TCS Daily

Doom's Day

By James Pinkerton - October 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Few Americans over 30 are going to see the new movie "Doom," which opens today. So I will be happy to tell them some interesting things about the film. As for Americans under 30, many of whom grew up playing "Doom," they might enjoy learning a bit about the larger political context that surrounds the game-turned-movie in 2005.

I'll be honest: "Doom" is not "Citizen Kane". But neither is the film -- a story of Marines fighting monsters on Mars in 2026 -- a total piece of dreck, such as the future-schlocky "Ghosts of Mars". "Doom" is somewhere in between, a middling piece of work; call it an illustrative second-rate movie. And as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed, if one wishes to understand a culture, one must study its second-rate literature. First-rate stuff, he argued, is too good; it offers transcendent truths applicable to all times, to all places. That's why Shakespeare still holds up, centuries and oceans away from Olde England. By contrast, second-rate literature is rooted in the moment; it's a cultural snapshot. And so it is with "Doom," which tells us much about rapidly changing attitudes toward the US military and toward war, especially the Iraq war.

So while the movie pays homage to -- OK, if you prefer, rips off -- any number of zombie movies (including a previous video-game-turned-zombie-movie, "Resident Evil", as well as techno-horror films such as "Alien" and "Predator", "Doom" also contributes to the emergence of an anti- or post-Iraq-war pop-cultural Zeitgeist. More on that in a bit.

"Doom," of course, will likely always be best remembered as the videogame that transformed videogames. Debuting in 1993, it established "first person shooter" as the "killer app," literally, of gaming. And so "Doom" doomed earlier generations of games, such as Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog; it introduced, in vividly gory terms, the idea of just simply slaughtering everything one sees on the screen.

Indeed, it's fitting that the maker of the game called itself "id," a name that bespeaks the maker's success in boiling down gaming to the simplest fundaments of fight or flight, kill or be killed.

In fact, it's a safe bet that most of the young American males, fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew up around "Doom." These kids, now putting their twitch-reflex trigger-pulling skills to work over there, aren't just "Generation Kill," they are also Generation Doom.

In fact, so enormous was the influence of "Doom" and its successors that in 2003 writer-gamer David Kushner published a book about John Carmack and John Romero, entitled, aptly and accurately, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. Yes, games are escapist entertainment, and yes, they are protected free speech, but some disturbing evidence has emerged that "Doom" isn't just thrilling; it was also an inspiration for killing, as a post-Columbine lawsuit suggested. And it's that dark side of "Doom" that is explored in the new movie.

The film moves along, speeded by a combination of high-test testosterone and thrash-rock editing. And of course, there's the usual existential inside-joking dialogue; when The Rock orders his men into action, he says "Game time."

And "Doom" has been boosted by the headlines, too. Its plotline -- scientists fiddling with Mother Nature in ways that they shouldn't -- is a perennial of sci-fi, but today such scenarios are ripped from the headlines, not from paperback racks. It wasn't fictional mad scientists who had the bright idea of resuscitating the 1918 flu virus that killed 50 million; it was real scientists who assured us that they were doing this only to help us. In comparison to viruses running amok, the idea of zombies running amok seems almost pleasant; at least zombies are easy, and fun, to shoot!

Yet perhaps the most striking quality of "Doom" is its take on the US military -- which is evidence that an old cycle from the '60s and '70s is reasserting itself.

Right after 9-11, Hollywood jumped on board the no-question-asked patriotism train; a film such as "XXX", for example, portrayed the Pentagon, the CIA and its operatives as unambiguous in their ultimate moral clarity. And it was that way for a while during Vietnam, too, e.g. John Wayne's "The Green Berets," released in 1968.

But then the climate changed. And the movies changed, too -- in regard to Vietnam then, and to Iraq now. In "Doom," the US Marine played by the Rock starts out as an obvious hero, crisp and Clancy-esque, but then the situation changes. Without giving too much away, the story twists in a "Platoon"-like direction, as good and bad soldiers square off -- even as, at the same time, they fight the actual enemy.

Meanwhile, a My Lai-like subplot emerges. As The Rock says to a balky subordinate, "We're all killers -- that's what they hired you for." And by the end of the film, as everything is FUBAR-ed, one sees the shadows of grim Vietnam films such as "Full Metal Jacket" and "Casualties of War".

So once again, Hollywood is torn between its financial appetite and its ideological attitudes. The moguls like war movies, because they get butts into seats -- and if there's a built-in audience from a videogame, all the better, because game-makers have proven more effective at marketing than movie-makers -- but those moguls, mostly Democrats, dislike the Iraq war. So Hollywood's solution to this dilemma is to make a blood-and-guts war movie with a cynical, noir-ish, even nihilistic tone. Heroism and anti-heroism in the same 90 minutes.

Will audiences buy it? Hollywood might have changed its attitude toward the US military and the Iraq war, but are movie audiences on board for the Oliver Stone-ization of this war? That's a huge question: can the film industry have its "Doom" and eat it, too? The profits, that is. The bleak bile of the movie will be shared with all of us, as we all, whether we want to or not, find ourselves riding the downbound cultural train of an unpopular war.


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