Features, Film

15 years on, what went wrong with Doom?

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Put The Rock in any movie these days and it’s guaranteed to be a hundred million dollar hit. That wasn’t always the case.

15 years ago, the man christened as Dwayne Johnson was still making the leap from wrestler to movie star, appearing in paint-by-number action flicks like Welcome to the Jungle and Walking Tall. This was all set to change when The Rock signed on for the long awaited adaptation of hit video game Doom. This live-action blockbuster was hyped as an action packed sci-fi-meets-horror tale concerning a rag tag crew of space marines, led by The Rock, who are sent to Mars to investigate a research facility that’s been attacked by mysterious monsters. Promising non-stop action and subtle nods to the game, Doom was expected to be a smash hit, proving that Hollywood video games could successfully transfer to the big screen. Instead, Doom opened to shocking reviews, almost derailed The Rock’s career and cost Universal Pictures millions. Regularly listed as one of the worst video game to film adaptations of all time, we look back at Doom on its 15th anniversary and ask what went wrong.

Development hell

A live-action version of Doom first gained momentum in the mid-90s after the success of Doom II, but would languish in development hell for a decade before production finally went ahead. As the rights to the property changed hands multiple times over the journey, driven by a lack of budget and poor scripts, churn between owners became the biggest hurdle in getting the film made. Arnold Schwarzenegger almost signed on until the Columbine High School massacre put an end to things, with that version of the script deemed too violent. Producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and John Wells managed to obtain the rights and developed an idea for the film based on a presentation they had seen for the forthcoming Doom 3. In a surprise move, the duo hired first time screenwriter David Callaham to pen the script. This was the first sign of trouble, with Callaham’s original draft undergoing multiple rewrites. Although he would go on to prove the doubters wrong by penning Ant-Man and Godzilla, Callaham’s original work was found to be lacking. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg were sought out to polish Callaham’s draft, but even they knew to stay well clear, with old hand Wesley Strick (Arachnophobia, The Saint) giving the script a final rewrite. Things took another unexpected turn when original director Enda McCallion dropped out suddenly, forcing producers to quickly find a replacement, with Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave) hired due to his action pedigree. All that was left was a big name star to take the lead.

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?

Arnold Schwarzenegger was once again touted to take on the heroic role of John “Reaper” Grimm, but the former bodybuilder was then the Governor of California when cameras were ready to roll. Vin Diesel was also reportedly offered the gig but turned it down, with producers finally turning to The Great One, Dwayne Johnson. The eyebrow raising wrestler was offered the role of Grimm but declined, saying he would only sign on if he could play the villainous Sarge. Speaking at San Diego Comic-Con 2005, Rocky explained, “When I first read the script, and read it for [the part of] John, after I read it I thought wow John is a great character and, of course, the hero of the movie. But for some reason I was drawn more to Sarge, I thought Sarge was, to me, more interesting and had a darker side.”

Having come this far and not wanting to lose the film’s biggest star, Johnson got his wish to play Sarge, with Kiwi Karl Urban, fresh from his breakout role in Lord Of The Rings, tasked with carrying the film as the hero Grimm. This casting misstep proved to be the film’s second failure after Callaham’s continuously reworked script, with Urban struggling to make an impact as the lead when opposite Johnson. While Urban has gone on to have considerable success (Judge Dread, The Boys), he doesn’t exude the movie star charisma of Rock, who steals every scene he’s in as the take no shit Sarge. Even screenwriter Callaham agreed the two swapping roles “would work better” in a long ranging chat with Den Of Geek.

A disruptive production

It wasn’t just a bad script and miscasting that hampered production. Both original writer Callaham and script doctor Strick found themselves embroiled in controversy. Strick was forced to rewrite the film for a $70 million budget, meaning his changes included cutting a number of monsters seen in the game, including the Cacodemon and Arch-Vile, from the final script. Once this leaked to the internet, fan boys went wild and  took out their frustration on poor old Callaham, who by then was no longer involved with the film. It got so bad Callaham wrote an open letter to fans about his love for the project and how Hollywood executives had muted his ultra violent story. Meanwhile, Strick was at odds with studio executive Greg Silverman, with the two reportedly clashing numerous times over the depiction of the action scenes and amount of cuts made to the script.

B-grade Aliens rip-off

It’s clear to see these problems affected the finished product. The film itself was a mess of genre clichés, terrible dialogue and dodgy CGI special effects. The Rock and his colourful team of mercs (including Yao Chin, Ben Daniels and Richard Brake) are sent to secure a research centre where all hell breaks loose, literally. A B-grade Aliens rip-off, it’s easy to see this was Bartkowiak’s first directing gig. The editing has too many quick cuts and the film is generally shot in quite a dark light, which is surprising considering that Bartkowiak was an experienced cinematographer. It’s not all bad though, with Clint Mansell’s heavy metal influenced score helping match the atmosphere of the game and Stan Winston Studios’ special effects decent enough for the time period, although quite dated when viewing today.

If you can manage to sit through the majority of the film’s 105 minute run time without drifting off, you’ll be rewarded with a five minute first-person action scene that’s as close to representing Doom as the film gets. While it pales in comparison to modern day first person scenes (Hardcore Henry nailed it), at the time of its release, this scene was like nothing seen before. It actually felt like you were part of the action as Urban takes on a variety of demons using everything from a pulse rifle to a chainsaw. It’s just a shame you have to wait until the final minutes of the film to get to this point.

Box office bomb

Critics had a field day with Doom. Failing to recoup its $70 million budget, the knives were out as the film was universally panned. The film currently holds a rating of 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Sydney Morning Herald critic Richard Jinman stating: “I kept expecting the ‘Game Over’ message to flash up, but it never did.” Fans agreed with the negative reviews, citing the film’s failure to capture the essence of playing the game as their main gripe, with the solo first-person action scene the film’s only shining light. Even The Rock knew things could have been better. At the 2008 WWE Hall Of Fame, where he inducted his father and grandfather, he joked, “By the way I made Doom. Did you ever see Doom? Well, you probably didn’t and that’s okay because nobody else did either.”

Looking back at Doom, it’s easy to see mistakes were made. The Rock playing the bad guy might work now, but a decade ago he was still on the rise and playing the hero would have changed the entire feel of the film. The plot and poor character development (Rosamund Pike’s talent is criminally wasted) also contributed to the film’s failure, with the continuous script changes having a negative effect on the way that Doom ultimately played out.

If Doom wasn’t an adaptation of a hugely successful video game, it may not have been as reviled as it was. As we’ve seen over the years, converting a video game into a film that appeals to both fans of the game and general movie lovers is an almost impossible feat. Doom is far from a perfect movie, but compared to live-action adaptations like Hitman, Street Fighter or any of Uwe Boll’s adaptations, it’s a work of art. If you’re after a watchable action flick in the mold of Aliens with a commanding performance from The Rock before he became the biggest action man on the planet, Doom is worth another viewing.

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