Nearly 30 years after an infectious plague ravaged Scotland and forced the closing of the nation’s borders the plague recurs in London--prompting the government to send a crack team of commandos into Scotland to locate and retrieve the cure if indeed there is one. Of course it’s not as simple as all that. The hordes of crazed and in some cases cannibalistic survivors of the plague are more than willing to give a (very) warm welcome to these interlopers led by the foxy and fierce Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra). Meanwhile back in Merrye Olde England the virus is continuing to spread but some of the powers-that-be don’t seem altogether concerned about that being more preoccupied with protecting their image sullied as it already is. In short it’s every man and woman for himself and herself--survival of the fittest 21st-century style. It’s also derivative and not necessarily in a negative way of such sci-fi classics as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy--replete with appropriate nods and in-jokes from Marshall who clearly has a great respect and affection for those who came before. Sigourney Weaver may not lose any sleep but Milla Jovovich might. As the one-eyed two-fisted ferociously fit action heroine Eden Sinclair Mitra stakes her claim to become the next cult heroine and there’s plenty of room left here to accommodate Eden’s potential future adventures. It’s always nice having Bob Hoskins around even if only for an extended cameo appearance as Eden’s down-to-earth boss Bill Nelson. Hoskins has played some heavies in his time but here he’s one of the good guys. Alexander Siddig no stranger to science-fiction given his Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stint plays the (rightly) worried Prime Minister and the ever-scowling David O'Hara plays his ruthless aide-de-camp amusingly and ironically named Canaris (World War II buffs will get the reference) who really is the power behind the throne. Adrian Lester Nora-Jane Noone Darren Morfitt and reliable Sean Pertwee play members of Eden’s assault team--shades of James Cameron’s Aliens--although few of them are in one piece by the end credits. Such are the perils of being an actor in this sort of film. Another “old-school” favorite Malcolm McDowell provides expository narration (a lot of it) and his own brand of tasty British ham (sliced just right) to his role of the scientist Kane who has forsaken science--and society--for a more medieval motif in a world gone wild. Like Hoskins McDowell hasn’t much time onscreen but there’s something pleasing about having him here. This is a film that favors style over substance but there are opportunities for the actors to strut their stuff in spirited fashion. As bruised bloodied or beheaded as the actors get they all seem to be having fun.
Without question Neil Marshall is one of the fast-rising talents in the fantasy genre--a genre he has clearly studied well. He brings a keen insight and manages to “borrow” elements and inspiration from other films in a way that doesn’t insult those films doesn’t diminish his own work and--more importantly--doesn’t insult the audience some of whom will surely recognize those inspirations and nods (Doomsday is filled with them). This is however one of the more cold-blooded efforts of Marshall’s young career. It’s about an inhumane future and the film is suffused with that emotional resonance--or lack thereof. The humor such as it is is blunt and bloody and the irony no less smoothly rendered. Nevertheless this promises slam-bang action and it certainly delivers. In an era where so many horror and science-fiction films are cut to achieve a PG-13 rating often to the detriment of the end result Doomsday is bloody proud to go for that R rating!
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.