Resident Evil has fun with 3D, The Master makes fun of religion
Compare the unoriginal use of 3D in Hugo–standard diorama compositions with objects poking out toward the viewer–to Paul W.S. Anderson’s astonishingly lively 3D compositions in Resident Evil: Retribution where heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) fights the Umbrella Corporation’s viral experiments that produced a plague turning mankind into zombies. Anderson’s images vivify the entire expanse of the wide screen to keep your eyes busy surveying the breadth of action while also pulling your vision inward for an appreciation of depth–and emotion.
My point isn’t to measure Paul W. S. Anderson against Martin Scorsese; that’s too easy–an almost unfair contrast of innovative imagination to uninspired convention. Adventurous Alice embodies modern anxieties (Anderson’s stimulus) as opposed to geeky Hugo who drags us back to the irrelevancies of tired cinephilia (Scorsese‘s desperate recourse). It’s time now to assert Paul W.S. Anderson’s status as one of contemporary cinema’s most thrilling talents. He deserves a clarifying comparison to the fraudulent, annoyingly monickered Paul Thomas Anderson whose film The Master opened the same week as Resident Evil 5.
It’s inevitable that Paul Thomas Anderson’s artistic ambitions should be unavoidably juxtaposed to Paul W.S, Anderson’s artistic success. Their differences immediately reveal how a pseudo-serious indie artiste fails the aesthetic and emotional impact of commercial craftsmanship. The Master, a roman a clef about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and his paradigmatic follower, is a dull, nihilistic and mean-spirited presumption of cultural history whereas the futuristic fantasy of Resident Evil: Retribution turns nihilism into Apocalyptic Pop. This is the classic White elephant vs. Termite art parallel once coined by critic Manny Farber.
Memorably dubbed “P.T.” (as in the huckster-showman P.T. Barnum) by New York Press’ Godfrey Cheshire, Paul Thomas Anderson makes “big” movies that resemble the 1960s studio epics today’s film geeks never experienced–and so become fools for the highly-hyped affectations of a brand-name charlatan. The Master’s opening sequence–an extended pantomime of a WWII sailor’s shameless perversities–presents Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Pheonix) sexual exhibitionism as if defining his character. Its blatancy is similar to the puritanical bluntless about the porn industry in P.T.’s Boogie Nights. Quell symbolizes the neuroses prone to authoritarian exploitation. Essentially a coming-of-age story, The Master’s bad father figure is cult leader Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman doing the same psychotic mastermind as in Charlie Kaufman’s unbearable Synecdoche, N.Y. There’s a similarity to P.T. and Kaufman’s egotistic conceits. They trade on “smartness” and both directors are incapable of providing an enlightening, entertaining vision.
Resident Evil: Retribution doesn’t sell “big ideas” or “controversy.” It continues the video-game-based series that Paul W.S. Anderson has assayed three previous times, always growing. Anderson’s taste for the kinetic excitement that gaming has in common with cinema inspires him to turn gaming conventions into idealized pop myths. Serious ideas about our entropic destiny are used to confirm humanity’s positive will as embodied by resilient Alice (athletic, emotive Milla fulfills the warrior promise of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and shows a convincing maternal gentleness in a terrifying domestic tangent). This universal lesson opposes The Master’s cynicism in which P.T.’s vague storytelling alludes to notorious religious beliefs then particularizes its “expose” with pessimistic displays of Quell and Dodd’s actorly neuroses. It’s a secularist epic for audiences of the vampire age who don’t believe in religion anyway–there’s no possibility of rebirth or conversion, just suspicions of torture as Dodd manipulates Quell to follow orders and reveal his pain. Yet Alice (in a Wasteland rather than Wonderland) meets cynicism head on and does spectacular battle with it. That used to be the purpose of movies–at least until the indie era permitted disaffected filmmakers to obfuscate moral predicaments with narcissistic indulgence.
Resident Evil: Retribution reworks popular notions of dystopia. While P.T. means to impress critics, Paul W.S. Anderson has fun with 3D and has greater impact. His opening and closing sequences are unforgettable. In the first, Alice’s tragic memory plays in reverse: disaster is shown (equal to the opening of Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch) then remedied with a visionary optimism like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song music video. In the last tableau, her beyond-belief premonition creates a Heironymous Bosch cliffhanger. And throughout the film, Paul W.S. Anderson goes through the structures and levels of game-playing the way epic poets and novelists went through varied events to describe the full tenacity of human experience. Set in the Testing Floor of a Soviet war experiment with soundstage Times and Red Squares, then with a very modern vision of the White House, Resident Evil teases the idea of both movie and gaming fantasy. It puts the modern urge to survive (Faith) in witty context.
If you’re indifferent to Scientology, The Master will seem much ado about hoodoo. Given his trendy aversion to the subject of Faith, P.T. replays his antipathy toward religion same as in There Will Be Blood. He reduces reprobate Quell and charlatan Dodds to Method acting showing-off. Phoenix’s humpback and hare-lipped snarl/smirk recall a DeNiro yokel and Hoffman’s posturing again exposes his script’s grandstanding. The only subtlety is P.T.‘s in-joke reference to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Richard Brooks 1960 film version of Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel exploring religious hucksterism. This confirms that P.T. doesn’t just imitate his previous models Altman, Kubrick, Lynch and King Vidor; he‘s also inferior to Brooks. There will be copycatting!
All that ballyhoo about The Master being shot in 70mm means nothing in the digital cinema age (too many oppressive home-video close-ups waste technology specifically designed to give tactility to what might be lost in distant scope). Praising this shows ignorance about cinematography. Instead, the smart-about-movies crowd should be looking at Paul W.S. Anderson’s aesthetics. A photo album sequence compositing shots from the previous Resident Evils activates the screen’s fields, planes, and composition quadrants. The story may be a relay of obstacles and levels that test Alice’s intelligence and perseverance (“As I became more powerful, the human race became weaker” she worries) but the film stays lively, the action-narrative relentless. Note: The best visual P.T. can muster is an over-obvious jail-cell scene that puts id and super-ego side-by-side.
Compare that redundant ambiguity to the sequence where Alice confronts her manipulation by the Umbrella Corporation in a factory. The image of her robotic replication surely recalls Spielberg’s A.I. (a summary reference for the Resident Evil series) but it also painfully signifies her political disillusionment–not only that, it inspires her determination to fight on.
The Master’s cynical bombast defines the worst aspects of our anti-religious era; its solemn audacity is unconvincing (a fashion show scored to Ella Fitzgerald and a naked females musical number recalling Eyes Wide Shut are two of the most embarrassingly banal sequences in recent cinema). The fun and fascination of Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution proves the work of a true cinema artist; it transforms a genre franchise with visionary newness.
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