Doomsday Book is a trio of Korean short films that all share a common theme on the end of the world though each of the individual stories has its own unique look and message as to what just might cause the end of the world as we know it. In the first tale, A Brave New World, the end of everything comes from a particularly nasty concoction of old and decaying food that a lazy family has avoided dealing with and which serves as a catalyst for an outbreak that transforms people into zombies, but are the people really that changed dramatically by it? The second tale, The Heavenly Creature, finds mankind in an existential bind when a robot achieves enlightenment after learning the teachings of Buddha but which leads to a crisis for mankind trying to figure out their role if machines can achieve something they struggle with. Finally in Happy Birthday the end of the world is seen coming when a large object that is set to collide with the Earth and the population goes into panic as they have to accept their impotence and deal with their foibles run wild- but is the source of this crisis pure universal whimsy or is the cause of mankind’s greatest tool gone horribly wrong?
Beyond just the rather high production values which really work to sell each part it maybe the fact that each cast is almost perfect in their roles that really helps the viewer immerse themselves in these varied tales that take some familiar ideas and present them in some novel ways. In the case of The Heavenly Creature the use of robots to ponder the nature of man is far from new but the particulars here where philosophy and nuance are used rather than a more blunted and domineering introspection device which helps provide a fresh take on a literary tool that may be near as old as the concept of science fiction itself. In Happy Birthday the joy rests in watching the absolutely absurd happen and in watching the various people try to react to the incredible and unbelievable events in a way that rather reflects humanity and its various flaws as it strives to survive.
Probably the only failing in this collection comes from A Brave New World and its almost complete lack of subtlety and trusting the audience to either get- or not- the subtext and so the narrative is presented in a blatant and almost physical assault manner with some of the most obvious attempts at messaging this side of a straight up propaganda film. With allusions to both the Aldous Huxley novel and the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden the piece attempts to integrate its message of consumerism and its excesses that may lead to destruction (or expulsion from paradise) of mankind, if not in body than in spirit but does so in a manner that is almost palpable but which comes off as clumsy. The message of the dangers of consumerism wasn’t exactly new even when George Romero married it to zombies in Night of the Living Dead and perhaps the South Korean market is one where the concept might be somewhat fresh but within the US market the explosion of zombie materials that has occurred over the last few years has made the best tales have to refine their message rather than having it stick out as obtusely as it does here. Despite that the story manages to redeem itself with its ending (though possible finishing more along the lines of Candid than the dystopian novel that the short takes its title from) and proves that even a clumsy narrative can still have a rewarding payoff. In addition all three films suffer a bit in creating their characters as the short nature of the structure robs them a bit of time to do so but each story, particularly the last two, have enough substance that they are still satisfying in this form but also could be used to turn into full pictures in their own right.
As with any anthology the gestalt can be threatened if any particular piece falters badly but conversely as long as one of the tales doesn’t completely collapse the strength of the other pieces can drag an underperforming part across the finish line. That is largely what this feature does when viewed in its totality as the more subtle in message- if not always much terribly deeper when looked at closely-final two parts help to bring up the less than exemplary first story’s final impact and creates a whole that is a bit greater than the sum of its parts. This result helps to leave the audience with a sense of wonder and contemplation at some of the ideas that the various shorts raise in their absurdity and introspection of how modern man moves about the planet as they go about their days. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this combined feature is not that it asks a lot of really deep questions itself but rather that it plants the seeds for the audience to nurture and grow within themselves that may go beyond what the creative team might have thought to raise. While there are flaws to be found within various pieces the overall presentation is one that has just enough psychological heft, solid production and odd moments to keep the audience just off center and to provide an enjoyable trip that may leave them thinking for hours afterwards.