Posted on Monday, September 24th, 2012 by Russ Fischer
It’s the rare genre anthology film that satisfies entirely; at best, we can usually hope for a couple great stories amid the near-misses in any given collection of short stories. Many, however, don’t even achieve that, and the South Korean effort Doomsday Book falls in with that large crowd of mostly unsatisfying story collections. Directed by Yim Pil-sung (Hansel & Gretel) and Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad, the Weird), with the former tackling two tales and the latter one, Doomsday Book presents three visions of humanity’s future, and ways that it might end, or at least change.
Fitfully entertaining, with occasional flashes of black humor and philosophical insight, this is a tome that isn’t even valuable as the sum of its parts — which isn’t much of a surprise, given the low individual value of each chapter.
Yim assembles the bookending stories. The first, Brave New World, is a violent but comic illustration of the spread of a pathogen that causes zombie-like behavior, and the end of civilization that ensues. The beginning of the end is a piece of trashed fruit ground into cattle feed. Once the infection hits humans, it doesn’t take long for everything to break down. The implication that our food practices could kill us is a good starting point, but from there the tale has little we haven’t seen before in the long history of zombie movies. Flashes of comedy from news reports and the family of the lead character are welcome, but the story wears that welcome thin before it ends.
Yim’s other chapter, Happy Birthday, relies far more on kooky comedy, as it follows a young girl who loses her billiards-obsessed father’s beloved 8-ball. Unbeknownst to her, the ball rolled down the street and into a small wormhole; somehow, when she places an online order for a replacement, she ends up ordering a moon-sized version, which, years later, comes hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth.
When Doomsday Book originally started to come together years ago, this slot was reserved for a retelling of O Henry’s well-known Christmas story about a couple who each sacrifices their most prized possession to buy an expensive gift for the other. That was never shot, and the late-in-the-game replacement is Happy Birthday. Despite being the most flashy chapter in terms of effects, it also feels like a total afterthought. Some good comedy is delivered, again, by television commentators dealing with the impending destruction of human society at the hands of the giant 8-ball, but the real effect of the story is to end the film on a fully frivolous, even goofy note.
The middle tale, Heavenly Creature, is Kim’s, and it’s the closest to a great entry. It takes place primarily in a Buddhist monastery where a robot built as a worker has evolved consciousness. Thanks to its inherent lack of human flaws, the ‘bot has essentially achieved enlightenment and become Buddha, leading to no small consternation. The manufacturer of the robot dispatches a technician to look into the “malfunction,” and corporate bigwigs soon become involved as a debate rages over whether or not the machine should be allowed to “live.”
While the concept is great, the execution plays like a courtroom drama — excessively talky and dynamically flat. The short running time is a severe constraint; stretched to feature length Heavenly Creature might turn into a provocative, effective film. But the story feels both too full, as the dialogue debates the philosophy of the robot’s evolution, and too sparse as flashes of plot take place outside the monastery with little effect. Kim’s camera and the understated robot effects are the conjoined stars of the segment, but this is a story that needs more room to breathe, and as eloquent as the camera and effects are, they lose the fight with the over-reaching script.
/Film score: 5.5 out of 10