Paul W.S. Anderson makes lively, unpretentious mid-budget genre movies fixated on video-gamey "cool" and distinguished by their leanness and their inventive—and sometimes even poetic—use of space.
His last film, The Three Musketeers 3D (2011), was the crassest, most ludicrous adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel imaginable: quick, silly, chock full of mechanical traps, flamethrowers, air ships and other cheesy sailpunk bric-a-brac. It was also the most personal, because in the process of chucking out Dumas' knottiness and ambiguity—along with the deaths of several major characters—Anderson transformed The Three Musketeers into a barely-recognizable vehicle for his own aesthetic predilections.
Anderson's work may not have a lot of narrative substance, but his visual sensibility is so well-developed that it often doesn't matter; form is substituted for theme. Composed in crisp visual shorthand, Anderson's movies are about images: strong, stoic-faced women meting out violence; characters executing somersaults through the air; tiny figures venturing into vast, foreboding spaces.
It's certainly a lot of fun, though not exactly profound. A lot in the way of characterization and development gets sacrificed to make Anderson's style work; his movies tend to be about stock characters talking in clichés in familiar situations—and, unlike the work of a Pop / camp fetishist like Roland Emmerich, it's all done with a completely straight face. Anderson's latest, Resident Evil: Retribution 3D, takes this even further: it's his most generic movie, in every sense of the term. In certain ways, it's also his ballsiest and most playful.
A video game adaptation that is also emphatically about video games, Retribution could be described as Anderson's answer to David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) or Brian Neveldine and Mark Taylor's Gamer (2009)—though, if you can believe it, Anderson is actually even less high-falutin' than the dudes who directed Crank. It also recalls Drew Goddard's Joss Whedon-scripted Cabin in the Woods; both films place generic characters in generic situations, and then turn the cliché narrative machinery into spectacle.
Retribution opens by playing its first scene backwards and in slow-motion, and then forwards at normal speed. Then there's an extensive summary of the events of the preceding four (!) Resident Evil movies, addressed at the audience by the disembodied head of series lead / Anderson muse Milla Jovovich (the technique recalls the info-dump opening of David Lynch's Dune). Anderson goes out of his way to make it clear to the viewer what has happened and to whom and why—which makes the rug-pull that follows all the more potent. It's emblematic of Anderson's genre ethos that when he chooses to deliberately confuse a viewer, he wants them to know that they're being confused.
For the next twenty or so minutes of the movie, Anderson toys with the audience's perception, subverting the clean and crisp spatial sense of his style (exterior scenes are revealed to be set indoors, etc.) and playing with the interchangeability of his characters. People who died in earlier Resident Evil movies reappear with different personalities; one sequence finds Jovovich seemingly reincarnated as a suburbanite getting her daughter ready for her first day of school.
Anderson's obsession with space isn't limited to his visual sensibility; it's also at the center of his plots (Anderson wrote the screenplay for Retribution, as well as the other four Resident Evil movies). His films have a locked-room quality, where "story" is often synonymous with "setting;" many of them are set largely in a single (preferably cavernous) location: a prison (Resident Evil: Afterlife), a vast underground temple (Alien vs. Predator), a spacecraft (Event Horizon). As eventually revealed, the same is true of Retribution: its doppelganger-populated spaces-within-spaces-within-spaces are all part of a massive testing facility / live-action video game that pits the characters / players against a sinister computer—the Red Queen, named after the character from Through the Looking-Glass (Jovovich's character is, of course, named Alice).
After introducing (and over-explaining) this premise, Anderson spends the rest of the movie cutting between three perspectives—that of Jovovich, that of the team sent to rescue her, and that of the Red Queen (shown through security-camera footage and wire-frame models of the facility). Retribution foregrounds the mechanics of the Red Queen's testing facility, which constitute a parody of game design: scripted events, "city" locations that are laid-out in a way that obscures their small size, non-player characters with one-note personalities (the film has a lot of fun with casting Michelle Rodriguez as two different characters—one programmed to be a Whole Foods hybrid-car sort of liberal, the other a relentless killing machine).
This is not, however, a po-mo genre indictment like Gamer or Cabin in the Woods; rather, Anderson celebrates the clichés and the mechanical storytelling, and sets up the game so that the audience can better enjoy watching Jovovich beat it. Aside from a distrust of Big Corporations (present in most of his films, including all of the Resident Evil movies)—an attitude that is in and of itself a genre cliché—Anderson is uncynical. His work is eye stuff: entertainment that rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever.
And there's, frankly, a lot to look at. Anderson's style is tailor-made for 3D, and Retribution—his third film in the format—further confirms his status as the most surefooted filmmaker working in this young and often fickle medium. He avoids all of the current 3D technology's weak areas—murky lighting, shallow focus, shaky handheld, strobic cutting—and concentrates on its strengths: wide shots, visual depth, dollies, rain, slow motion. Anderson makes especially fine use of the latter. Though slow motion is used by most filmmakers to distort or subvert action—think, for example, of Sam Peckinpah's sad, languid slow-mo violence—Anderson's use of the technique is appreciative. Often framed wide, his slow-mo sequences savor every drop of choreographed movement (in this sense, he has a lot in common with another Anderson—Wes, who shares his fondness for slowed-down deep-focus tableaux).
Nothing in the film registers as kitsch or camp—in part because Anderson, unlike many of his genre contemporaries, never gives the impression that he thinks he's making art. No scene feels drawn out, no image (not even a slow motion one) overlingers its use, no moment feels like a filmmaker imposing something on his audience, everything fits neatly and tidily into the setting / premise—and yet nothing about the film feels remotely routine, or workmanlike, or impersonal. Certain moments are pure, unaffected B-movie poetry: Jovovich teaching someone how to use a gun ("It's like a camera; you point and shoot."); a submarine's conning tower breaking through a sheet of ice; a pyramid-shaped swarm of zombies swimming up to the surface; the "sky" rebooting in a simulated New York City. It's guileless visual pulp—pleasure with nothing to feel guilty about.