Friday, July 20, 2018

Movie Review: Priest (2011)

Back in 2011, a movie called Priest came out. It looked pretty cool--in a Judge Dredd looking future, humanity has defeated the vampire menace under the leadership of the Catholic Church, but it turns out the enemy isn't quite defeated--but I must've been very busy at the time or dissuaded by negative reviews, so I never saw it.

Well, I've recently suffered a back injury that's necessitated lot of rest to help it heal. I've filled in this free time by watching a lot of movies, and guess which one was one of the ones I decided to see if it was any good?

The Plot

Vampires are real, and over the long years humanity has waged war against them. Humans have technology, but the vampires are faster and stronger and slowly but surely, humans are losing. The survivors retreat into fortified cities ruled by the Catholic Church, which discovers how to create "priests"--superhuman warriors able to match the vampires' physical ability.

The vampires are ultimately defeated and the survivors herded into reservations where they're tended by disease-ridden vampire-worshiping "familiars." The warrior-priests have been discharged from service and seek to reintegrate into a society that fears and shuns them. Most people remain in the cities under the control of the totalitarian Church, but some have filtered back out into the wilderness beyond and established an Old West frontier lifestyle.

One such family is that of Owen Pace (Stephen Moyer), his wife Shannon (M├Ądchen Amick), and daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). One night they're attacked by vampires, who kill Shannon, abduct Lucy, and leave Owen wounded but able to summon his brother, the titular Priest (Paul Bettany) for help. Priest defies the leadership of the Church, which claims the vampire threat has been defeated and fears any attempt to undermine the social order. Priest sets off accompanied by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), the sheriff of the small town of Augustine his brother and family called home, to rescue Lucy, pursued by several other reactivated priests sent to arrest him.

Only it turns out it wasn't the dregs of the defeated vampires or common bandits pretending to be vampires that attacked the town, but a new and far more dangerous threat commanded by an all-too-familiar face.

The Good

*The world the filmmakers created is really quite fascinating. Vampires have coexisted with mankind since the beginning apparently, creating an entirely different history (although there're still recognizable medieval knights, the Catholic Church, WWI-style artillery, and nuclear weapons are implied). There's definitely room for lots of stories to be told in this world.

*The aesthetics are all really cool. We've got Blade Runner like urban hellscapes where most people live in the totalitarian safety provided by the Church, you've got the Old West type environments (complete with lowlifes peddling worthless patent medicines) where those who are willing to risk their safety for freedom try to rebuild the ruined world, you've got the in-between of the "overlap zones" like the bigger towns that apparently trade with the cities (they're connected by functioning rail lines), and the totally alien aesthetic of the vampire hives.

*The vampires' biology is really interesting. They're eyeless subterranean creatures resembling to some degree naked mole rats, which makes sense since naked mole rats are mammals who have evolved along a path more akin to that of insects. They're a completely different life-form rather than mutated humans (The Strain) or supernaturally-affected individuals (most other vampire lore) and its clear the film's creators put a lot of thought into it.

*Although I'm usually kind of anal about faithfulness to the source material, I looked into the Korean graphic novel the film is based on and the movie is a lot more interesting. It reflects well on the filmmakers that they included the comic-book creator in the film production, consulting him on the visuals and the like, but the only thing the film and the comic seem to have in common is the name and some of the aesthetics. The movie to me is a heck of a lot more interesting.

*It's made explicit that the Priest and his allies' rejection of the authority of the Church leadership does not mean they're rejecting Christianity, belief in God, or even specifically Catholicism. Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, etc. did not immediately decide that since the Church was wrong on some things that it must be wrong on everything and the Christian God doesn't exist.

*Karl Urban plays the villain, who is never named but often referred to as "Black Hat." I'm not going to go into a lot about him for reasons of spoilers, but the character is quite interesting and Urban does a good job playing him. Not only is he clearly physically powerful and strategically clever, but he's very good with people and uses that to his advantage.

*There's an obvious Sequel Hook, although given how the movie didn't make a profit (at least in theaters), it doesn't seem like there'll be one. A pity--this is an incredibly cool world with characters that had a lot of potential (more on that later) and I'd have loved to see the story continue.

The Bad

*Most of the performances are mediocre except for that of Karl Urban. I've never heard of Paul Bettany and (others) to be particularly bad actors, so I imagine it's probably the director's fault. A pity, as there's so much potential in the characters. The Priest and Priestess are veterans who don't fit back into society, the Church leadership is self-serving and corrupt (but could made grayer if they honestly think keeping order even if it means hiding the revived vampire threat as the lesser evil than potentially causing a mass panic or causing people to doubt the Church), and Karl Urban had the potential to be a Dark Messiah transcending humans and vampires. However, this isn't touched on enough and could have been developed more.

*The problem with vampires overrunning and annihilating humanity is that they're destroying their own food source. The film does imply they can survive on non-human blood--a familiar is seen draining blood from chickens--but it would have been more interesting if the vampires had enslaved and farmed humans, with the familiars as their enforcers, rather than the implication the vampires in the process of exterminating their own food supply. The Church-ruled territories and the vampire-ruled territories could have, at the end of the day, looked awfully similar--just with a different ruling caste and different justifications for their actions.

*The priests' not having names makes it hard to differentiate them as characters, especially the lesser male priests. It might be better if they kept their first names but abandoned their last names, as the Church is now their family. After all, although I'm not Catholic, it's my understanding priests are referred to as "Father (FIRST NAME)" and these are supposed to be Catholic priests who've undergone some kind of advanced training or augmentation.

*Much is made of the priests' vows, but if the priests have been discharged from service, would they still apply? The titular priest isn't working as a mundane Catholic clergyman, but seems to be just another proletarian. So his vows of celibacy, obedience to the hierarchy, etc. would no longer be binding, correct? Owen at one point suggests Priest could have returned to Augustine and Priests states that it wouldn't have been right, which given some things that get revealed later in the film makes a lot of sense.

It would make more sense if the warrior-priests were all serving as ordinary clergy--still bound by their religious vows--and simply not fitting in, as is often the case with veterans returning to ordinary lives after service in war. Priest seeks permission to abandon his religious duties rather than simply to leave the city and search for his niece.

*Some of the dialogue in Lily's argument with her father when we first meet her doesn't sound like something actual people--especially rebellious teenage girls--would actually say. This negative review here accurately describes a lot of the problems with the film, beginning with the dialogue, but be ye warned, there are spoilers.

*There's a lot of stuff that's revealed but not adequately foreshadowed.

The Verdict

So much potential not developed enough. It's worth seeing once. It could've been so much better and it's a pity it didn't make enough to spawn a sequel, given how cool the world they've created is. Maybe the story could be remade as a television series? The events of the movie could be the first season and then things could go from there.

7.5 out of 10. It's worth seeing once and I might see if I could snag the DVD used (especially since it turns out there's an unrated special edition) so I could learn about how it was made.

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