Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More Tarkovsky than Romero: Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil: Afterlife

No matter what he might accomplish in his career, filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson will always be known as modern cinema's “other Paul Anderson”. Pity, as the less distinguished Anderson has in the past fifteen years quietly established himself as one of the most striking visual stylists on the planet. Of course he has also become one of modern films major critical punching bags as he is deliberately guilty of two things many critics consider criminal, with those being that he loves making genre films and, in those films, the style IS the substance.

Few films from 2010 have slipped under the radar more than Anderson’s dazzling Resident Evil: Afterlife, a mind-blowing visual treat that stands as one of the most compelling and strangest major studio productions in recent memory. Afterlife took the same expected critical pounding as the rest of the Resident Evil franchise but that was inevitable as the mainstream critical community loves to attack or ignore these films. Had Afterlife been a film made outside of a recognizable franchise by a ‘respectable’ director it would have been heralded as a major trailblazing achievement.

The much maligned British born Paul W.S. Anderson kick-started his directorial career with the terrific crime-drama Shopping (1994), a film which offered Jude Law an early starring role. Anderson’s place as an action director was solidified though with his second feature, the interesting but much maligned Mortal Kombat (1995). Anderson’s position as one of modern films most interesting young talents should have been noted with his third feature, the haunting Event Horizon (1997) but few seemed to notice how visually gifted he had become within the span of just a few years.

Anderson would continue to improve and refine his very original eye as a filmmaker on the entertaining Kurt Russell sci-fi vehicle Soldier (1998) before hitting box-office paydirt with his exciting Resident Evil (2000), the wonderfully entertaining first film in one of the decade’s most successful franchises. Hampered by a particular harsh censors board that removed every drop of blood from it, Anderson’s opening chapter to the financially lucrative Resident Evil franchise was a critical disaster but immediately became a rather huge cult-film thanks to its unforgettably sleek look and the performance of the astonishing Milla Jovovich, who immediately became the premier action heroine in all of modern film. Of course the critics hated it but few films from the period managed to be as stylish and as entertaining as the first Resident Evil film and time has proven it one of the most influential films (for good and bad) of the past decade.

Anderson frustratingly stayed out of the directors chair for the first two Resident Evil sequels and instead delivered the disappointing AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (2004) and the terrific Death Race (2008), a remake of the Roger Corman cult-classic that operated as one of the most brutal and entertaining satires on modern audiences’ reality-show obsessed mentality as any other film in recent memory.

After two take the cash and run sequels, Resident Evil: Afterlife was expected to be a pick-up the paycheck only work from the (now married in real life) team of Anderson and Jovovich but instead it is the best of the series. From it’s audacious slow-motion and rain-soaked manga-inspired opening to its self-referential final frame, Afterlife is a truly visionary work that actively works against the hallmarks of what good-filmmaking is supposed to be and instead becomes a eye-popping piece of surreal motion art fuelled by some of the most adventurous set-pieces in recent memory and an effortlessly cool performance by Jovovich, who simply can’t be topped in this kind of film.

2010 was a particularly boring year for English-language film and Resident Evil: Afterlife was one of the few works that truly surprised me. Along with Edgar Wright’s tremendous Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Afterlife is visually the most entrancing and audacious work of 2010, with Anderson’s architectural gift for framing matched perfectly by the production design of Arvinder Grewal and the art direction of Brandt Gordon. Afterlife frankly has more imagination in its opening credit sequence than Inception has in its entire running time (and I liked Nolan’s work for the most part).

Afterlife is also graced with the best sound-design of the year by Coll Anderson, whose rumbling efforts here are worthy of an Oscar-nomination. The sound is indeed one of Resident Evil: Afterlife’s greatest assets and nowhere is this more apparent than in the career best score granted to the film by tomandandy.

The team of Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn have been one of the most consistent and interesting film composing teams in all of modern film with their work in films like Killing Zoe (1993), Waking the Dead (2000) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) showing them as fearless and innovative. They really top themselves with their work on Resident Evil: Afterlife, a brilliant score made up of Enoesque ambient soundscapes and harsh industrial pieces that sound like a dream collaboration between Killing Joke and Throbbing Gristle. The Milan soundtrack CD (and deluxe digital download) is one of the finest recordings of the year.

I think perhaps the thing I admire most about Resident Evil: Afterlife is the methodical and hypnotic pace Anderson and Editor Niven Howie give the film. Described by sluggish and dull by some fans of the franchise, I found the deliberate pacing of the film overwhelmingly refreshing. Anderson has become a supremely confident filmmaker and with Afterlife he allows us time to really soak in his great visual flair. While it has all the trademarks of a modern action thriller (from slow-motion gunfights to elaborate choreographed fight sequences) Resident Evil: Afterlife is in fact a big-budget Art-Film which owes more to Tarkovsky than Romero.

Resident Evil: Afterlife can now be seen in all of its bold glory on DVD and Blu-Ray. The discs contains a number of valuable extras, all of which highlight its striking visual style and the nervy dedication of Milla Jovovich, a great actress who finally got some needed and just acclaim for the recent Stone.

Paul W.S. Anderson thankfully doesn’t look like he is going to cater to any idea of ‘respectability’ anytime soon as his next projects are Death Race 2, The Three Musketeers and hopefully another Resident Evil film. He will, no doubt, continue to draw much disdain from critics and many film fans but Anderson, with his rejection of most 'good' movie hallmarks, has become one of the most interesting auteurs on the planet.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is his boldest and geatest achievement so far…


The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Wow Jeremy. A refreshing take on Anderson and the Resident Evil franchise for a change.

I'm unabashedly a fan of the man in general.

As I read your terrific analysis I found it interesting to hear how closely you nailed my own take on his pictures. I loved Event Horizon and it was sorely underrated. I was not a fan of Aliens Vs Predator. It was disappointing as you said and essentially killed my interest in the franshises until Predators, so I really liked your observations there.

Most of all, I really thought you gave some real examples and details regarding the filmmaker and his strengths as an artist, the same strengths he is often ripped for and discounted with a simple flip of the wrist.

He deserves better at least on the basis of some of his films and Death Race was infinitely entertaining.

I also found your point about Resident Evil as influential to be a great one as it often ranks in my top 10 sci fi films when I write them down. I stand by it and it's nice to hear such a sound defense of the man's work here.

I will say you may begin a war with your knock of such critical darlings as Inception. I haven't seen it and, like you, I like Nolan, but I thought your point was amusing.

Finally, the key to your essay regarding Tarkovsky versus Romero. That is a really fascinating point and I don't take it lightly. I get what you mean. There's something thoroughly grotesque about alot of Anderson's work, but it is art more in the vein of which you speak.

There is indeed a distinct color palette and darkness to RE:Afterlife that is very much in keeping with the style of Death Race or Event Horizon.

I really enjoyed the piece on the eve of the BluRay release. Great work here! Great food for thought. Nothing cookie cutter here! Cheers.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Lovely post Jeremy!
I think the biggest reason that PWS Anderson get's so much flack is that he was a snotnosed Kid from the UK who made one great indieflick that became a surprise hit, and the gateway to Hollywood was opened up to him. Event Horizon was more Hellraiser in space with a brain than straightforward horror, and Resident Evil was a blast. Even if he did get it instead of the sacred G.A. Romero. Top that with the fact that he connected/married with one of the most beautiful women in the world and it's no wonder that people don't like him.

But really, that's their loss. PWS Anderson is a great filmmaker who definitely has some interresting stories to tell, and I can just imagine how flat the R.E. universe would have become without him. I mean, come on, how do you top Russel Mulchay's stunning RE3? You get PWSA back behind the camera. A guy who has made some swell looking movies indeed, so it comes as no surprise that you mention Tarkovsky alongside his name. I have thought of E.H: as a horror version of Solaris since I first saw it.

I can't wait to see RE:Afterlife now! Thanks Jeremy!

Ed Howard said...

Huh. It's great to see an essay like this that takes on the critical concensus, even if I don't really agree about Anderson's worth. The first Resident Evil is the only one from the series that I've seen, and despite the presence of the always awesome Milla Jovovich, it's pretty disappointing, packed with awful acting and utterly lazy plotting. It has some great set pieces, and Jovovich is a magnetic screen presence and a surprisingly strong action heroine, but I can't think of much else nice to say about it. I'd rather watch Jovovich in the equally stylish and much more entertaining The Fifth Element.

But you have roused my curiosity about this newest installment, even if your comparison of Anderson to Tarkovsky seems to be based entirely on the commonality of (relatively) slow pacing.

ThatQuebecGuy said...

I remember liking the first Resident Evil movie a lot, but I was rather disappointed by the two sequels (didn't like the overtly comic-bookey tone & plot and I thought they lacked the style of the first) and I was under the impression that the fourth one was going to be terrible, but after reading your high praise, I think I'll give it a try.

I also loved Death Race, a superior blockbuster movie (as opposed to the kind of popcorn flick that you completely forget after a few days). Soldier was good fun too, but I have no love for Mortal Kombat.

J.D. said...

Hey Jeremy, I have to go with Ed on this one. While I do enjoy some of Anderson's film for the pulpy nonsense that they are, they don't hold a candle to anything Nolan's done, esp. INCEPTION which is his magnum opus. Of course, I haven't seen the latest RESIDENT EVIl but it will have to do a lot to top the previous installment which was by far the strongest of the series, IMO.

As Ed rightly pointed out, many of his films have lazy plotting and pedestrian dialogue - not that you're necessarily going to see Anderson's films for an intricate story and sparkling dialogue but it's nice if those things are there as well! And that seems to be Anderson's weak spot - his writing skills. He is a skilled technician but needs to hook up with a stronger screenwriter.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much for the fascinating comments guys. I figured this post would either be ignored or I would just be called an idiot, so all your thoughts are appreciated.

Sci-Fi Fanatic,
Great to read your thoughts here...I really feel like Afterlife is, in a way, a companion to Event Horizon. It had that same kind of haunting quality for me. This is also Anderson's moodiest work since EH. It's that moodiness that have quite a few folks labeling this as a lethargic work but I think Anderson put the much needed isolation (that was missing from the first two sequels) back in the franchise. Thanks again for the great comments...

I totally agree with you. I think some of the prejudice against Anderson stems from a personal dislike of him rather than his films. I stand by my thought that he is one of the more interesting English Language directors (he makes the films Michael Bay doesn't have the imagination to with a fourth of the budget) around. Thank you for your very nice thoughts and I love your 'horror version of Solaris' quote re EH!

Ed and J.D. ,
Always good to hear from both of you here even when we disagree. I can't argue you with you much re. 'the lazy plotting' and 'pedestrian dialogue'. Those are both valid complaints and I can't imagine too many folks claiming that Anderson's main strength is as a screenwriter. For me, his scripts are there to just service the visual look of his films and not the other way around. I am actually fine with the and find his disregard for fine-tuned storytelling and character development fairly refreshing. His films are, script-wise, very basic genre pieces made, I think, extraordinary by his audacious visual style. A visually striking film like Inception, for me, would have been ultimately more succesful (and again I liked and admired Nolan's film) if it would have been a bit more freewheeling. It ultimately felt like a work someone had spent years tinkering at and that finally weighed down (for me) the dream atmosphere he was going for. There are moments in Afterlife that I think are authentically 'dreamlike' and stuck with me for days after. The fact that Anderson achived this working within the confines of a major franchise film funded by a big studio is quite remarkable I think.
Anyway, I do appreciate the comments and certainly understand your complaints against Anderson's works.
I do love The Fifth Element by the way as well Ed.

Glad to see you mention Death Race, which I thought was really terrific. If you dug the first Resident Evil but not the sequels I think you will really enjoy Afterlife.

Thanks again guys for the great feedback!

Jeremy Richey said...

Oh, and as far as the Tarkovsky reference. I wasn't trying to make any real grand statement with that. I was just pointing out that I thought AFTERLIFE had much more in common with an unexpected force like Tarkovsky rather than Romero, whose name is always brought up anytime a zombie is mentioned. Ultimately I made the comment because I think AFTERLIFE is very much an art-film instead of a simple mainstream entertainment. Which isn't to say that Romero didn't make art-films, I was just attempting to call into question that AFTERLIFE is just another mindless blockbuster.

Bryce Wilson said...

My problem with Anderson is that those are the most subtext free Zombies imaginable.

I've got no problem with style for style's sake, I'm probably one of the biggest Zack Synder apologists on the blogosphere. But man Anderson takes that phrase so relentlessly literally. And it's tough for me to get interested in mere walking bags of meat.

Jeremy Richey said...

That's a very fair point Bryce. As far as the Zombies go in the RE films, they seem to me to be handled more in the spirit of relatively subtext free works like ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST and NIGHTMARE CITY rather than rather profound pieces like THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE and DAWN OF THE DEAD.
Thanks for commenting!

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful write-up, Jeremy! I've enjoyed, guiltily I reckon, Anderson's films for the longest. He's certainly been a target for so many critics, and I speculate that's where my guilt arose (how could you enjoy it, really?). I've got every Resident Evil film in my library (and just picked up AFTERLIFE), think EVENT HORIZON is messed up in a disturbing yet strangely artful way, and watch SOLDIER (with fav Kurt Russell) on an annual basis. I'm also with you regarding how great DEATH RACE is, and especially how keen its social commentary. While I tend to purposely now ignore the Alien Vs. Predator series altogether these days, my son thinks the world of it. I'm not going to say he's a misunderstood auteur or anything like that, but you don't continually attract filmgoers eyeballs without having talent in the director's chair to back it up. Whatever he puts out, it gets my attention, regardless. Thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Leopard. It's been awhile since I have gotten so many detailed comments and I am thrilled with them.
Thanks again!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Not that your clarification was needed Jeremy, but I want you to know that this was precisely the spirit of your argument with which I felt it was implied. Nothing wrong with giving your comparison a bit of additional commentary. : ) Excellent.

Nothing to ignore here, like the film.

Loved the varied comments here as well. To those who haven't seen it, it's not that it's high art, but it hits some visually impressive highs and is certainly consistent in its look.

Drew said...

A really great, interesting read here, Jeremy. It's always fascinating to see someone speak out so passionately against the grain.

I've only seen two of Anderson's movies, Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon. The former I saw first in the theater when I was in grade school, and then again a couple of years ago at a party. It's really a complete disaster of a movie: cringe-inducing dialogue, awful cast, horrible special effects, and just a generally awkward and unpleasantly stilted quality to the visuals. Event Horizon on the other hand I've always loved; it's a total triumph of mood and suspense, definitely one of the more underrated mainstream horror efforts in the past 15 years or so.

It's funny, I enjoyed playing the Resident Evil games back in their heyday but for some reason never had much interest in the movies. I dare say you've stated your case with such conviction that I'm inclined to want to run through the first three so I can get to Afterlife, as you've made it sound like something very much up my alley.

J.D. said...

So, Jeremy, what do you think of Anderson tackling THE THREE MUSKETEERS next? And in 3D no less!