Saturday, October 15, 2011

Priest review

I just saw Priest. Let me start by mentioning the setting: a vampire infested post-apocalyptic world with a strong gothic theme. As a fan of gothic sci-fi I appreciated this, and thought it was a combination rarely seen in movies. And while the action was not ground-breaking, it was more entertaining than what I see in most movies. The plot itself was serviceable; or at least it could have been if a little more intelligence had gone into it. And that's pretty much the problem with the whole movie.

The character design was stylish and appealed to me, but the characters themselves never caught my interest. Priest has probably the worst dialogue I've ever heard in a movie; there wasn't the slightest hint of subtlety or, for that matter, intelligence. In every scene the characters say the most the basic and obvious thing possible. Take for example the oft-repeated church motto: "To go against the church is to go against God". OK, we get it, The Church Is Bad, you can stop hitting me on the head that a hammer now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the protagonist, "Priest". He's a "troubled hero" with a "troubling past", so obviously he spends the entire movie looking constipated and says as little as possible. Except when he breaks his silence to deliver truly terrible tough-guy dialogue and one-liners, like "There are always two points, A and B. Know them both, and you'll kill a vampire". Um, what? No, really, what the hell was that? The worst part is that I actually like Paul Bettany, I consider him to be a good actor and I have seen him play both dramatic and comedic roles very effectively. But here, trying to deliver macho dialogue in an American accent, he just seems to be the wrong man for the role.

It doesn't help that his "American" just fails sometimes. Although in all fairness, he's not given an intelligent line of dialogue in the whole movie. Having said that, I was surprised by how well he handled the action scenes and even some of the "tough-guy" moments when he wasn't hamstrung by the scriptwriter. By the way, Maggie Q was good in both action an character scenes, while no-one else really managed a performance worth mentioning.

It feels as if we are watching the first efforts of an amateur script-writer trying to piece together a script, and the dialogue was tacked on later. So we need the the vampire hunter to pick up his weapons again and go searching the post-apocalyptic wasteland (which is actually referred to repeatedly in the movie as "the wasteland") for vampires? How about if the took something important to him, like a family member? Great! Now it's all personal too! But now we need to raise the stakes (haha) near the end? OK, they actually have a master plan to take over the world, and only our hero can stop them! Want to show how tough the villain is? Have a good guy put on a (completely out of place) show of martial prowess, only for the bad guy to kill him easily with a single blow.

If this sounds no more cliched than every other movie out there to you, then it's because I'm not doing a good job of conveying just how simple and by-the-numbers everything is. Take for example the vampire's master plan to wipe out humanity: attack them. No devious trick, no acquisition of some new weapon or technology to tip the balance of power, they just hopped on a train and started attacking villages. It seems they've been spending the last few years reproducing, building up an army so they can attack us. Isn't that, you know, kinda natural behavior for every single creature on earth anyway? Reproducing? How come, after literally hundreds and hundreds of years fighting vampires before Humanity got the upper hand, no-one considered the fact that if you don't keep an eye on them, they might repopulate? Never mind how the hell they managed it when they live in a wasteland with no food other than possibly humans, and we normally notice when people start disappearing en-mass (I'm not even going to ask what humans eat when there's cities so full of us that the smoke permanently blocks off the sun for miles around, but not a single plant seen in the whole movie).

The vampires themselves are, well, not really very vampiric. They are completely inhuman, there's no real suggestion that they drink blood rather than just devouring the whole body, and infecting humans just... makes them kind of weird, rather than turning them into actual vampires. Priest uses shiny chrome weapons that might be silver, Priest carves small crosses into the heads of Hicks' bullets, and we do catch a glimpse of a weapon that looks like it fires silver stakes, but overall the traditional tools and aesthetic of the vampire hunter are somewhat missing from this movie - surprising when you consider that the world is ruled by the church and the protagonist has a cross tattooed across his face. Not that I'm saying the film should style itself after any traditional notion of vampires and vampire hunters, only that in a setting that seems to have such a strong gothic base, there's so little of the expected gothic stylings and imagery. Or maybe that's just what I personally would have liked to see.

Perhaps the most surprising example of the lack of depth is the priests themselves. First we are told that vampires are faster and stronger than humans, then that the church "found" the ultimate weapon: Priests, warriors with extraordinary powers. And that's all. What these powers are or where they come from is never really discussed, and although it's mentioned that they manifest and there's a suggestion that they are inherited, it's basically just swept under the rug. And when the wars are over? This world-dominating Church, which refusese to tolerate any dissent from it's people, takes these devastatingly powerful, highly disciplined Priests and... tells them to bugger off? Really? Not one of these guys considers using the Priests to continue to enforce the Church's will (we know they have enforcers, we've seen them - big guys with heavy armor and shotguns)? Or worries what will happen when these unstopable murder machines find themselves with no guidance, direction or purpose in a world they don't know how to live in?

To be fair, the film has it's moments. If anything, there's enough that I liked about the movie that I wanted it to be better. It felt as if all the elements were in place for a decent action movie - interesting settings and stylish character designs, good actors, good action and visual effects, - but someone just didn't know how to use them. Probably the script-writer, if the mindless dialogue and A-to-B plot (see what I did there?) are any indication.

Overall I give it a 6 out of 10 because I liked the unusual setting, and because it can be entertaining despite it's flaws.

If you're interested in the style of this movie there's a few things you could check out. Trinity Blood is an anime in which vampires have taken over half the world and the church rules the other half, it has a much more 'period' look though there's some pretty advanced tech running around. A personal favorite of mine is Darkwatch, an old videogame where you play a vampire-cowboy in an undead-infested Old West. This game had brilliant designs that were truly a fusion of western and gothic themes.

As a side note, I have to ask: why does the church have to be portrayed as being bad? I'm not even Christian, but I don't understand why absolutely no-one is willing to show any religious organisation as being anything better than a corrupt hierarchy of mindless devotion to rote learning at best, and an evil power-hungry juggernaut at worst. In Priest, humanity has been fighting vampires for ever, and the Church is what has kept humanity alive and finally found a way to defeat them, and there's a suggestion that the character's faith is a good thing (certainly it's never shown as a bad thing). Yet the church is still portrayed poorly, not even as something evil, just as an organisation that's so stupid it's behaviour practically guarantees it's own extinction.

I mean, here's one of their best Priests asking for permission to investigate a possible vampire attack, but they completely refuse to even investigate the possibility that bestial man-eating creatures that have been eating humans for all of recorded history might be eating people. And they would rather imprison or kill him than allow him to wander out into the desert and have a look for himself.

I'm not blaming Priest for the modern portrayal of religion. Priest is so mindlessly written that it's just following the pack, and doing a poor job of it at that; the Church's actions aren't so much sinister or corrupt as just plain stupid and nonsensical here. But I thought it worth special mention since it's actually called Priest and the hero has a crucifix tattooed across his face.

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