Thursday, February 09, 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson)

Lost in a Roman wilderness
Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter begins on a suitably ominous note: Alice (Milla Jovovich) climbing out of a steaming underground exit, looking around, being chased by a vast winged monster while driving a recalcitrant humvee. Welcome, Alice (the name's hardly coincidental), out of the rabbit hole back not into reality but Wonderland. Things are a little different nowadays.

It's been fifteen years and six films so far, with a combined boxoffice of close to a billion dollars, arguably the most commercially successful video-game film adaptation ever. And the rare popular film franchise I might add that features a kickass female in the lead (with an ethnic-and-gender-diverse set of allies, while the villains are mostly privileged white males).

The two words: "commercially successful" and "video game" help kill any critical appreciation of the series. I was a latecomer myself--didn't much enjoy the first, skipped the second, hated the third (directed by Russell Mulcahy of the Highlander movies, not a big fan), skipped the fourth, fell hard for Resident Evil: Retribution. Still haven't bothered playing any of the games.

Been following the two chief collaborators' careers with interest in the meantime. Thought Jovovich gave a physically eloquent performance in the first third and fourth film; thought she was fine in Michael Winterbottom's The Claim, as Peter Mullan's brightly loyal Portugese lover. Thought Anderson's best work was and still is Soldier, his much-maligned futuristic remake of Shane, about an abandoned superwarrior who elects to defend a colony of crash survivors from encroaching troops (his former comrades). Minimalist acting up there with Robert Bresson, I submit, and surprisingly poignant--the soldiers have been trained since birth to ignore pain fear anger desire, their faces battle-hardened masks. Somehow the conceit works; there's a touch of melancholy to Kurt Russell's performance as Sgt. Ted 3465, so busy being a soldier all his life that concepts like trust and tenderness seem beyond him (he's like an underdeveloped boy trapped in a man's steroid-swelled body; sometimes glimpses of the buried child shine through). All that wrapped up in a brutal wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am science-fiction action flick.  

The arc of this franchise doesn't continue in an upward trajectory, alas. Retribution was Anderson at his surreal best, with fight sequences set in luminescent white corridors (the better to show all the smeared blood) and shot in balletic slow motion, elegant dances that not only made sense visually but strategically, as Jovovich's Alice not just outfights but outsmarts her adversaries. The film begins splendidly, with Alice floating in water; she suddenly arcs up out of the ocean towards imploding balls of flame, a helicopter assembling parts and windshield together from its pancaked wreckage--the gigantic battle sequence filmed backwards, a reprise and continuation in effect of the previous film's closing act. 

Alice is still thinking in The Final Chapter--there's a nice little fight atop a battle tank that recalls Mad Max: Fury Road in all its grimy postapocalyptic intensity only with more graceful moves, and a pip of a sequence where our heroine hangs upside down, hopelessly surrounded by Umbrella troops. But the action has been chopped up, alas, the lovely choreography broken into little chunks. Anderson did this in Pompeii in response to, I suspect, all the fights he staged in Retribution; he must have felt he had to do everything not just better but different. He also said in an interview that he wanted to return to the feel of the first picture, move the emphasis from action to horror.

Nevertheless everything still hold together; you just have to watch with a quicker eye. Anderson's obviously a fan of George Miller, who isn't shy about using fast cutting sans slow-motion, and I suppose Miller's recent film has inspired him considerably (Anderson still plays with film speed, briefly and sparely; you can spot the slowed-down moments if you're alert enough). The dances are still dances, just more challenging to watch (less Vincent Minnelli meets Tsui Hark and more Bob Fosse). Walter Hill went through a similar recent change, trading in his trademark lyricism for a more brutish but still recognizably coherent style (I consider Hill's latest incidentally to be the best production Sylvester Stallone was ever involved with--a film that flirts with incoherence, but pulls back at the last second (or inch) to present you a complete image). 

Beyond the action there's the plot, which includes a forty-eight hour deadline that gooses up the film's pace considerably; you might say Anderson has traded in virtues like abstracted visual poetry for more old-fashioned values like a tightened script (also thought that Pompeii was helped by the charming love story). Beyond that there's this sense of finality: everything is darker grimmer filthier (no spotless luminescent corridors here) suggesting everyone--Alice and Umbrella Corp included--is running out of resources, yet have this suicidal need to blow it all in one last effort, saving nothing heeding nothing, a not entirely unappropriate spirit considering the film's title. It's like the waterfall of flames that at one point punctuates the film: why save fuel, when you can go in a literal blaze of glory?

First published in Businessworld 2.2.17

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