review by Diablo Joe
Director Neil Marshall broke onto the horror scene with 2002’s “Dog Soldiers,” a werewolf versus British Special Forces film that quickly became a modern lycanthropic classic. He followed that up a couple of years later with “The Descent,” a harrowing, claustrophobia-inducing nightmare of a picture that ranks on many a “scariest movies of all time” list. But his third film, the Mad-Max-meets-Escape-From-New-York-meets-Excalibur sci-fi action flick “Doomsday,” was every bit the mess that comparison would indicate it to be.
From there, Marshall’s cinematic output was less than impressive. His television work-for-hire over the subsequent decade, highlighted by some lauded work on shows “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones”—the latter of which earned him an Emmy nom—shone far brighter. His return to cinema, 2019’s “Hellboy,” was a disaster due to many factors besides Marshall’s involvement. His follow-up the next year was “The Reckoning,” a period witchfinder horror co-written with and starring the director’s girlfriend, Charlotte Kirk was a conflicted film that indulged in as much of the lurid exploitation it excoriated.
This brings us to “The Lair,” which, like its predecessor, shares Kirk’s dual creative involvement. An RAF fight pilot shot down and stranded in the rocky heart of Afghanistan, Kirk’s character, chased by Afghani fighters, seeks refuge in a long-abandoned Russian bunker filled with strange containment chambers. A melee with the Afghanis releases the violent alien-humanoid creatures that have laid dormant for 30 years. Joining forces with a band of American and European allied soldiers, Kirk must fight, not just for her own life, but for all of humanity.
When Marshall first takes Kirk’s character into the Russian occupation-era compound, he teases that we might be returning to the successful formula of his first two pictures. Trap a small group (including a strong female character) in conflict with one another in a dark, confined place and set upon them an unspeakable horror.
Alas, this is not to be the case. Marshall and Kirk’s story soon introduces a ragged group of soldiers, each with a quirky, oddball personality or backstory. They’re led by “Battlestar Galactica’s” Jamie Bamber as a scenery-chewing one-eyed Army Major delivering hackneyed dialogue in an accent that “Inglorious Basterd’s” Aldo Raine would have scoffed at. When paired with Kirk’s tough, been-there, experienced-the-horror female figure, this group instantly brings thoughts of James Cameron’s “Aliens.” But unlike that film’s cadre of Colonial Marines—distinct but fleshed out by Cameron’s excellent script and superb, classic cast—this bunch is a morass of character traits that add little to the story besides random detail.
As we get deeper into “The Lair,” we start to realize that this very much IS “Aliens.” Besides Kirk’s Ripley analog and the soldiers (and yes, you can see distinct corollaries to Hicks, Hudson, and Vasquez), we even have our Newt in the form of Kabir, an Afghani survivor of the creature’s first rampage. He even does a bit of double duty as the picture’s Bishop. Alien Queen? Stick with the film.
As for the alien creatures themselves, they’re less Giger and more so lousy cosplay of Marvel’s “Venom.” There’s nothing wrong with a good man-in-a-suit monster, but these baggy, droopy rubber beasts are a paunchy mess. And for a director who won accolades for two of “Game of Thrones” most action-laden episodes, the mayhem in “The Lair” is uneven and quite sloppy. There’s so ooey and gooey gore, but it’s cut away from so quickly that it barely registers and suggests that the director perhaps felt the effects subpar. Why he would instead choose to linger to the awful creature suits to the extent that he does is a mystery.
Another enigmatic filmmaking decision is the insanely waffling tone of the film. The first quarter is dark and serious. When we first meet the military, its shifts to a gung-ho macho war movie cliché. As the alien creatures attack and ravage our soldiers, the picture takes on ever more absurd characteristics until we wonder if it’s some sort of action movie satire. It is completely bewildering.
If Neil Marshall wants to develop showcases for his partner, he needs to do better than “The Lair.” Besides being mediocre and derivative, it, unlike “The Reckoning,” gives Charlotte Kirk little room to display her craft. Perhaps the pair should take a nod from Marshall’s television successes. Find a savvy, creative producer with a solid script who can reign in the director’s worst impulses. Maybe then we will see a cinematic return to form from the Neil Marshall we loved so long ago.
This devil of a reviewer gives “The Lair” 2.5 out of 5 imps.