Priest 3D: Neither heaven nor hell

19th May 2011 By Rebecca Gillie

by Vicky Fryer

Priest is an oddity: part sci-fi, part western, part horror, part 1984, part theological debate, and all based on a graphic novel series. Even the premise sounds bizarre: on an alternate Earth where humans and vampires have fought to the point of extinction, Paul Bettany plays the eponymous Priest, member of a now disbanded religious order of highly-trained, near-superhuman vampire killers. On hearing of an attack on his brother’s family by the supposedly conquered vampires, he defies the clergy (and, according to its motto, God) to save his niece, but there is a new, much greater threat in the shadows (often literally): a nameless man in a hat (Karl Urban).

With so many different elements and such a premise, this film should not work. However, amazingly, it does. The different genres are fascinatingly used to define different locations and their feel: diesel-punk dystopian elements to convey the city and the clergy’s oppressive rule; western settlements outside their walls; animation to separate backstory from action. In fact, overall this movie delivers aesthetically, even almost justifying 3D once with the ash hanging across the city. The action sequences are largely strong, with the best not solely reserved for the main character, although the proliferation of cross-themed weapons and a possible over-reliance on Hollywood Science might stretch credibilit. The 12A rating is questionable though, given both the violence and the themes discussed.

Some very good ideas are at work here – the eyeless vampires living in hives, for instance, more animal than human – and while most probably originated with the graphic novels, they still stand out. It’s a shame, then, that the script contains some wasted opportunities, seeming to draw back from its full promise. The striking, well-designed city barely appears again, and elsewhere many potentially interesting motivations and arguments simply aren’t explored. Despite references to a grander context, what we see of the characters is limited: Priest seems a stereotypical stoic hero until we consider his training, while the villain, despite Urban bringing both charm and menace, sometimes feels closer to a stereotypical movie vampire – quips, casual violence, religious-themed dialogue – with limited exploration of an interesting backstory. Possibly more obviously, after introducing some fascinating theological themes, only a few issues are discussed – no crises of faith here beyond the immediate. It’s as if Priest keeps remembering its pitch as an action movie – a pitch it undeniably fulfils – and pulls back from such human and theological issues.

At 87 minutes Priest rarely lets up, suggesting it might have actually merited some extra time. It’s a good, fast-paced action movie; it’s just a shame it didn’t try to be more.

3 Stars