Neil Marshall has basically been making the same movie his entire career, tweaking the formula here and there, refining the process, but ultimately still turning in survival horror about a group of well-trained individuals who find themselves facing overwhelming odds behind enemy lines. Dog Soldiers saw British special forces troops besieged by werewolves in a remote farmhouse. The Descent pitted cavers against subterranean beasts in the wilds of Appalachia. Doomsday threw a crack military squad into a post-apocalyptic Scotland. And then comes Centurion, a movie that is basically, “What if it was Doomsday, but in Roman times?” Lucky for me and Marshall, I’ve enjoyed all his films. I liked Dog Soldiers a lot, absolutely loved The Descent, thought Doomsday was wonderful, and was pretty damn happy with Centurion.
Like several movies before it (King Arthur, The Last Legion), and undoubtedly many more movies yet to come, Centurion indulges the recent fascination with the waning days of Roman occupation in England and Scotland (Britannia if you’re nasty or an encyclopedia). Michael Fassbender, who we initially meet while he’s half-naked, bound, and running across one of the bleak, snowy landscapes with which this film is in love (I assume this is also how he makes all his entrances in real life), plays Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion and the lone survivor of a massacre at the hands of the native Picts. He is discovered in the wilderness by another legion — the fabled Ninth, the darlings of all movies about Roman legions who get their asses kicked by the Celts — led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominick West, The Wire, 300). In their service is a Pict guide, Etain (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), who is sympathetic to the Roman causes.
Unfortunately, bad luck seems to follow Quintus, as the legion is soon set upon by an overwhelming force of Picts who pretty much slaughter everyone. It turns out that the mute, perpetually angry Etain wasn’t really all that fond of her Roman masters after all and was working the long con to lead the army to its doom. Most of the Roman soldiers are killed. General Titus is captured, and only a small band — including Quintus, that bald guy who’s in all these movies where you need a Roman or a Scottish highlander or whatever, and Micky from Dr. Who (Noel Clarke) — survive the ambush. Stranded miles from the relative safety of the Roman lines, the group must find a way to rescue their captured leader, then haul ass back to Roman territory. Needless to say, things prove difficult.
The rescue attempt hits too many hitches to be successful, though the biggest misstep of all comes when one of the sleazier members of the band of Romans murders the son of the Pictish king. The Picts, already chafing under decades of Roman abuse and oppression, were itching for a fight anyway, and the murder of the child really puts Quintus and crew in the crosshairs, or whatever the equivalent is for spears and battle axes. The Picts put together a hunting party with Etain in the lead, and she uses her near-supernatural tracking abilities to relentlessly hound the Roman survivors as they flee across the merciless winterscape of northern Britain.
Their only reprieve comes in the form of druidic outcast Arianne (Imogen Poots), exiled from polite Pictish society but still feared for her reputation of being handy with sorcery. As with Etain’s ability at tracking, it is hinted that there might be something genuinely mystical about her powers — or she might just be phenomenally good at doing something in a way people don’t fully understand. Whatever the case, even Etain is hesitant to be overly aggressive with the could-be witch, giving Quintus and what’s left of his men time to catch their breath — and of course, time for Arianne and Quintus to fall in love. The niceties are short-lived however, and just as the few remaining centurions make it back to the Roman fort, they find it has been abandoned, that the Roman empire is pulling back, and they’re now standing in the middle of a deserted fort with Etain and her vengeful posse knocking on the front gate.
By this point in his career as a screenwriter, Neil Marshall has stripped almost all the fat from his screenplay, leaving behind a movie that is as lean and mean as the first shot of a half-naked Quintus Dias stumbling over snow-capped peaks. Centurion has no time to mess around, and for the most part, it’s one exhausting, relentless chase scene that sees no need to give the viewer or its characters time to take a breather. On the one hand, this makes for a pretty exciting movie. On the other hand, the movie suffers from some shallowness in the writing that keeps us from caring quite as much about what’s happening as we might if we could, say, tell the Romans apart from each other. Or the Picts. Other than Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, and Imogen Poots, there is little in the characters on either side to make them memorable. OK, Noel Clarke’s character is memorable, but only because you’ll keep thinking, “Man, this dude is a lot scarier than he was on Dr. Who.” But other than that, it’s a bunch of dirt-streaked, grimy people in furs hunting down a bunch of dirt-streaked, grimy people in furs, only one side has more blue face paint.
Speaking of blue, this might be the bluest movie ever made. I guess now is as good a time as any to address the tendency of filmmakers to color all their movies using just two crayons: blue and orange. If you’ve ever taken any sort of graphic design course, you’re probably familiar with color wheels, tools that allow a designer to sit in their chair for hours on end, staring at a rainbow. Some color theorists noticed, eventually, that certain colors are particularly striking when paired with certain other colors, and specifically, you can match up the color on one side of the color wheel with a color on the opposite side, and the resulting contrast is striking indeed. And, not coincidentally, in exact opposite spaces on the color wheel is where you’ll find orange and blue. When computer-assisted color correction meant that any jackass with a mouse could make his movie any color he wanted, instead of having to do it via lighting or expensive, complicated pre-computer era methods. This ushered in the era of extremely boring-looking movies, where every single film we endure is either green/yellow, blue/orange, or that washed-out sort of brownish-white. If you are charitable, this color correction is done, however lazily, to invoke a certain mood. If you are less charitable, those moviemaking assholes are doing it because every other moviemaking asshole is doing it.
Blue-orange emerged as one of the most dramatic color contrasts, and as a result, you will find it absolutely everywhere, both in the movies and on the posters. And once you notice it for the first time, you will never be able to stop noticing it. Eventually, you will go mad, and your relatives will have you committed to a Victorian-style madhouse, where you will crouch in the corner of your padded room, coloring every surface in the room blue and orange. The abuse of the blue-orange color palette is so rampant that, ultimately, I have to give up raging against it, because even filmmakers I like tend to fall back on exploiting it. I guess we’ll all just have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that our movies will only be blue/orange, yellow/green, or gray/brown from here on out, and using a full spectrum of color was nothing more than an ill-conceived dalliance among naive filmmakers who thought color films should be color. Centurion at least employs the abuse of blue tinting in the pursuit of somewhat half-assedly letting you know it’s really fucking cold outside via color-coded shorthand, as if the shivering men and boundless snowscapes were somehow unable to do that without also being tinted a washed-out blue.
Marshall’s films have pretty much all been studies in claustrophobia, but whereas Dog Soldiers and The Descent did this by shoving their protagonists into cramped quarters, Doomsday and now Centurion set themselves on the vast, open landscapes of Scotland and still manage to make you feel closed in on. Frequent sweeping shots of snowy highlands and endless moors do little to relieve the seemingly contradictory feeling of being trapped. Centurion manages to achieve this not through any sort of goofy color coding, but by spinning a tight, relentless plot in which, no matter where you run and hide, the people hunting you are already there. It’s part of what keeps a somewhat repetitive script still feeling exciting. Every step that should bring Quintas and his men some degree of safety, or at least a tiny bit of breathing space, is almost immediately subverted by the arrival of Olga Kurylenko and her hunters. By the time the lads reach the abandoned ruins of what they thought was the safety of a Roman outpost, the viewer is every bit as physically and emotionally rained as the Romans, and like the Romans, you’re well past ready to just turn around, face your enemy, and get this shit over with once and for all.
The enemies in question, however, aren’t really the enemies. Given my general opinions on empire building, the Picts in this movie are the ostensible “good guys,” defending their homes from invaders who have marched halfway across the world just for the sake of conquest. History knows almost nothing concrete about the Picts. What little was written about them was either done so long after the fact that there’s no reason to assume the “historians” weren’t just making stuff up off the top of their heads, or they were histories written by the enemies of the Picts, and thus perhaps prone to a bit of fudging of the data. The Picts themselves were too busy painting themselves blue to be bothered with any sort of recorded history. No one can even agree on where they came from before they settled in present-day Scotland.
But settle they did, forming a patchwork of tribal territories and local kings who, when they needed to, would ally with or go to war with other Pictish kings. The ferocity with which they fought, the land in which they lived, the way they painted and decorated themselves, all contributed to the mystique surrounding them. As time marched inevitably forward, they became increasingly integrated with other pockets of Celtic culture, and eventually ceased to exist as a distinct people outside of wild stories and the fevered mind of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a man who was positively obsessed with the Picts almost as much as he was obsessed with describing every single black person in the world as possessing a “sloping, apelike forehead.” In the pulp adventure stories of Howard, the Picts were frequent enemies of the free-ranging barbarian Conan. On occasion, he would even let one be a good guy, or as good as anyone ever could be the blood-soaked mayhem of a Robert Howard story.
Although Quintas Dias and his band of survivors are the focus of the story, and although most of them are seen to be right decent fellows, Neil Marshall doesn’t allow the movie to villainize the Picts. They are angry, angry people who have been butchered, abused, and oppressed for far too long. Quintas just happened to have the misfortune of meeting them at their breaking point, and the fact that the ranks of the Romans themselves are responsible for this particular Pictish king’s blood rage is not lost upon the harried Quintas. Still, right or wrong, when a guy sends a bunch of people out with spears and knives to flay you alive, you are not likely to acknowledge the moral righteousness of their fury and offer yourself up for punishment.
Centurion is thin or plot and characters, but that’s not a detriment to telling the story it set out to tell. Trimming away all the fat allows Marshall’s film to be fleet-footed and intense even though it never convinces you to invest much emotion in any of the characters. It’s also a testament to the adeptness of the cast that they manage to do so much with so little. Neil and I already obviously share a remarkably similar taste in women — from Natalie Mendoza in The Descent to Rhona Mitra and Lee-Anne Liebenberg in Doomsday, and now the terrifying and talented trio of Olga Kurylenko, Imogen Poots, and Axelle Carolyn.
Kurylenko, her character literally stripped of the ability to speak, bristles with rage in every scene in a wordless performance that reminds me of the freakish intensity Christopher Lee brought to some of his most famous, dialogue-free Hammer horror roles. Fassbender is Fassbender — the man is never going to turn in anything less than a good performance, but like most of the Romans, he barely has any time to slow down and do much acting, save for a few scenes with Poots.
Much like Marshall’s last foray beyond Hadrian’s Wall, Doomsday, the finale is straight out of Road Warrior. But where his futuristic survival adventure film paid homage to the epic car chase hat comprised the final minutes of Road Warrior, Centurion‘s finale draws from the Aussie classic’s tense siege scenes, in which the mohawked psycho punks of the wasteland seek to breech the walls of a compound filled with nominal good guys. Similarly, the Romans in Centurion find themselves forced to defend an almost indefensible abandoned fort as the Picts descend upon them. If the run-and-kill repetition that afflicted portions of the film’s middle third caused it to drag a bit here and there, the finale makes up for it. By the end of it, I was drained. In some ways, Centurion is less a movie than it is a serious workout. It’ll wring you out, but for me, the workout was worth the effort. It’s not a particularly deep or emotional movie, and yeah the washed-out blue-orange palette is overused, but as pure, visceral survival/action cinema, it’s hard to beat Neil Marshall.