DOOMing the Big Screen

All of the hallmarks that make a videogame distinct as a creative medium can be encapsulated in one game; Doom. The gory, visceral action packed game of shooting demons in the face with shotguns. A game that spawned a new, immersive genre, a game with moment to moment fast action pace that makes the player strategize each firefight, as every enemy fights differently and changes the battlefield depending on which enemies are present. As well as mixing level exploration that hides all the secret crevices full of ammo, health and more demons. The game eschews any to all story in order to allow total focus on empowering the player by allowing such freedom of player expression.

Even though Doom and its levels can be replayed endlessly and don’t change per play-through (unless you play on harder difficulties), even if millions of people will play out the exact same scenario perhaps even in unison, across the planet, the player has authorial control over how the game will play out, every time. That is what videogames are all about, in the moment gameplay where we have control over how we construct our narrative in the game, no matter if someone else is doing the same, it doesn’t matter, it always feels unique to us, in the here and now.

Now why on earth is some guy on the Internet babbling on about videogames for the mag’s film section? Well I recently fell in love with the latest Doom released a few months ago, a game that revitalized these types of fast, strategic first person shooters. A game that adheres closely to the original games design goals, while in other cases fundamentally updating and enhancing the game’s core values. With a slew of videogame film adaptations that have released this year alone, including the dreadful looking Warcraft movie, I wondered what a Doom movie would look like and how you would construct a narrative for a source material that didn’t really have a story. Yes I know there was the 2005 Doom movie with Karl Urban and Dwayne Johnson, that is not a Doom movie and I’ll get to that soon.

Doom (1993)

Let’s have a look at what it is that makes Doom. I talked about what makes the game so enjoyable as an interactive experience, but I didn’t mention the hook that pulled players into the game, which is the scenario. The level and enemy design is what challenges the player on their way to the end of the game, but it’s the horror ambience of an overrun base on the Mars satellite Phobos and the fun, B-grade movie tone of the demon enemies that draws the player back for more. You cannot have Doom without these things: Demons from hell, Mars setting, UAC corporate/military backdrop, portal to hell, and lots of fast-paced bloody firepower, BFG (not Roald Dahl). Since we’re adapting Doom onto the big screen the unfortunate reality is that the qualities that make Doom a brilliant videogame cannot be translated, since the viewer for a film is an observer and not a participant.

Indeed there is a case to make that a Doom movie shouldn’t ever happen again for the very reason that a movie cannot replicate the agency a player has over how the game plays out. Honestly I wouldn’t mind if they never made another Doom movie, however the unfortunate reality is that big-budget film studios are desperate to make box-office and aren’t taking the risk an original script would have, so another crack at a Doom movie is inevitable. Doom is a game with a huge following, so because of that film execs will say Doom has “brand recognition”, which translated from robot business-talk means that a Doom movie will already have an audience to market to, as well as the wider audience they want to appeal to. While I say that a Doom movie is inevitable, current owner of the Doom property Bethesda have consistently rejected offers to have their games adapted, afraid they would lose creative control and the movies turning out crap.

Which is an admirable feat considering how many other companies couldn’t care less how a film adaptation turns out, so long as it makes profit. Not to mention that there already was a Doom movie and it was pants, Bethesda don’t want to be put in the position of releasing a rubbish adaptation of a beloved videogame series. Why was the 2005 Doom movie pants? After all it was set in an industrial-military base on Mars, it was a decent action film and they even had a BFG, pun and all. I would argue that a Doom movie has to fill the demons from hell quota, and somehow this movie fumbled it. A setup that ditches demons from hell invade Mars, for mutated science experiments break out, the basis for their mutation founded on some old Mars civilization that holds a gene which can detect the evil in people’s souls – not kidding, this is an explicit detail of the plot, a plot device so stupid it just opens up tons of plot holes, like the implication that all the scientists who get murdered and then mutated into zombies were evil, whereas Karl Urban playing a U.S. marine apparently had a better conscience so gets enhanced physical prowess instead becoming zombified. I mean think about it, more effort was put into thinking up an alternative setup as opposed to working with the one sitting right on their laps.

Doom (2005)

For goodness sake, how and why was this setup green-lit! Possibly because it’s hell and this is the U.S. and god forbid you depict anything satanic or anything approximating religion in a gory action film with sweary guns. I doubt that would stop anyone nowadays when trying to adapt a Doom movie, but you know what they would include, named actors that must insist on showing their wonderful mug on screen and having fifty pages of dialogue just for them.

Since we know that at some point they will attempt to make another Doom movie, I want to take a crack at listing some things that I would want in a Doom movie and take a guess at what a big studio would do instead. By big studios I’m referring to film executives working at massive corporations like Disney, Warner Bros. and such. These are the sort of people that use research and buzz words to indicate a film’s direction, because film execs think they’re filmmakers that know what direction a film needs to take without ever needing to step on a film set. While not every film director working in big budget films has their directorial control taken away, it is obvious studio execs make a concerted effort to take control away whenever certain directorial decisions contradict the things that they want in a movie. Instead of letting the filmmakers such as the director make the film they want to make, executives will threaten to take funding away.

Let’s say the director for a new Doom movie shot a lot of scenes with explicit gore, this might make the big boys upset because even though they were committed to making the Doom movie as faithful to the games as possible, they also wanted to release the film for a younger age classification, so they want cuts made to the final cut to reduce the explicitness of the gore, thereby watering down the action scenes. But the director has final say over what gets put into the final cut of the film not the producers. Except that not all contracts for a directing a film are made equal, there might be implicit details that indicate that actually the studio gets final say over everything.

What else would a director want to do with a Doom movie? In staying faithful to the games they would want their protagonist to be the Doom Marine – or Doom Slayer as he’s referred to in the new game amongst other monikers. Which at first is fine with the studio, until the producers get wind that the Doom Slayer character won’t speak a single word just like in the games, and so his character is reinforced by the actions he takes to defeat the demon horde. An example of a big budget movie doing a similar thing would be Mad Max: Fury Road where the protagonist Max has very little to say for the majority of the film, letting his actions dictate what his character is all about, both a brave and wonderful step in a brilliant film. Along with being mute, the Doom Slayer will wear a helmet throughout the entire film, never taking it off just like Karl Urban did in the movie Dredd.

Doom in Hell

These decisions could rub executives up the wrong way, and they will demand that the Doom Slayer have his helmet removed and give him as much dialogue for the A-list cast they’ve arranged for the movie. So the studio will further tarnish the values of the Doom games by transferring an ostensibly action focused game into a dramatic piece where we need to spend ages establishing a bunch of characters that don’t need to be there. Not only that but we’ll give them at least seventy pages of dialogue for the characters to tell you, the audience, why things are happening and why we need to care about them. Going back to Mad Max as an example, in Fury Road we didn’t need to pause the story in order for characters to go into extensive detail about every single plot point to help us sympathize with them or understand the situation. The plot moves forward as the trucks and cars do battle along the long stretches of desert, and they need to do the same with the marine fighting demons as he finds a way to shut down the hell portal.

These sort of things aren’t always confirmed but when you watch a film that seems like it was obviously cut down from a 15-18 age certificate rated cut to a 12a cut, you can tell the film was editing in an unintended way, unintended by the director at least. As I’ve said before demons, firepower and gore are core tenets that a Doom movie must have, these elements cannot be compromised. But if a studio wants to change the direction of the film, while not acknowledging the detrimental cost to the film in some vain hope of appealing to as wide an audience as possible, the result is a film lacking in personality and focus. The film would become homogenized, typical, unsurprising, and mediocre.

This is the unfortunate reality of making big-budget films, the qualities that can make a movie stand out and feel personalized and individual will be removed if it suits the delusions of film executives. There’s no way Doom would be made by an independent film studio on a smaller budget because Doom is a big deal and Bethesda would likely utilize the huge resources a big studio will give. Even if they employed a film director known for smaller, independent films the execs would just pressure the director to fall in line with their thinking.

Doom 2016 Alternate Cover

The last thing that I feel wouldn’t go unnoticed is the irreverent tongue-in-cheek tone of the original games. The filmmakers will want that humor but they’ll misinterpret tongue-in-cheek tones for witty banter to fill the script. Executive’s think comedy in action movies means writing Joss Whedon-esque flippant wit that you find in all the contemporary superhero films, even those Whedon has no association with. So along with over-exposition, possibly over-plotting and over-characterization, the writers will go overboard with snarky humor mixed in with the action movies and with tons of references to those popular things you know.

Doom by no means needs to be a straight horror film, that’s why Doom 3 was fairly maligned after its release. But it does need that Evil Dead 2 style Sam Raimi is so fond of that goes for light-hearted, splatter horror. Doom as a movie needs to balance lots of shifting tones and unfortunately a lot of directors aren’t skillful enough to juggle multiple tones, but no matter what direction it goes, the studio suits would hamper the production by saying things like, “hire Chris Pratt, this graph says he’s popular and amusing to a variety of demographic populations”.

That’s the problem with the thought of a Doom movie, the odds of it being good seem so low when big budget movies get green lit by preposterously rich people who believe that filmmaking is just a formula you replicate again and again until it stops working for a certain “brand”. “Get the big names! Emulate what’s hot right now! People like CGI, include it in every shot no matter how appropriate! Write up multiple film contracts, including those for the standalone Cacodemon movie!” They believe all this crap when they could just let the filmmakers get on with making the film they want. It might never happen, whichever way it turns out I want to see another Doom movie because hopefully by some slim chance it will be a splendid watch, both because of how well executed the film is and how wrong I was.