Are human actors irreplaceable? Are they always better than CGI? In Priest, the communion-wafer thin, pseudo-religious vampire action flick from Scott Charles Stewart, it’s debatable: Obviously, humans have certain inborn talents that make them a director’s first choice when casting, say, people. They’re fleshy and hairy — and hair and skin are notoriously difficult to animate. Also, they emote.
In an apocalyptic cartoon like this, however, a talented actor like Paul Bettany can actually be distractingly counterproductive: If his role (he’s a priest) were played by a robot, you wouldn’t wonder why, for instance, his homily was limited to lines like “Godspeed” or “God help us.” You often wouldn’t question why a Claymation character spouts press-one-for-character-development lines like, “I have questions … doubts … ” When you watch Bettany, you can’t help wondering why the hell a talented actor is stuck in such an ungodly mess.
By the time this humorless monster movie groans through its complicated, giggle-inducing premise, introducing the latter days of the Wild West–True Blood–Blade Runner–Bioshock Papal Post-apocalypse, there have been at least three world-historical plot twists that make next to no sense. The worst is the premise of the franchise: that massive human armies with cannons and tanks are ineffective against vampires, whereas special dudes with crosses tatttooed on their faces can kill them easily with magical throwing-star crucifixes and cool knives. The movie’s world, based on a series of manga novels that sound much more complex, is essentially the fantasy of the religious kid who peruses the fake weaponry for sale at the strip-mall dojo: Dude, I could kill a million bad guys with one of these …
If the world-sweeping plot is ridiculous, the character-driven storyline is incidental. In an early scene, a family is murdered by a ravenous hoard of beasties: eyeless, doglike vampires who look like the unholy spawn of skinless saber tooth tigers and a Ring-hungry Gollum. It turns out that the young girl who is kidnapped and the man who is murdered are the daughter and brother of Priest (that’s the only name given to Paul Bettany’s character, despite the fact that he is but one priest among many, and his colleagues must get wickedly jealous). When the Church won’t listen, Priest sets out into a desert called the Wasteland to rescue his daughter and destroy an entire trainful of vampires himself.
There are lots of seemingly identical vampire monsters, which may have made them easier to animate, and certainly makes them easier to forget. There are some other humans, too: Priest gets negligible help from Priestess (Maggie Q), who throws rocks up in the air so Priest can jump from one to the next like Super Mario. As a Barney Fife sheriff, Cam Gigandet spends the film delivering variations of one line — that he doesn’t want Priest to kill the girl, whom he loves, even if she’s been turned into a vampire. On the monsters’s side, there’s Karl Urban growling as Black Hat, a very bad priest who has evolved into a classic, long-fang vampire, doomed for all eternity to say lines like, “I can smell the blood running through your body: It smells like dinner.”
The film does seem to speed by, though that’s less because of zippy plotting and more because it’s just short. About an hour and twenty minutes of screen time are barely filled with expert but unimaginative action sequences, silly bullet-time punches, and chases on motorcycles that go zooooom when the Priests press the “Nitro” button. At the end, one wonders, is it over? “No, it’s just beginning,” says the Bettany, and the scene turns just so corny perhaps no person could have saved it. So maybe humans are just distracting in some films: That line wouldn’t have been any worse, or any more ridiculous, had it been given to one of the vampires.