalyptic movie, and 28 Days Later reinvented the zombie flick. Rather than reinvent any of these films or genres, Doomsday settles for merely repurposing chunks of all of them, along with maybe a dozen others. The filmmakers being imitated may feel flattered, but the viewer is more likely to feel simply taken.
28 Days Later meets I Am Legend for early scenes wherein a killer virus ravages Scotland. The British government walls off its northern border a la Hadrian, leaving whoever’s left behind to die. Decades later, the virus pops up again in London, inspiring the shaky prime minister (Alexander Siddig) and his sinister aide (David O’Hara) to send a lethal female operative with a tragic past (Angelina J... I mean, Rhona Mitra) on a desperate mission back over the wall to find a cure. There she gets to reenact entire scenes from Escape From New York and Aliens, stumbles right into Bartertown from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and gets chased all the way home by the Scottish sons and daughters of Lord Humungus’ motorized brigands from The Road Warrior with none other than the Gimp from Pulp Fiction in tow.
Derivative sci-fi/action flicks are the rule rather than the exception, but Doomsday promised more. Writer/director Neil Marshall made a minor splash among horror fanboys with his clever 2002 werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, and in 2005’s The Descent he combined claustrophobia, female psychodrama, and some gnarly cave creatures for a genuine sleeper hit. Doomsday cost more than three times as much to make as The Descent, yet it’s far less inspired, or even thoughtful. And everything feels borrowed—the expendable support team, the tag-along scientists, the twists and turns, the main character’s backstory—and not in a particularly adroit or interesting way. The only halfway fresh-feeling thing in the movie is a female warrior with facial tattoos, a coupla swords, and a heap of ’tude played by a stuntwoman named Lee-Anne Liebenberg. It wouldn’t do to say what happens, but she no more saves Doomsday than Darth Maul saved The Phantom Menace. (And now that you mention it....)
Of course, it’s difficult to be original onscreen these days, and nowhere is that more evident than in the documentary genre. As interest in docs has grown over the past 15 years and the expense of making them has dropped thanks to digital video, it sometimes seems that everyone and everything will, at some future point, be the subject of a documentary film. And if the current crop is any indication, the doc will closely resemble most other docs, no matter how outlandish the subject. Take the new-to-DVD Surfwise.
Director Doug Pray, best known for the music documentaries Hype! and Scratch, takes up the story of the irascible Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a Stanford-educated physician who shrugged off growing affluence and power to hit the road, surf, and live hand-to-mouth with his wife and their growing family—nine children, eventually—in a 24-foot camper. Doc and his wife had sex within earshot of the kids every night, he kept everyone on a strict healthy-crunchy diet, and while nobody ever went to school, everybody surfed whenever there were waves. In interviews, the now-grown Paskowitz children seem torn between valuing the unusual closeness and resourcefulness their upbringing inspired and resenting their utter lack of preparedness for normal adult life and the man behind it.
The Paskowitzes welcome Pray’s cameras into their homes and lives and family gatherings (second-eldest brother Jonathan Paskowitz is one of the film’s producers) and supply plenty of old photos and home-movie footage. And Pray certainly catches a number of the kind of moments that make the best of the contemporary doc movement so compelling, from octogenarian Doc exercising naked on his high-rise apartment balcony to oldest son David suddenly turning to the camera and singing along to playback of a sub-Nine Inch Nails tune he wrote and recorded excoriating his father. The family’s story is a fascinating one, and unusual to say the least, but watching it unfold through the same-old, same-old default mix of old photos, home movies, talking heads, montages, and scenes that feel somewhat set up (a family Thanksgiving that reunites feuding factions) makes Surfwise feel less original than its subject matter. Maybe there are only so many ways to wrest a narrative out of family drama, but that seems wrong.