WonderCon 2011: 3D ‘Priest’ presentation offers Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet, crazy monsters

SAN FRANCISCO – “I’m British, you know, so I’m working from a sort of butch deficit.”  I’ll say this for Paul Bettany: he does self-deprecation well.

Friday night, Screen Gems took over a theater at the Metreon to screen a few special pieces of footage from their big May release, “Priest,” and they showed up with cast members Cam Gigandet, Lily Collins, and Paul Bettany, along with director Scott Stewart and the creator of the original graphic novel, Min-Woo Hyung.  Aside from the event’s moderator, a local radio DJ who seemed to have a knack for making his guests deeply uncomfortable, it was a brisk and interesting look at a movie that positively screams Screen Gems.

Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will most likely depend on your appetite for the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” films, which have become the signature series for the genre arm of Sony.  There’s a very distinct look and feel to those films, and “Priest” looks like it will fit right into the family.  Scott Stewart and Paul Bettany made their first film together last year, the low-budget horror film “Legion,” and while there were things to like about what they pulled off, the film was hampered by a script that blatantly ripped off the original 1984 “The Terminator” to a distressing degree. 

Stewart comes from an FX background, and he did manage to stretch that film’s budget in some interesting ways.  During the Q&A on Friday night, he said that Screen Gems gave him three times the budget for this new film, and just based on the two things we saw, he obviously used that increase in money to create a much larger-scale world, set 100 years after the end of a vicious war between humans and vampires.

Thanks to a warrior caste known as the Priests, humans eventually won that war, and vampires were relegated to underground reservations.  The film starts with an attack on a human home by what looks like a whole herd of vampires, and everyone is slaughtered except for one girl, played by Collins.  Bettany’s character, simply known as Priest, asks to be reinstated to the order so he can find out why the vampires wanted the living girl.  He’s teamed with Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff, and also enlists Priestess (Maggie Q), and they go after the monsters.

And in this film, vampires are indeed monsters.  There is nothing human or elegant or romantic about them.  They’re freaky animal-things with no eyes and nothing that really marks them as human at all.  We saw one extended sequence in which Priest and Hicks go to one of the reservations to find clues about Lucy’s disappearance.  When they arrive and first go underground, it’s still daylight, but they end up having to beat a hasty retreat, and when they do, they realize the sun is about to go down.  As soon as it does, the vampires come out and attack, and we see Priest in action for the first time.

Here’s a particular fetish of mine regarding comic book movies.  The huge difference between the two mediums is that comic books are all about finding a frozen moment that conveys something about character or story, action distilled down to a single pose, while movies are fluid, constantly in motion.  Wesley Snipes in the “Blade” movies is a great example of an actor who found ways to end each of his moves with a perfect comic-book pose, finding those panel moments even in the midst of a flurry of action.  Lots of directors miss that when they’re working on comic book films, and it looks to me like Stewart has figured that out, and Bettany seems to be exceptional at finding those perfect poses. 

The main bad guy of the film appears to be Karl Urban as Black Hat, a character who appears to have been closely styled after Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name.  We saw glimpses of a scene where Urban and Bettany battle on the middle of a supertrain blasting through a sun-burnt landscape, and both of them seem to be excellent at this type of exaggerated physics-free fighting.  And that landscape, all flat and dusty and hyper-bright, looks to play a big part in the film, and there were several shots from what appears to be a wildly kinetic sequence also involving Maggie Q’s character.

Most of the preview reel was scored to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” which made me laugh as a choice, but which is also pretty undeniably awesome to use when cutting action.  It looks like the cities in the world are gigantic and overgrown and bleak, a la “Blade Runner,” while there are still other parts of the world that are desolate and uninhabited.  Stewart turns out to have something of an eye for staging crazy “Matrix”-like action, and when you’ve got Bettany and Maggie Q as your heroes, it seems to be a license to really push them.

Does that mean I think “Priest” absolutely will be a good film?  No.  But seeing it 3D, I was struck by just how powerful the conversion on the film was.  And, yes, it was post-converted over the last eight months, and the results actually fooled me at first.  I thought for sure the film had to have been shot in native 3D.  Instead, Stewart wanted to shoot on film so he could shoot in Panavision.  All of the film’s visual effects were rendered in full 3D, so what you end up with is a hybrid, shot to give the director exactly what he wants artistically, but designed so that 3D is part of the plan from the very start.  It looks like an assault, a big broad action ride, and terrifically earnest.

We’ll all have a chance to see for ourselves when “Priest” on May 13, 2011.