Throughout the early two thousands, Paul W.S. Anderson had the great misfortune of directing movies that made money. If his films of that era had bombed, at the very least mainstream American critics might have noticed him. Instead, Anderson was dismissed as another studio journeyman, a hack who had abandoned the promise of his low-budget debut, the stylish neo-noir Shopping, in favour of chasing Hollywood big bucks.
For his part, Anderson claimed to be unfazed, telling reporters that he made films for audiences, not for critics. It was a line he’d repeat often, and it proved to be something of a mistake. Certainly Anderson has always played to a specific viewership – he is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, and those who have followed his career for a while will be the most ready to go with him when he makes one of his bold formal leaps. But by claiming to be a populist, Anderson actively shooed the critics further away, to both his and their detriment.
In truth, Anderson is not the empty-headed hack that so many dismissed him as. Rather, he is one of the most exciting, ambitious American filmmakers of the past 40 years. Only now, after decades in the critical wilderness, is he finally getting his dues.
That reclamation project is largely being spearheaded on film Twitter, where Anderson has a committed and energized fanbase, and by members of the exploitation and cult community, many of whom have been (cautiously; gently) singing the man’s praises for decades.
For some that praise is guided by nostalgia. After all, there are those of us who were raised on Mortal Kombat – who had our first major cinemagoing expedition with Resident Evil. But there is more than that at play. Paul W.S. Anderson spent his career exploring his obsessions; honing his singular style. A lot of that work was done in the dark. Now, after two decades, the culture is finally coming around to him.
Needless to say, snobbery had a large part to play in Anderson’s initial dismissal. In the early two thousands, critics were hesitant to extend much goodwill towards directors who adapted video games for the screen, and by 2002 Anderson’s biggest hits were Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Indeed, his two original projects, Soldier and Event Horizon had both bombed, snubbed by writers and audiences alike.
That bias was hypocritical. The critically-adored The Matrix, released four years after Mortal Kombat, is nothing if not a video game movie. That film literalizes the tropes of gaming, turning the handing over of controllers from one player to the next into the superpower of the villain, and obsessively exploring the relationships between human beings and their digital avatars. But The Wachowskis had cleaned up their vision, presenting a version of cyber living that invited skeptical viewers in, rather than pushing them away.
Resident Evil takes the opposite approach. Kinetic and thin, that film looks like an early digital screensaver, a world away from than the green-hued and chic alleyways of The Matrix. Both films open with a thrilling, complicated action setpiece. The Wachowskis kick off proceedings with Trinity leaping through the air in a balletic kung-fu fight. Anderson opens on a montage of innocent people getting trapped in increasingly claustrophobic spaces, eventually beheading a screaming woman with an elevator door, only after cruelly suggesting there’s a chance she might make it out alive.
Which is to say, Anderson is unusually unafraid to get ugly. Mortal Kombat and Alien Versus Predator might be the best examples of that, films that depict deserts and arctic wastelands as the same kind of clean, uncluttered hellscape. There is never an attempt to pretty up horror, or to make it cool. For AVP, Anderson refuses a trademark of the Alien franchise, and deliberately doesn’t fetishize his xenomorphs. In Ridley Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel, the acid-blooded creatures are ornate, dripping dildos with teeth. In Anderson’s film, they are scuttling bugs, killed en masse by heroes that are more like exterminators than iron-jawed protagonists.
Of course, other filmmakers of the early thousands got dark too – even a fabulist like Spielberg was shaken up enough by 9/11 to make War of the Worlds, a movie that lingers in the dust, grit and death of invasion. But Anderson’s horror is stridently casual. He is a wide-eyed filmmaker, shooting with an unadorned clarity most common to reality television, or pornography. His camera only moves when it has to, and he only cuts to a close-up in order to show you something that you might miss otherwise.
Presumably, critics might have preferred it if he made a fuss of his violence – that way they’d be able to tell what he thought about it. Instead, he continued to shoot slaughter the way he shot everything; with a refreshing literalism. The violence in the back end of Event Horizon is so shocking precisely because it is framed just like the bloodlessness of the first act. Anderson simply keeps his mouth shut and points.
That simplicity has served him well, and goes a ways to explaining his critical reappraisal. After all, the work of some of Anderson’s contemporaries, studio favourites like Dominic Sena and Stephen Sommers, has been rendered almost unwatchable by time. Van Helsing and Swordish are actively headache-inducing, combining the kineticism of MTV cutting with the smoothness afforded by early CGI. There is simply too much of everything in both films – a visual overload that now seems clumsy and embarrassing.
But Anderson, despite what his reputation suggests, always takes his time. Consider an early scene in Resident Evil. Alice (Milla Jovovich) and a ragtag team of soldiers ride an underground train to a mysterious subterranean basement. The scene is short and direct enough that we understand what’s happening; we’re descending, danger is ratcheting up.
But Anderson needs to be more precise. As soon as Alice steps off the train, James Shade (Colin Salmon) approaches with a digital map in hand. Speaking slowly, he shows us the context of what’s just happened via a short animation, a kind of moving blueprint that depicts the exact train following an exact path to an exact underground base.
When Anderson wants you to see something, he shows it to you. That was a surprisingly rare move in the early two thousands. It is only more rare now. For proof, simply compare the Tokyo fight scene of Resident Evil: Retribution, the jewel in Anderson’s action cinematography crown, with any major setpiece of the last four years.
Anderson’s showdown is well-lit; clean. Figures are defined carefully, spatial relationships only more so. No action beat is covered by more than three cuts, so although bodies move fast, you never lose track of where they are or what’s happening to them. The choreography itself is smart and engaging, of course. But it’s Anderson’s style that elevates it to another level. Alice kicks a zombie. Cut. The zombie falls backwards. Alice spins to the floor. Cut. We see the zombie she’s staring at. Cut. Alice shoots the zombie. Cut. Alice rises.
The sequence is almost diagrammatic; an instruction manual on how human bodies move. It’s also a perfect example of a filmmaking style that essentially no longer exists. In an age where action sequences are pre-rendered before shooting even starts – when the otherwise mature and robust Black Panther descends into a series of rubbery CGI men bouncing about the dark in its final act – it certainly feels like we took Anderson for granted.
Which is precisely why Anderson’s initially poor critical reputation seems so unusual. According to the mainstream critics of the time, he represented Hollywood filmmaking at its most inert and voiceless. Now, Anderson seems more intelligent, idiosyncratic and unique than any other mainstream, big budget filmmaker currently working, save for your occasional Jaume Collet-Serra. Of course, Anderson made sequels and franchises, which is still the dominant mode for big budgeted movies these days. But he made such films before big studio thinking had taken over.
Since at least 2014, directors have essentially been expected to work on expensive Hollywood projects as though they’re dropping in to make the odd episode of a TV show; like they’re assisting with someone else’s passion project. Only, that ‘someone’ isn’t a person, it’s a brand. Or, not ‘a’ brand, but ‘the’ brand, Disney, which plucks out unusual filmmakers, bars them from staging their own fight scenes, limits them with a basic lighting and colour palette, and sets them to work. Hence the formula for any young American director: make a promising indie debut, get poached by Marvel for a corporate-controlled slab of glorified TV, and then go off and make your passion project (as long as it’s not too expensive.)
Only, that’s not the formula that Anderson followed. His wasn’t a “one for the studios, one for me,” method. Instead, he cosmetically addressed the needs of Hollywood – basing his films on recognizable IP; filling them with attractive, stylishly-clothed celebrities and special effects – while not-so-subtly exploring his own obsessions.
Or maybe that should be ‘obsession’. After all, throughout his career, the man has been singularly preoccupied with the notion of identity above all else. That is the key to Soldier, a sister project to Blade Runner that shares that film’s screenwriter, not to mention a series of metaphysical worries about the nature of personhood. And that is the key to Alice’s journey over the course of the Resident Evil films.
Alice’s body and her mind are constantly co-opted, at first by the sinister Umbrella corporation, then by a virus. But hers is not just a physical struggle against hordes of zombified creatures. It is an ideological one, as she attempts to settle on a positive self-identification, refusing to be defined by contrast. She does not want to be the woman who survived the virus; the Umbrella employee who got away. She wants to exist free of the things that hurt her. Thus, the last line of The Final Chapter, a direct assertion of self, delivered in steely voice over: “My name is Alice.”
Critics missed all that. They weren’t expecting anything of Anderson thematically or aesthetically, so found nothing in either regard, choosing instead to focus on his simple, direct plotting which they called hackneyed. Of course, that was a selectively deployed standard. It was not applied to say, 2005’s The New World, released three years after Resident Evil. Both films elevate a simple story through a unity of visual form and thematic function – Malick’s film is a meditation on nature filled with images of the bucolic, Anderson’s film is a meditation on artificial spaces filled with images of sterile metal and flickering digital bodies. But only one was well-received by the mainstream critics of the age.
Perhaps there is another reason the critics were not trained to pick up on Anderson’s preoccupations. Identity is a key theme of queer cinema, and the overwhelmingly straight, white and male critical body of the early thousands missed that one everywhere it popped up.
Indeed, the camp and the kitsch are all over Anderson’s filmography. His Death Race is one big fetish object, Pink Narcissus set in the desert, and a film obsessed with human bodies and the things that can be done with them. Pompeii, ostensibly a heteronormative romance about love that spans hundreds of years, can’t keep its eyes off everyone but its two leads. And then there’s Resident Evil, which introduces Alice via a protracted, bathroom-set flashback sequence so heightened and melodramatic to have been pulled straight out of Douglas Sirk.
None of that caught the critics’ eyes. They were blind to it in the way that any group of white men of a certain age are blind to things. Not that they ignored it; they simply didn’t even know that it was there.
Of course, there’s a degree of irony to the timing of Anderson’s long-awaited critical second act. The very things that make him special – his reliance on ugliness; his idiosyncrasies and flourishes; his campness – are the very things that Hollywood has broadly turned its back on.
Since putting his longest-running, highest-grossing franchise to bed with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Anderson’s projects have grown infrequent. More than that, they’ve grown significantly less successful. Pompeii was something of a critical flop; Origin, the YouTube Red TV series that Anderson partially directed was cancelled after one season.
He’s not done, of course – there is another project on the horizon, an adaptation of the Capcom video game franchise Monster Hunter. But a kind of Hollywood filmmaking is done; a breathless, unique, sometimes ungainly kind of filmmaking that Anderson represented the very peak of.
So maybe it was wrong to suggest that nostalgia isn’t at the heart of the Anderson revival. To watch his films – to appreciate them, as so many now do – isn’t just to bear witness to technical mastery, or a singular vision, or a thrilling queerness. It is to bear witness to something that is gone, to a style of cinematic language slowly going extinct. Anderson is not special because of the legion of imitators that he inspired. Anderson is special because there might not be anyone left in a position to be inspired by him.