September 24, 2009
The old Hollywood studio-hand W.S. Van Dyke — who directed, amongs countless other things, “The Thin Man” — once advised a young Orson Welles to “just keep it close, and keep it moving.” And an unlikely inheritor of this wisdom is Paul W.S. Anderson, whose latest work to hit screens is this week’s “Pandorum,” which he executive produced, leaving the directing to German up-and-comer Christian Alvart. Rivaled only by Uwe Boll for the title of worst-reviewed director of the past decade, Anderson’s also been one of the most resourceful. Working with the flimsiest material (video game adaptations and remakes) in the least respectable of genres (sci-fi, horror), he’s managed to construct a remarkably coherent body of work. With his longtime producer Jeremy Bolt and a loose coterie of actors, he’s created a series of films that focus on the expressiveness of claustrophobic spaces and the physical grace of his (mainly) female protagonists.
Anderson’s interest in confined spaces may have come to him in childhood. He was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, which was a major coal mining town through the first half of the 20th century. He told the New York Times’ Dave Kehr about “the lure of going down there into the dark. It’s in my blood. My grandfather, who brought me up, was a coal miner. I visited the mines with him. I remember it vividly. It was horrible. I’m glad I didn’t go into the family business.” Instead, he went to school, graduating from the University of Warwick with a degree in film and literature. He continued on to earn an MBA, with the hopes of running his own production company.
Anderson’s entrée into show business was as head writer for “El C.I.D.,” a wonderfully titled ITV cop drama starring Alfred Molina. Then he met up with Bolt, a philosophy student at the University of Bristol, Ken Russell’s driver and a fledgling film mogul. In 1992, they formed the production company Impact Pictures, and started looking for cash for their first feature, “Shopping.”
A strange mélange of rebellious youth drama and dystopic sci-fi, “Shopping” cast an angelic Jude Law in his first starring role across from his future ex-wife Sadie Frost. Gleefully amoral, Jude (as Billy) and Sadie (as Jo) head a group of homeless “ram-raiders,” kids who crash cars into storefronts, and steal whatever tickles their fancy. Anderson (no W.S. yet) envisions the city as a succession of inky black tunnels, smoky warehouses and abandoned industrial sites. He explores these spaces with all his film school tricks, including canted angles, extreme chiaroscuro lighting, and circling camera movements to underline Billy and Jo’s aimless self-destruction.
Their rebellion is cultural more than political: after rifling through a stolen car, Jo brandishes a cassette tape with religious fervor and screams, “Billy Joel, fuck that!” Then, they blare some Jesus Jones over the radio. Billy’s brooding is in stark contrast to Jonathan Pryce’s enigmatic police chief, the first in a parade of fascistic government figures to make an appearance in Anderson’s films. This central drama is under-written, but Anderson successfully captures a mood of bruised teenage romanticism. Banned in some U.K. theaters for its violence, “Shopping” still managed to nab a spot at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite only receiving an edited, direct-to-video release in the U.S., the film earned enough attention for Anderson to move across the pond.
In a 1992 article at the Independent, Anderson said, “I get very angry when I go to Leicester Square and all the movies are American.” Three years later, he went to Hollywood, never to return to his native England. His big break came with the adaptation of “Mortal Kombat,” an incredibly bloody video game that Anderson played at arcades while he was in college. It was a self-consciously silly film — he said he wanted to make it a cross between “Enter the Dragon” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” It reflects the hand-made, amateur ethos of that combination, maintaining a jokey, self-reflexive tone not unlike “Big Trouble in Little China.” (The 2006 Impact Pictures-produced “D.O.A.:Dead or Alive” has a similar spirit). The main set is a labyrinthine, fantastical underground lair, where the tournament’s fighters wander with bemused nonchalance, even when they stumble upon a Ray Harryhausen-esque six-armed behemoth planning their demise. Here, Anderson utilizes his constricted set as a genre playground, mutating to throw fighters together or supply the material for a clunky bon mot from the dry-witted Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) or the gun-toting Bridgette Wilson. It made over $120 million worldwide.
The film’s success gave Anderson the leverage to bring over Bolt, and the Impact Pictures logo has been slapped on all of their subsequent features. Having a producer’s credit doesn’t equal freedom, however, and Anderson’s next two films, “Event Horizon” (1997) and “Soldier” (1998), suffered from bad luck and studio interference. “Horizon” contains another classic Anderson setting, an abandoned spaceship that is manifesting a malevolent force from within, the first of his sets that is a character in itself. With glowering performances from Sam Neill, Lawrence Fishburne and Jason Isaacs (a member of Anderson’s nascent stock company), menacing production design from Joseph Bennett and a restrained, longer-take style from Anderson (still no W.S.), it has all the elements of a quality slow-burn chiller. But it’s saddled with a shaky third act made even more incomprehensible by studio-mandated cuts, and it ends up a compromised failure.
The “Soldier” shoot was even more harrowing. Intended as Anderson’s first landscape movie, it was slated to shoot outdoors until the El Niño hurricane swooped in and pushed everything into studio soundstages. This changed the entire visual scheme of the film, which takes place in the same world as “Blade Runner” (both scripts were written by David Webb Peoples). Star Kurt Russell broke his ankle the first week of shooting, compounding the difficulties. The visual palette is drab greens and browns, and the sets have an airless, slapped together feel, which is devastating for a filmmaker of Anderson’s interests. Kurt Russell’s grizzled, monosyllabic performance is a compensatory pleasure.
After “Soldier” flopped, Anderson went back to his basics, a video game adaptation set in the tight quarters of an underground biological warfare lab. The result was “Resident Evil” (2002), for which he wrote his first screenplay since “Shopping.” He received a modest $30 million budget from the German company Constantin Films (a relationship that has continued through “Pandorum”), and he churned out a beautifully controlled piece of zombie mayhem.
An amnesiac Alice (Milla Jovovich) goes down a corporate rabbit hole to a facility that produces the T-Virus, an experimental weapon that happens to turn dour government types into drooling brain eaters. Aided by a brusque security team and an enigmatic artificial intelligence named the Red Queen, Alice tries to lead the troops back to the surface. Anderson told Collider that “I’ve always liked strong women characters in films. When I first came to Hollywood, there was this kind of rule that was expounded by several people within the industry that I heard many times that female led action movies don’t work.” He continues to prove them wrong.
The casting of Jovovich was especially fortuitous. Her piercing blue-green eyes open the film, while her brusque line readings and lithe athleticism carry it to its close. You can’t blame W.S. (this is where he adopts the initials, the same year as that other Paul Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love”) for falling in love with her. (They were married in real life this past August.) Successful enough to inspire two sequels, the “Resident Evil” trilogy is a bloody, oozing love letter to Ms. Jovovich, keeping the camera close to her expressively stony face as she dropkicks zombie dogs, incinerates mutated crows and slices through the rest. She bottles her desperation up into a twinge at the side of her mouth, and grows increasingly jaded in each iteration of the series as the world edges closer to dissolution. It’s a profoundly pessimistic franchise.
Anderson wrote all three entries, but handed off directing duties to the sequels as the landscapes expanded beyond his favored darkened corridors. He carefully matched locales with genres, so 2004′s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”‘s action-film ethos is set in the teeming urban warfare of Raccoon City, handled with speed and aplomb by Alexander Witt, a second unit director for “The Bourne Identity” and “Casino Royale.” For the third film, 2007′s “Extinction,” Anderson pairs the wide-open desert spaces surrounding Las Vegas with a spaghetti western element (as well as a thrilling “Birds” homage), outfitting Jovovich in a duster and leather boots, and bringing back “Mortal Kombat”‘s Linden Ashby to play a sharpshooting cowboy. Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”) was tapped as the director, and his visual scheme of airy long shots, subordinating the characters to the emptied out horizon lines, is very effective in conveying the debilitating spread of the virus.
The “Resident Evil” trilogy is Anderson’s greatest accomplishment, and appropriately for his aims, it’s a modest one. They are nasty, brutish and short pieces of genre business, infused with lively character performances, resourceful production design and a bracingly downbeat worldview, all anchored by the unfussy bulldozer performances of Jovovich. His other directorial project in this period, 2004′s “Alien vs. Predator,” brought in more money than any of the “Evils,” but it’s a muddle in comparison, a joyless exercise in geometrical gore. “The Dark,” a ghost story he produced in ’05, is a far superior slice of Andersonian claustrophobia. Directed by John Fawcett, it’s a classically structured horror film that moves with sinuous tracking shots around a collapsing family, constructing a vision of hell out of candle wax and unlit rooms.
He found himself on solid footing again with “Death Race” (2008). With a small budget, dour stars (a superb Jason Statham and Joan Allen), a minimum of CGI and a maximum of twisted steel, it’s as fleet footed as “AvP” is sluggish. The booby-trapped race track might be his most sadistic work in a confined space yet, centering on a demolition derby with video game inspired power-ups to juice the carnage. Allen is especially menacing as another of Anderson’s fascistic overlords, leaning in to intimidate her prey with a low, gruff whisper before flipping the switch that snaps their necks. This is also what Mr. Paul W. S. Anderson does best. He keeps it close, keeps it moving, and then something goes boom.