Friday, May 13, 2011

Derivative Post-Vietnam Themed Work Insures A Slow Weekend At The Box Office: Priest

The Good: General story points, Actors do what they can with limited roles, General special effects.
The Bad: 3-D effects add little, Plot is derivative, No real character development, Pacing issues.
The Basics: When it is not incredibly boring, Priest is pretty typical post-apocalyptic vampire filmmaking.

One thing I love about Summer Blockbuster Season is that it certainly encourages me to go out to the theater! I've been a little lax in this regard of late, though I did get to Thor (reviewed here!) its opening weekend. I also managed to get into an early screening of Priest in 3-D and now I find myself wishing I had more to write about in regard to it. Priest is short, but is paced excruciatingly slowly, so it feels much longer than it actually is. It is more average than bad and it is clearly sanitized to get its PG-13 rating. Priest is the highlight of mediocrity and one suspects that it will not break Thor's hold on the top spot and will not likely beat Bridesmaids for the opening weekend, either.

It is worth mentioning that I went into Priest blind. I had seen a single preview several months ago and I'd not seen anything since. I have not read the graphic novel upon which the film is based, but one suspects that it followed the book fairly closely. I make this assumption because having read a number of graphic novels of late, I have become attuned to some of the conceits of the genre. I felt, watching Priest I could see the different chapters of the book (different issues of the initial comic book release), as the protagonist went from his city, encountered a Hive Guardian and ultimately faced off with the Big Bad. Priest follows a very predictable formula, but whether that is because of the source material or in spite of it, I am not an authority to write about.

From the dawn of time, there has been a war between the humans and the vampires. As the vampires looked like they might succeed in wiping mankind out, the Church developed the tools needed to thwart the vampires. There rose a class of warriors trained in the fighting style of the vampires and the priests turned the tide of the last great vampire war. At the end of that conflict, the humans took to fortress cities run by the Church which offer the appearance of absolute protection and the vampires were segregated to subterranean reservations where they were no longer a threat to men. And the priests became disenfranchised citizens looking for work in the cities, qualified only for the lowest, entry-level jobs.

But the peace between the vampires and the Church is broken when Lucy Pace is abducted by a particularly cunning vampire warrior. Lucy is the girlfriend of Hicks, a sheriff from the wastelands around Sector 10. Hicks journeys to Cathedral City to enlist the aid of Priest, who tries to get permission to leave Cathedral City to save his brother's family. The Church, in denial of the continuing vampire problem, refuses to grant him leave, so the Priest goes anyway. In defiance of the Church, on the outskirts of human civilization, Priest and Hicks search for Lucy while they are hunted by other priests sent to stop them. But their enemy, Black Hat, is more cunning and more powerful than any could have guessed and the bad situation grows worse in a hurry.

Priest reminded me most of the recent film Daybreakers and the work has a gloomy, oppressive feel to it that never lets up. When the vampires are not the immediate threat, humanity itself acts as an adversary, making one wonder what Priest is actually fighting for. Those who like nihilistic, post-apocalyptic scenarios will have something to cheer in Priest, but for those hoping for something deeper, this popcorn film is remarkably unsatisfying.

So, what actually works? First, there is a whole, powerful, analogy in Priest to veterans, with strong allusions to post-Vietnam handling of U.S. military personnel. The priests are disenfranchised in the same way as the soldiers who served their country and as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars come to a close, Priest illustrates some good, cautionary messages about how to treat those who have done so much for us. Unfortunately, while it raises the points, it offers no real solutions either for our society or our disenfranchised soldiers. Instead, Priest only paints a picture that the soldier's work is never done and that the war never ends. Not exactly stirring optimism.

Second, the acting is all right. I write "all right" because the principles are not given very much to work with. Paul Bettany and Karl Urban are great in the minimalist roles of Priest and Black Hat, respectively. Both roles are not exactly ripe with character growth, but for the most part, they make their characters viable in a way that reminds one of great Western actors, like Clint Eastwood or James Coburn. Urban, especially, deserves a lot of credit for his performance in that it wasn't until the final credits rolled that I had any idea who the actor was. Cam Gigadent, who plays Hicks is fine and Lily Collins makes for a decent damsel in distress as Lucy.

Finally, the effects are all right. The vampire design is pretty cool and it is explained in the film. But what doesn't work are the 3-D effects. Those hoping for a visual marvel like Tron: Legacy (reviewed here!) will be utterly disappointing. In some places, the 3-D effect is simply a digital setting model with ash falling in the foreground as the effect. At least, I assume it was supposed to be ash; the screen was very dark in many points, making the image utterly unclear.

Thematically, Priest is a jumble as well. If it is intended to be satirical, it flops as the characters clearly exist in a world of fate. Sure, the Church may be corrupt or blind, but the warriors are the pure of faith and they use instruments with such obvious Christian iconography as to feel like a science fiction-horror attempt from the Religious Right. Slogans like "To go against the Church is to go against God" are repeated frequently as an obvious means of controlling the city-based populations, but Priest is just balanced enough to illustrate that the Church cares about humanity's fate.

This makes Black Hat an entirely ridiculous villain in some ways. As the first of his kind, he could be an avatar of change, but he sinks to a pretty ridiculous archetype. Moreover, Priest sets up a sequel with so little going for it that one has to wonder why the writers and director Scott Stewart bothered. In the end, Priest is more boring than thrilling and more gross than either scary or gory. Sanitized to get its PG-13, most of the most horrific moments are merely implied and when the film fails to be ballsy - in addition to having monolithic characters - it flops.

For other films with vampires, please check out my reviews of:
Let The Right One In
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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