Part Two: On the Resident Evil Movies
Part One of Army of Milla looked at Vulgar Auteurism and some issues surrounding the current discourse on low-prestige action films. Here in Part Two I'll take a general look at Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil series, in search of evidence that Anderson might rightfully be considered an auteur.
Resident Evil began life as a video game series produced by Capcom for the Sony PlayStation, initially premiering in 1996 and achieving both popular and critical success. The games are seminal in the “survival horror” genre, a subset of the action game wherein “the player is made to feel less powerful than in typical action games, because of limited ammunition, health, speed, or other limitations. The player is also challenged to find items that unlock the path to new areas, and solve puzzles at certain locations. Games make use of strong horror themes, and the player is often challenged to navigate dark maze-like environments, and react to unexpected attacks from enemies.” The process of adapting the games to film began in the late 1990s, with George Romero attached to write and direct. The producers were, however, unhappy with the script Romero produced and brought in Paul WS Anderson who wrote an entirely new script and signed to direct as well.
Anderson had experience with video game movies, as his 1995 film, the decent but more or less ludicrous Mortal Kombat (an adaptation of the popular fighting game) had turned out to be a surprise hit, despite all expectations and the presence of Talisa Soto, star of some of the most disastrous films of the last 25 years (even her best film, License to Kill, was the movie that nearly ended the James Bond franchise). His next couple of films (1997’s Event Horizon and 1998’s Soldier) had failed to capitalize on that success and Anderson found himself back in the video game ghetto, barely a step above direct-to-video land in the Hollywood prestige hierarchy. Things had gotten so bad for Anderson that he’d had to start crediting himself with his two middle initials to distinguish himself from the later-starting but now more famous writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. The first Resident Evil movie was a hit, grossing just over $100 million, and Anderson went on to write the next four films in the series, each of which has been poorly reviewed (they range between 21% and 34% on rotten tomatoes) and commercially successful, with the last two films grossing over $200 million worldwide and the series as a whole approaching $1 billion in global box office. Anderson also directed the first, fourth and fifth films in the series, with the second and third films directed by Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy, respectively. Anderson passed on directing those to write and direct Alien Vs. Predator and Death Race. At present, Anderson is at work on the script for the sixth Resident Evil film, which he will also direct. Due to be released in 2014, this will reportedly be the final film in the series.
2. Structure and Setting
The five Resident Evil films each feature the same basic story structure. After an opening action/suspense sequence, there’s a long bit of exposition after which the plot proper begins. Each movie involves the main characters being trapped in a confined space from which they must escape while evading a variety of monsters. This escape takes up the bulk of the running time (so to speak), as the group is winnowed down to a few survivors left to face the film’s ultimate villain in a final battle. After the battle, there’s a short epilogue with a cliffhanger that sets up the next film in the series. This is a classic design, especially for action films, and you can find versions of it throughout film history, from Griffith shorts to Indiana Jones.
Anderson has suggested that his propensity for trapping his characters in small spaces may have something to do with his upbringing in coal-mining country, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in such biographizing as a general rule. Despite their confinement, Anderson often films his characters as dwarfed by the architecture that surrounds them, trapping them in another way within an immense space.
Each film is set in a unique environment: the first in an underground laboratory, the second in a city at night, the third in a Western desert, the fourth in an urban prison and the fifth in an undersea base which itself contains multiple unique environments. More on this later.
The main character of the Resident Evil films is Alice, played by Milla Jovovich. She’s a new character for the films, not appearing in any of the early video games. Alice is the only character to appear in all of the films, and we see almost everything through her eyes. In the first film, she’s suffering from amnesia, but eventually we learn that she was the head of security for a secret underground research laboratory run by the Umbrella Corporation. Umbrella is the primary villain of the series, though it’s incarnated differently in each film. In the first and fifth films, Alice is opposed by a homicidal computer system, the Red Queen. In the second film, as the zombie-creating T-Virus spreads through Raccoon City, the local military and government that has sealed the city off hoping to contain it, condemning millions to death. In the third film, the villain is a mad scientist, Dr. Isaacs, played by Game of Thrones’s Iain Glen. In the fourth film, it’s Umbrella CEO Albert Wesker (played by Shawn Roberts). The cliffhanger at the end of the fifth film has Alice joining forces with Wesker at the White House to fight both the computer and the zombies.
Alice is aided in each film by a rotating cast, most of whom are eaten by each film’s end. The major supporting characters include Michelle Rodriguez as Rain (first and fifth films), Ali Larter as Claire Redfield (third, fourth), Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine (second, fifth), Oded Fehr as Carlos Olivera (second, third, fifth) and Mike Epps as LJ (second, third).
The characters are fungible. Death is not necessarily the end for them, as cloning plays a major part in the series. The fifth film is populated with evil versions of characters that had died in earlier movies. As well there is much genetic experimentation. At the end of the first film, Alice is taken captive by Umbrella and injected with the T-Virus, which we learn in the second film gives her superpowers while it turns her compatriot Matt Addison (played by Eric Mabius) into a monster (Nemesis). While fighting Wesker at the beginning of the fourth film, those superpowers are taken away, turning her back into an ordinary badass action hero. He returns them at the end of the fifth film.
This has a flattening effect on character psychology. The films place little emphasis on backstory or motivation. We know very little about Alice, and the supporting characters are as broad as possible. Like the story structure, the characters are literally generic. This particularly suits Jovovich's strengths as an actress. Her appearance is vaguely alien, or at least superhuman, and her supermodelity makes her more expressive physically, with her body and with her face and eyes, than she is verbally. The films don't require her to create a character with a complex psyche, rather she's a perfect vehicle for plot delivery and audience identification (always based on fantasy).
(Not that Jovovich isn't a good actress. I was a big fan of her performance in Luc Besson's Joan of Arc movie The Messenger, though I think I might be the only one.)
4. Visual Style
There’s a bit more variation in visual style as you would expect from a series with multiple directors but only one writer. The three directed by Paul WS Anderson evince his clean, uncluttered approach to set design and action editing, with a clear focus on bodies moving in space. The fourth and fifth films especially make extensive use of slow-motion, the ‘bullet-time’ style popularized by the Matrix films. The second film, by longtime Ridley and Tony Scott assistant director Alexander Witt and the third, by Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, are much more in the ‘intensive continuity’ style of modern Hollywood action films, which uses the kinetics of rapidly cut together shots of body fragments and empty space as a proxy for the intensity of physical action, and thus tends to create spatially incoherent fight scenes. The third film also uses a grainy, sepia-grey color palate similar to PWSA’s Death Race and Marc Neveldine & Brian Taylor’s Crank: High Voltage that looks particularly ugly next to the sleek whites and blues of Anderson’s films.
The first film makes extensive use of security camera footage, motivated as the POV as the Red Queen computer system. Trevor Link makes a compelling case for this as a study of voyeurism and political power in an essay at his website. That thread isn’t much explored in the later films, though the concept of the Umbrella Corporation as an entity reaching into every aspect of our lives is somewhat there. Yau Nai-hoi’s Eye in the Sky from 2007, produced by Johnnie To, is I think more successful and nuanced at analyzing surveillance culture through use of different film stocks representing the various ways we are spied on in public.
The Resident Evil films, with their schematic plot structures and generic characters are the perfect vehicles for movie references. The structure allows the films to be set in almost any kind of environment, and Anderson utilizes them to essentially chronicle the last 50 years or so of action and suspense cinema. The references begin with the first shot (repeated in each of the first three films), an extreme close-up of Milla Jovovich’s eyeball, from which the camera slowly pulls away reveling her collapsed body in a bathtub, shower curtain draped around her. It’s the inverse of one of the concluding shots from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Where that camera spirals into Janet Leigh’s dead eye, Anderson spirals out. What we’ll get is a story of life after death: literally as the dead come back to life but also life after the death of civilization, the twisted clone lives of the dead side characters, and the indestructibility of Alice herself, never more evident than in the beginning of the fourth film, when she storms Umbrella Headquarters backed by an army of Alice-clones. We see Alice die again and again and again.
Each film in the series has a specific model from genre film history. The first is a variation on Alien, with a small group of people trapped in a confined space against an enemy they don’t understand being manipulated by a shadowy corporation and a computer that doesn’t place much value on human life. The second film recalls Escape from New York, where Alice and her companions must traverse an overrun and locked-down metropolis to rescue someone (in this case the daughter of an Umbrella scientist as opposed to the President in John Carpenter’s film). There are also hints of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, with the city walled off from the zombie hordes while the elites escape. The third film takes place after the virus has spread, destroying civilization and much of the planet itself. It’s a desert world where fuel is the most important currency and gangs of survivors attempt to caravan to a promised land. In other words: it’s The Road Warrior. The fourth film begins with the attack of the Alice-clones, shot in a cleanly digital bullet-time with the Alices dressed in the all-black cat-suit Carrie-Anne Moss sports in The Matrix. The film’s middle section takes place in a prison where a group of survivors is surrounded by zombies, recalling Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The fifth film presents the most complex set of references: it’s based on the Resident Evil series itself, going about as far as sustainable down its own rabbit-hole.
Opening with a gorgeous action sequence played in slow motion and backwards as the credits role, then replayed forwards, the film quickly plunges Alice into a massive undersea Umbrella base. Within that base are the aforementioned clones of the characters from previous films, as well as a series of unique environments: the Raccoon City of the first film, a sequence set in Tokyo (replayed and expanded from the fourth film), and the ultra-white Umbrella hallways seen in most of the other films. Unique to this film is a normal suburban world, complete with an Alice clone who thinks she’s a typical housewife with husband (a Carlos clone) and daughter. This world is then ravaged by zombies in an experiment run by the Red Queen. This is the only time we ever get to see Alice leading anything like a normal life. The plot of the film more or less follows that of Aliens, with Alice joined by a team of soldiers to rescue a little girl, her clone child from the suburban simulation. It ends with a confrontation straight out of Ice Station Zebra, with each side facing off in an Arctic wilderness: Alice and the surviving soldiers vs. a now super-powered and evil Michelle Rodriguez clone and a brainwashed Jill Valentine.
Watching most of Paul WS Anderson’s films, this kind of referentiality is what strikes me as his most distinctive trait. Almost all of his films are based on an existing, and very popular, property of some kind: Death Race is a straight remake of the 70s cult classic Death Race 2000, The Three Musketeers is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the Dumas novel, albeit with a wildly anachronistic twist, Alien Vs. Predator is a movie based on a game based on two series of movies. The latter I think gives a clue as to Anderson’s approach to genre and story, as the mythologies of these sci-fi classics are melded with actual historical mythology and some contemporary conspiracy theories about ancient history. The film posits that the pyramids built in Egypt and Central America were built by aliens, and that humanity participated in ceremonial sacrifices there. These aliens were the Predators and the sacrifices involved the Aliens. There’s a seamlessness to the way Anderson passes from one mythology to the other, with the way he adapts and bends previously created material to build his own unique mythological world. It’s somewhat akin to the way a backwoods preacher has a limitless supply of bible verses at his disposal for use in any situation. Except for Anderson, the bible is genre cinema.
The question remains though, is there enough evidence to call Paul WS Anderson an auteur? He has a unique approach to story and character, with a distinctive visual style and appears to be exploring interesting and personal thematic territory. But is it art? I’ll attempt to answer that in the next and final installment of this series, Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism.