Editor’s Note: This article was originally published Jan 1, 2015.
Milla Jovovich with her sidekicks Milla and Milla
Whenever an artistic medium dares to cheat on its loyal fanbase by scurrying over to another, anger and thinkpieces likely follow. Technology has amped up an uncanny-valley-sort of realism in video games. Movies have added more CGI to its blockbuster spectacles and animation. Thus, the previously distinct media have drawn blurrier lines with consumers none too pleased. Games like Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain earn the title of “cinematic”, either as mere descriptor or complaint. A quick gameplay video affirms this: most of the action simply propels the player through a grounded narrative with only a few promptly-timed button mashes driving what looks like an animated movie. Cinema-goers as well have lambasted recent multi-million-dollar projects like Gravity for sequences of first-person, graphics-laden action, not unlike a Call of Duty cut-scene (the latest of which, by the way, features CGI-fied Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey and gets its own IMDb page). A recent Huffington Post video brings in Mattias Stork’s commentary on this comparison video between The Amazing Spider-Man and Mirror’s Edge. While Stork gives off a cool, academic interest in their intersection, the host seems at-arms about what this could mean for the quality of upcoming films.
If you haven’t latched onto my accusatory tone, let me be clear: I don’t quite see this blurred line as a looming problem. I enjoyed the casual nature of Heavy Rain and all of its cinematic tactics. While I didn’t care much for Gravity, any and all cut-scene-like influence only made its miniature climaxes more palpable for me. The most cynical part of me even thinks that this light infiltration of one medium on another isn’t what empowers a critical hand-waving of a film being “video-game-like”. Instead, given the century-long debates that crowned film as an art form worthy of museum space, a mere association with seemingly low-brow entertainment like video games would soil any film’s claim to greatness. Fear of the “low-brow” association and significant failures have kept most serious filmmakers away from video game adaptations or even coming near game-like cinematic techniques. However, one video-game-film-franchise has met with critical success through believing in and adapting these elements to a point of aesthetic command: Resident Evil. From the films in which he’s had near-complete control (Resident Evil, Afterlife, Retribution), it’s clear that Paul W.S. Anderson loves two things: video games and his wife Milla Jovovich kicking ass. From the DVD commentaries, Anderson apologizes for indulging the listener in his love for the Resident Evil game series and arthouse films — a high-low divide that he feels won’t touch ground with any common audience. But the significant appropriation of elements from all of Anderson’s interests are what makes the Resident Evil franchise the most powerful argument for this mingling of media.
Is “Heavy Rain” just a playable movie?
The first Resident Evil approaches a video game format in name and monsters only. Anderson, given free rein for these American films after George A. Romero’s falling out with game creator Capcom, used the RE mythology to craft a smart but standard prison escape thriller. Alice (Milla Jovovich), a character not represented in the game but of Anderson’s own need to thematically tie down the series to Alice in Wonderland, awakens with little to no memory, but she’s already on the move. As she’s taken down the proverbial rabbit hole by an emergency crew of soldiers, we’re introduced to the recurring toys of this universe. Guns, zombies (the consequence of an experimental medical outbreak), Milla’s kung-fu, mirrors, CCTV cuts, 3D map layout, and sterile-to-questionably-beautiful corporate design will all make a return in each iteration of the franchise. Each element comes about through the central metaphor-machine: the Umbrella Corporation, a catch-all organization for dystopian capitalism that exists in the film world mostly to give Milla an excuse to kick something in the head. If the inaugural film has any core weakness, it’s this fragile world-building of Umbrella and fumbling to explain its nefarious existence. It sells biological weapons and other doomsday plot devices to the US, China, Russia, Japan, you name it. Its lack of any national allegiance and motivation to profit at any cost paints a nice sci-fi portrait of the rise of global capitalism, but the sheer amount of time the burly soldiers spend to extrapolate on the zombies’ creation takes away from the significant pleasure of their killing them. As Nick Pinkerton notes: “His zombies and aliens are not metaphorical stand-ins for anything; they are zombies and aliens.” At this point, the franchise is still beholden to the notion that “low brow” products like zombies must be explained with some allegorical device to be recognized as legitimate, so Anderson plays that card. The only real attempt at aligning the film with a “low brow” game structure (other than the visual head-nods, recreating specific scenes and camera angles and the curious decision to let bodies disappear), comes from a level-based arena of fighting until presented with a final boss (also stripped from the game). However, that kind of narrative-building bears more resemblance to general three-act action films, with action sequences ramping up into a final fulfilling catharsis of villain-decimation. No matter: the studios approved of the money that a low-budget, niche action film could garner. Video game adaptations Max Payne (2008), Doom (2005), and Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) were all greenlit.
The next two entries, Apocalypse and Extinction (2007), represent a dark time for RE true believers. Though Anderson stayed on each project as a major consultant and remained the driving creative force behind these films, he directed neither film. Though far from unheard of in a large franchise, his lack of tight control on each film allowed cookie-cutter shoot-em-up fluff to occupy the screenspace instead of Anderson’s compositional bloodbaths. Or so we’d be led to believe. Apocalypse fills this description rather well thanks to second-unit veteran Alexander Witt’s careless shot/reverse-shot tactics that obfuscate any hint of Jovovich’s athleticism. Anderson’s script reaches into the franchise’s need to be more acquainted with the video game series, but approaches it from the wrong end by simply filling each frame with fanboy porn. More direct shots from the games, more recognizable creatures, and the introduction of game protagonists Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) all equate to an admitted pandering of the niche market they tapped with the first entry (Note: This is a losing game; fanboys can never be pleased). Outside two wide-angle building run stunts, Apocalypse strains to be an actual blue-and-gray-palette war movie to oppose the prison-break nature of its predecessor. This genre-switching also remains a mainstay in the franchise to keep each iteration fresh, but ultimately takes away from RE’s action strengths as genre-fied world building must forever be maintained. Extinction, though still somewhat out of Anderson’s hands with Gladiator director Russell Mulcahy at the front, improves on the stale concrete atmosphere of Raccoon City by taking the action troupe to the desert. Mulcahy and Anderson’s vision is indebted to Mad Max, westerns, and the road movie, and effectively stays in that territory to riff on The Birds, Day of the Dead, and Planet of the Apes. It’s also the least indebted to the video games in appearance, structure, or narrative which makes it an enjoyable anomaly free from the restraints of the Umbrella Corp. myth-making and fanboy appeasement. Though Extinction did away with the game’s lineage, these relative strengths would work their way into Anderson’s next scripts. PSWA’s time away from directly tampering with his material would allowed him to observe what allows a franchise like this to fail or flourish. With Extinction’s market success, Anderson planted himself in the director’s chair once again to craft the most ambitious and experimental movies of his career.
The return by a more experienced Anderson becomes a film by a more stylistically-consistent Anderson. IMAX-ultra-widescreen, a pioneering use of 3-D, and slow motion determined Afterlife‘s (2010) every action and composition — immediately distanced from the violent barrage of shot/reverse-shot of its predecessors. If the sophisticated stereoscopic 3-D didn’t make the action coherent enough, Anderson draws lines — literal lines around the architecture — to help guide each punch and bullet. In Anderson and cinematographer Glen MacPherson’s world, evil corporate headquarters, landscapes, bodies, and even movement itself must be bound by a deterministic symmetry. To steal from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Space is plot here” — Resident Evil had grown to accept itself as a sequence of action set-ups with narrative and Umbrella Corp. as minor details in its large, world-building aesthetic. To deliver on its promise of identity reinvention, Anderson also brings video game logic into the film’s DNA. The very first action scene, an invasion of Umbrella HQ by a Milla swarm, uses similar multi-life progression as this year’s Edge of Tomorrow, though with less bombastic pronouncement. The enemy forces are whittled down, but Milla eventually reaches her last life at the final boss — the gravity of the battle now shifted since there’s no more restart. It’s not that Afterlife merely adapts video game logic, but that this particular scene could benefit only from its implementation. The action is allowed to build on a large scale thanks to the amount of Millas, each iteration could absorb a reasonable amount of blowback (leading to their respective deaths) with no form of respite as another Milla could immediately take her place. Once the course of this sequence has reached its zenith of adrenaline, the tension can shift when the scene ends with single-life Milla, now vulnerable and required to backtrack, ultimately leading to the next scene and setting the stage for the rest of the film. There lies Resident Evil’s unique power: game-like logic for cinematic good.
Action determined by lines and symmetry in “Retribution”
Finally, Anderson does away with all excess. With Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), he’s no longer practicing standard filmmaking — this is the action film’s equivalent of a tone poem. Milla is led through the previous films, replaying the levels with her new skill set in order to achieve a significant level of proficiency before the final boss (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is due in 2016). The CCTV outlining the Umbrella facility’s map layout evinces an even more explicit level-like format, each with their own difficulty, class of enemies, mini-bosses, and particular logic of escape (we’re back to the original’s genre tropes). Even the CCTV itself seems directly influenced by pause-screen maps used to reorient the player when lost in a labyrinthine game. Seemingly unimportant details reek of video game references: Milla discovers that the entire facility is populated by about fifty “player models” and their clones; the Russian level is populated with “Kremlin zombies” (not quite as overused as Nazi zombies); and the mastermind, the Red Queen, speaks about and manipulates her environment as a game designer, forcing Milla to play by her rules. Anderson abandons all traditional cinematic or literary reasons to advance Milla’s position in space and time for goal-based, game-based, space-based freebasing on pure action. Again from Vishnevetsky: “From the countdown at the end of the first Resident Evil to the pile of failed Alices at the beginning of Extinction, the series had always played around with integrating the mechanics of gameplay; here, they’re front and center, with a major emphasis on the play.” Retribution is not just a film based on a video game; it replicates the feeling of watching your friend play the newest, best AAA game title. Only Milla is much better than your friend.
But isn’t watching your friend play much less fun than playing the game yourself? If a film goes this far to mutate into a film-game hybrid, why not just cut all the playing around and plug in the controller? Therein lies the central problem: if one medium is desperately trying to be another, it seems to be “missing” the good qualities of either. For games trying to be movies, they miss the playability and don’t quite get emotional resonance and characterization. For movies trying to be games, they miss emotional resonance and characterization and don’t quite get playability.
NaissanceE sells its environment instead of gameplay
2015 will distance these two media even further. With experimental, environment-exploring games on the rise, the idea of games as an artform to explore a virtual experience separates it from a one-way spatio-temporal narrative that film offers. Even “blockbuster model” games offer free exploration and the ability to craft your own narrative; this distance is already mainstream. Mass access to virtual reality (VR) devices will even separate video games from movies’ screen-based consumption, and that sort of game-changing business can only do better from here. If there’s any calls for the “death of cinema” in today’s world, it comes from young people’s obsession with Twitch, Let’s Plays, and this upcoming promise of total immersion from VR. This can be all right: cinema had its time as a state fair attraction and pure mind-numbing entertainment before it was thought to be a respectable medium. Video games are also reaching this artistic maturity. Look no further than the works of Cory Arcangel, articles in Rhizome, and the game collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Those who have believed in the creative powers of interactivity and gameplay have rescued video game elements from the vocabulary of philistinism. Maybe now we can look back at Resident Evil and its undying love for both media and recognize something beautiful. Maybe we can look forward to cinema and film’s continued liaison. Maybe, in the age of VR, everything will be OK.