It was bound to happen: after coming out of nowhere with two of the best horror films of the decade, British filmmaker Neil Marshall has stumbled with his latest. I'd not quite call it a near miss, let us say instead that it is nearly a miss. The only thing that keeps Doomsday from total irrelevance is the director's obvious enthusiasm for the material, most of which he has forthrightly stolen from an endless parade of other sources.

That's not necessarily the sin here. Marshall has always been a synthetic director, taking visual cues, plot elements, character archetypes et cetera and recombining them in ways that make some very musty old concepts seem fresh and interesting. It's an approach that worked very well when he was making horror films, where the goal is just to scare the bejesus out of the audience. It's a bit of a wash in this, his first post-apocalyptic action film, where the point...honestly, I've never quite been able to put my finger on what the point of the post-apocalyptic genre is supposed to be, although I tend to enjoy them very much.

Remixing elements of every "trapped in a house in the woods" movie you could name was enough to make Dog Soldiers the best werewolf movie in almost twenty years, at least; I don't know that I could pick out every obvious source for The Descent, but it was enough to make it the scariest English language film of the 2000s. Doomsday, though, Doomsday takes a giant handful of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and its innumerable rip-offs for the mise en scène, a giant handful of 28 Weeks Later for the plot, the style of 28 Days Later for the action scenes, and plenty of stone-faced '80s sci-fi action flicks for its tongue-in-cheek humor. And when all these elements are added together, the result isn't nearly so revelatory as in the director's previous work; mostly, you just get the sense that Marshall really liked Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and 28 Days Later.

It doesn't help that the script, more episodic than act-driven, calls maximum attention to each of the separate phases of the film, and the attendant source material (unlike in his last two films, Marshall doesn't blend influences so much as he sets them next to each other). To begin with, we watch as Scotland falls (in the first two weeks of April, 2008!) to the deadly Reaper virus and is walled off as a hot zone; the Grim Britain or "Danny Boyle" sequence. When the virus reappears after 27 years, the mirthless London cop/peacekeeper Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is sent into the hot zone to seek for a cure among the survivors, stopping first in Glasgow where the local citizenry has evolved into a band of bondage fetishist cannibalistic punks, or the "Mad Max" sequence. Escaping the punks, Sinclair and her much-reduced team travel to the ancient castle where the biologist Kane (Malcolm McDowell) may have a cure hidden in his medieval dictatorship of maces and bows and armor, or the "sword and sorcery" sequence. Finally, Sinclair finds a car and tears ass through the Scottish highlands in the "other Mad Max sequence."

There are certainly delights to be squirreled out of that schematic: in particular, the idea that in a post-holocaust Scotland, the young people would turn to punk while the older generation would hide itself in decaying castles, is a fairly keen observation. But for the most part, nothing about Marshall's grab bag has much to do with anything else, and instead of a new thing unto itself forged out of all those influences, it's just an incoherent patchwork. Nothing about this film indicates that it was directed by the same man who made The Descent - the script is choppy, the compositions are poor, the gore is excessive without being resonant.

For all that, Doomsday isn't a washout, or even a bad movie: it may be aimless and arbitrary, but at least it's mostly fun. Thin, shallow fun, but fun nevertheless. Marshall is clearly delighted by his own movie, and so there's an energy that pays no heed to how bland the film should be and gives it a certain kind of propulsion that makes the movie easy to watch even when you're not sure why or what the hell is happening. There are little things that are just there to play with us, like a pack of Collapsed Lung cigarettes, or the sign leading to the gift shop in Kane's sanctum. There are also bigger things, moments when the director is just playing around with the tropes of his genre that possess enough manic energy that they take on the appearance of fun, and thus are transmuted: the stage show that the punk leader Sol (Craig Conway) gives to rile up his troops prior to cooking and eating one of Sinclair's crew is easily the best example of this phenomenon. As he prances around in his gaudy makeup to techno-pop, the moment slides out of the movie a little bit; by the time he's joined by men dancing the can-can in kilts, it's too goofy to do anything but give in to Marshall's childlike glee at pulling stuff out of his ass.

More than anything, Doomsday works because of Rhona Mitra. Badass women being badass are thick on the ground in sci-fi action hybrids, beyond a doubt. Sometimes, however, there is an exemplar of the form that reminds you why the cliché was born in the first place. Mitra is the real deal: sexy when she needs to be, capable of delivering shopworn dialogue with an unwinking flinty tone that still makes it clear the actress is being ironic, and she handles weaponry with marvelous flair. The last actress who played this one note so well was Milla Jovovich, who has long since given up pretending that she cares about good scripts. I say this, and then observe that Mitra is set to replace Kate Beckinsale in the third Underworld movie, and it makes me feel like my puppy just died.

Basically, Doomsday sucks, but in a fun way. I'm not sure that I have a weaker recommendation to give than that. It's a disappointment for all of us who were expecting great things from this Marshall fella, but it doesn't feel like a career-killer; maybe it would be good if it were, given how much better he was when he had a shoestring budget to work with. It doesn't look like the work of the director of The Descent, I said, and I take that as a comfort; it means that director might come back next time.

6/10