The Doom franchise holds a special place in video game history, as its first entry was one of the earliest games to popularize the First Person Shooter style of gameplay. Contributing to the game’s popularity is the sheer joy of the uncomplicated plot: scientists on Mars have been running experiments on teleportation using big gates to moons Phobos and Deimos; naturally, the experiment goes awry, and demons begin pouring into our dimension, straight from Hell. The unnamed protagonist, colloquially referred to as “Doom guy”, must fight his way through hordes of demons in order to survive.
It makes sense that the things that made the games memorable – the first person perspective, the demons’ design, the comedic excess of the gore – would be expected to make it into any film adaptation. “Doom 3”, which was released the year before the Doom film came out, adds extra wrinkles which gave the film more options to work with in terms of an adaptation: zombies, more monsters, and an atmosphere more aligned with horror than pure shoot-‘em-up violence.
The Illustrious Production History of Doom
Doom was released in theaters October 21st of 2005, and according to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura,1 id software had been trying to get a film adaptation off the ground for quite some time. It was reported2 that Warner Brothers initially had the rights to make a Doom film, but id wasn’t satisfied with WB’s direction for the movie, which according to writer Dave Callaham was “more of an emphasis on a family movie line-up.”3 (Considering the source material, one wonders what a family-friendly Doom movie might have looked like. Imagine demons with Disney eyes.) Ultimately, Universal acquired the rights in 2004, and Andrzej Bartkowiak was attached to direct following the departure of Enda McCallion (who left for reasons unrelated to the film). Producer di Bonaventura further stated “Because of their frustration id put a timeline on how long you could go before you had a script, etc. Actually they made some monetary sacrifices. They said ‘look, we’re not going to ask to be paid as much as we think would be fair, but we’re going to tell you guys to live by this timetable’, and that forced the process for a narrower tunnel.”1
Putting Together The Script
The writers brought in to meet this restrictive deadline were the aforementioned Dave Callaham, and Wesley Strick. Callaham, a fan of the original Doom, wrote the story and the initial drafts of the script. In an interview with the now defunct HomeLAN, Callaham stated “in terms of character development it is non-existent (in the games) and the id guys are the first to admit that,” and it was important to him to have distinct developed characters in the military squad, taking inspiration from Aliens and Predator. Callaham added that the id Software folks were open to changing aspects of the Doom mythos to accommodate character development. “They were not clinging to anything. They were really quite generous in changing the Doom mythology a bit.”3
Callaham’s work evidently made a strong impression on Wesley Strick, who described it as “…the most wild, inventive out-there script that I have ever seen, I just freaked out when I saw it.”1 Strick was then tasked with deepening the central relationships, most notably between principal character John Grimm and his sister Samantha, as well as John and his CO Sarge. Several drafts emerged throughout the writing process, with varying details finding their way into the press. Reportedly, there was a point at which it was announced that the film would not take place on Mars, did not include Hell, and the demons were genetically engineered, leading fans to ask: “what does this have to do with Doom?”4
Fan Concerns Apply Pressure to Doom’s Production
An article from GameSpy5 expands on this, examining the set of the film and identifying the apparent influences from Doom 3. Encouraging was the comparison of the Pinky demon in the film to its in-game inspiration, and the fact that the incredibly breakneck trailer6 did indicate that the movie would take place on Mars after all. Karl Urban, playing John Grimm (the film’s iteration of Doom guy) was quoted as saying that, as a fan of the game, he didn’t want to be in an adaptation unless he felt it was going to do the game justice; he was encouraged by the character development evident in the script.5
Karl Urban’s involvement turned out to be a definite boon; having finally achieved some Hollywood notoriety in the form of Lord of the Rings (as Eomer) and The Bourne Supremacy (as Kirill, an assassin Bourne must defeat) he was only just coming up as a bigger name in the industry at the time. Doom was actually Urban’s first leading Hollywood role, and Urban imbues Grimm with both subtle humor and emotional gravity.
By the same token, the casting of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson lent the film some of his much-needed elan, both on the set of the film and in its promotion. Johnson was apparently charged with addressing the concerns of fans, judging by his promotional appearances. Whether it was by saying “We stayed loyal to the video game, what made it pioneering: unapologetic violence and then some,” while showing off the BFG on The Daily Show,7 or his opinion that Hell was referenced enough to make it an important thematic point of the film on Attack of the Show!8, Johnson was repeatedly asked to address early criticisms of the film.
This fan concern also resulted in Callaham writing an open letter9 to Doom fans prior to the film’s release, stating that his “unapologetic and hyper-violent script would have been a Doom fan’s movie dream come true. However, since my involvement, the film has steadily moved away from the realm of fandom and more toward the realm of traditional Hollywood interests.” Clearly, in Callaham’s estimation, somewhere between the initial screenplay and the silver screen, something went very wrong. The writer certainly didn’t pull any punches on that count, as he added “I don’t enjoy watching a bunch of strangers bastardize my baby any more than you do.”
Equally important as this distancing, however, is Callaham’s insistence in the letter that “it was never the goal of anyone involved in this film… to make a direct film adaptation of the game(s). The thought process has always been to create an extension of the Doom universe that will give fans an interesting new take on the themes that they’ve come to enjoy in the game.” His closing line is this not-altogether-reassuring statement: “We all have high expectations, and a lot of them won’t be met, but the bottom line is the movie is going to be pretty cool.”
Pretty cool, indeed.
And desperately trying to prove to the fans that it would, in fact, be pretty cool, the promotion for this film spent quite a bit of time hyping the First Person Shooter sequence,10 which sticks out tremendously in the film itself despite lasting maybe five minutes total. The special features in the DVD release include a short making-of section,11 of such interest was this segment. Visual Effects Supervisor Jon Farhat was the director for this sequence, and the crew for this sequence was its own, special unit, devoted to making the First Person Shooter sequence work. Three months of planning went into 14 days of filming for this five minute set piece, with incredible attention to detail. While the rest of the film opted to rely largely on practical effects (CGI in 2005 was not exactly stunning much of the time), the First Person Shooter sequence went all out combining practical and CGI special effects, making this set piece stick out in a major way from the rest of the film.
Video game movies had already acquired a stigma by 2005; the people associated with Doom were well aware of this and were keen to make this the first video game movie that, to borrow from GameSpy, did not suck.
Doom: The Movie
Which brings us to how Doom turned out. The plot: some forty-odd years in the future, some corporate scientists on Mars are getting extremely eaten by some ugly, mysterious monsters. A group of marines dubbed the Rapid Response Tactical Squad (RRTS) led by Sarge (Dwayne Johnson), unaware of what might have happened beyond “something bad”, are sent in to recover any still-living scientists, clear out this mysterious threat, and recover Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) property. Second-in-command is John Grimm, aka “Reaper” (Karl Urban), who has some history with the Olduvai complex on Mars. When they arrive on the Red Planet the RRTS is greeted by UAC scientist Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pike), John’s estranged twin sister. Samantha has followed in their scientist parents’ footsteps, but John, still traumatized by the death of their parents, joined the military instead.
The movie is nearly twelve years old at this point, but here’s your spoiler warning if you wanted one!
The Movie Is Different From the Source Material. Why is that?
As Callaham warned in his open letter, there are some pretty substantial changes to the plot of the games, the most obvious of which being that the demons are not apparently from Hell. It’s not as though Christian iconography fails to make an appearance; references to Hell and the cross are made several times, including one marine making the sign of the cross before dramatically killing himself to prevent his complete transformation into a demon. The thematic thread of demons and Hell is obvious in the dialogue and design throughout the film, demon origin notwithstanding. In Doom, the origin of demons as being directly from Hell is replaced by C24, a synthetic chromosome that, based on one’s genetic code, can either make a person superhuman, or turn them into a psychotic demon with a detachable prehensile tongue.
Many complaints about Doom rest on this changed demon origin, and include that the idea of good or evil genetics is “silly.” One such critic on Giant Bomb12 asks “…the end results are just as ridiculous either way, so it’s like, why did you go through all this trouble to change the source material when you would still have crazy monsters running around Mars, and you could’ve just said ‘uh, we opened a portal to hell, oops’?” As a rejoinder to this, I’d counter that the point of changing that plot device from Hell monster to the good or evil within was not done to counter silliness (goodness knows action and sci fi movies have had plenty of that in the past). Rather, since we know from the production history that character development was a priority for the filmmakers, perhaps this change was intended to provide an opportunity for character arc completion that doesn’t bog down the film.
Character Arcs, Huh?
If this film was presented without the Doom title, this plot device would not be seen as a reaction to the demons’ origin in the source material, rather just an iteration of one of the oldest devices in storytelling: a simple test of character. In this instance, the test of character is a transformative one (literally)! You’ve seen this in Hollywood movies dozens of times: there’s an artifact, or a process, that can confer great power onto a person… unless they happen to be immoral, in which case, it condemns them instead. There’s an entire essay to be written on the idea of genetic determinism, that your genetic “soul” as the movie proposes, decides whether you are inherently worthy of salvation or condemnation; it’s a heavy topic still examined in scholarly and philosophical circles. Setting aside this Christian philosophical subtext, it’s as fine a reason as any to explain why there would be weird demon monsters crawling all over a research facility, and it gives us a straightforward way, part and parcel of the main plot, to see that John Grimm, though jaded, is in fact pure of heart.
This neatly coincides with the culmination of John and Samantha ending their estrangement and solidifying their bond as siblings: John doesn’t want to take the C24, believing that he’ll become a monster, but Samantha has faith that he is good. When he becomes the superhuman Doom guy capable of defeating a demonic Dwayne Johnson, she is proved right, and in turn she empowers John to save them both.
Okay, But is The Movie Good? Fun, Maybe?
Who cares about all that thematic depth stuff? This is Doom! How about the gore, the demons, the violence?
This movie is so saturated in thick red paint and over-the-top gore that it sometimes looks like a fun B movie, occasionally even taking on shades of Evil Dead in its practical effects. The zombified staff range from frightening to disgusting, and the practical effects of the twitching demons (particularly the former Dr. Carmack, stuck in the “nano wall”) oscillate between disturbing and comical. CGI is used relatively lightly in most sequences, but to good effect in order to keep the film feeling gritty (and messy, and chunky, and…) For those of us who take a base pleasure in watching fleshy gooey bits splatter the screen, Doom delivers happily and leans into its R rating.
The quality of the first half of the movie tends to fluctuate, alternating between the aforementioned gore and the not-always-effective attempts to build tension with horror elements. Accordingly, the early half of the film tends to feel a bit mediocre, even in its violence. The second half of the movie, on the other hand, improves dramatically as all of the setups in the first half begin paying off in rapid succession. Some tropes are subverted, characters show their true colors, and the film embraces in full the virtues of schlocky violence. The climax delivers a ridiculous and absurdly fun fight that pays off with Chekhov’s Space Grenade, and in so doing, absolves the first half of its overall mediocrity. The final product is by no means perfect, but it’s not without its charm if you’re content to let the movie take you where it’s going.
Sounds Pretty Good. How Did That First Person Shooter Sequence Turn Out, Though?
As mentioned, the First Person Shooter sequence of the film was heavily promoted during the film’s marketing and commented on by the actors in interviews.13 Dropped in as a surprise, the unsuspecting audience would have taken it for what it was, an impressive nod to the source material. For fans of the franchise, however, who had been following the movie’s development and seen the hype for this sequence, its brevity was likely a disappointment, regardless of the production value. The sequence is genuinely great, however; both as a means of bringing the gameplay to the silver screen and, as producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura indicates,11 serving the cinematic purpose of conveying the heightened reality now experienced by the C24-enhanced John Grimm. It seems unlikely that they could have done it better. Cuts are more or less disguised, giving this set piece the sense of being one long continuous take of First Person Shooter-style demon murder and mayhem.
So Was This Movie A Success?
That depends on your metric. As an adaptation of the source material, not so much, as Doom fans are typically happy to inform you. Doom was made on a budget of $60 million14 (for comparison, Batman Begins and Constantine, released the same year, had budgets of $150 million and $100 million respectively). Doom bombed domestically, making about $28 million, with that number only climbing up to almost $56 million worldwide. Financially, this flick didn’t even make back its budget.
The thing about Doom is that it’s a perfectly good (maybe even great!) homage to the Doom games. It’s a competent and straightforward film, one that doesn’t overextend its subplots (too much) and stays true to the spirit (if not the letter) of its source material. The problem is, there’s virtually no audience for that: folks who are not familiar with the Doom games might enjoy the sloppy gore, but the ubiquitous references to the games (organic, but clearly still references) won’t hit for them at all. Folks who are fans of the Doom games are going to wonder why this movie isn’t more Doom-y; after all, where’s the Cyberdemon, the mayhem of chainsaw fights, and Hell itself?
It’s worth noting that Callaham said he “wanted to write first a great movie, then a great science fiction movie and then a video game movie.”3 As a fun sci fi action movie, making nods to its source material while prioritizing the integrity of its character arcs, it does just fine. It’s even fun! But by straddling the line between the demands of Doom fans and appeal to a general audience, this movie had no built-in base. Adaptations should be able to stand on their own, independent of their source material. Doom does that, but coming into a world where video game movies already had a reputation for sucking, “fun, but neither Doom nor original” unfortunately wasn’t enough.
Citations/Sources For Further Information
- Doom Interviews – John Wells, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura And Wesley Strick
An interview on City Praise Centre (a website for a church in England???) with two producers and writer Wesley Strick from Doom, apparently to promote it for the DVD release.
- Studio loses Doom movie
News updates re: Doom’s development from GameSpot in September 2004, over a year before the film’s release.
- Doom Cinema: A Chat With Scriptwriter Dave Callaham
By way of the Wayback Machine, an interview with screenwriter Dave Callaham hosted on the now defunct gaming community website HomeLAN. A good read if this article piqued your interest!
- Penny Arcade – As It Happens, With Randy Pinkwood
A prime example of the fan response to reports of what Doom would and would not include, Jerry Holkins’ post on Penny Arcade includes this delicate observation: “Doom movie indeed, sir. I’m not expecting Gone With the fucking Wind, but there’s only two things you need to do in order to make something Doom or not and they couldn’t handle it. It’s just not that Goddamn hard.”
(Linked through the Wayback Machine to keep that sweet 2005 Web 2.0 flavor.)
- GameSpy: On Location With: DOOM: The Movie
GameSpy writer Sal ‘Sluggo’ Accardo visits the set of Doom in Prague and reports back. Published on September 19, 2005, about a month before the film’s theatrical release.
- Doom (2005) Official Trailer – Dwayne Johnson, Rosamund Pike Movie HD
From the YouTube channel Movieclips Trailer Vault, the theatrical trailer for Doom.
- Doom Rock About BFG
From the YouTube channel MAZterXP, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s appearance on The Daily Show, talking about DOOM and the *ahem* “Bio Force Gun.”
- Attack of the Show: The Rock Interview
From the YouTube channel CoolTrailers, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s appearance on Attack of the Show!, back when that was still a thing.
- A Open [sic] Letter To Doom Fans From Dave Callaham
Accessed by way of the Wayback Machine and also originally hosted on HomeLAN, Dave Callaham’s open letter to Doom fans, addressing both their concerns and some media coverage he took exception to. The comments underneath are telling as to the reception this open letter (and ultimately the film itself) received from dedicated Doom fans.
- Karl Urban Doom Inside interview
From the YouTube channel Karlurbaninternat, a short TV spot serving here as an example of the attention marketing and promotion gave to the First Person Shooter Sequence in Doom.
- Doom (2005) First Person Shooter Sequence
Jon Farhat talks about the filming of the First Person Shooter Sequence on the Special Features of the Doom home video release, uploaded to tomatopot’s channel on YouTube. This is a great six minute feature; Farhat talks about the difficulties of filming, the challenges presented by the aspect ratio, and how they did the cuts to make the shot look continuous.
- This Ain’t No Game: Doom – Giant Bomb
A video review on Giant Bomb discussing Doom. I recommend this review, even though I disagree with it in this article, as Ryan Davis makes a few points I neglected here.
- Karl Urban Interview – Doom
From the YouTube channel ShowbizJunkies, an interview with Karl Urban about Doom from July 2005 at San Diego Comic Con.
- Doom (2005) – Box Office Mojo
Box Office Mojo is a handy website for looking at the box office performances of just about any movie you can think of. This link is the entry for Doom, of course.