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Game Theory: Paul W.S. Anderson and the Filmic Board Game

A typical critical insult becomes a compliment for this director whose films adopt the look, feel, and logic of video games.
Chris DeFalco
Resident Evil The Final Chapter
Raúl Ruiz’s 1980 short film, Snakes And Ladders, follows H as he begins playing a board game where the world around him gradually becomes the board.  H comes upon two men playing ludo on a table and as he joins in, the field of play continuously grows, moving from the tabletop to Paris, Europe, the world, and finally all of existence.  H’s movement in the game becomes the work of chance governed by the roll of the dice and as he progresses he gradually comes to realize that he is the die, and that he is the game piece being moved about on the map.  The cosmic forces controlling H ultimately reach into the frame, emphatically presenting an author surrogate in the form of a hand.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson creates filmic board games similar to Snake And Ladders without explicitly revealing his authorial hand.  He leaves the author’s presence unstated, but it remains just as prominent.
Anderson’s films exist as games for the MTV generation, adopting the look, feel, and logic of video games.  From the outset, these films have incorporated elements of video games—Sadie Frost’s character in Anderson’s first film Shopping (1994) plays a handheld video game, Crazy Cars, whose gameplay mirrors the car chase in which she is currently a participant.  Shopping employed, in a nascent form, a few of the elements that would go on to figure into Anderson’s subsequent films, namely dystopic visuals and vague political/socioeconomic concerns related to class and class warfare, but it wasn’t until his second and third films, Mortal Kombat (1995) and Event Horizon (1997), that Anderson’s primary conceptual concerns began to coalesce.
Mortal Kombat established Anderson’s preoccupation with video game films, adapting video game properties Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil as well as using video game aesthetics and mechanics as a jumping off points in Soldier (1998), Alien vs. Predator (2004), and to an extent The Three Musketeers (2011).  The spatial logic of video games figures prominently into the visual scheme of Mortal Kombat; during fight sequences, bodies are foregrounded as to emphasize the gap between foreground and background, echoing the look of the game itself.  Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) see their art design become ever closer to that of game developer and publisher CAPCOM.  Even more indebted to CAPCOM is the character of Albert Wesker in the last three Resident Evil films.  Shawn Roberts as Albert Wesker becomes the live action equivalent of a character in a cut scene through the use of gliding, unreal motion, anime-derived design, non-emotive and stiff facial expressions, and the overacting of video game voiceovers.  Soldier takes its content from video games, with Kurt Russell’s nearly dialogue-less performance casting him as the protagonist in a third person shooter.  Russell’s performance as, initially, obedient automaton would not see its equal in cinematic quasi-video game characters until Gerard Butler in Neveldine/Taylor’s 2009 film Gamer.  These aesthetics culminate in Resident Evil: Retribution, a film that destroys all sense of plot and character identity until all that remains are signifiers of video games, achieving a meta-cinematic effect.  Actors are transformed from ‘characters’ to bots, disposable and interchangeable.  Settings lose their connection to the world of verisimilitude, instead becoming quasi-theatrical stages filling the role of ‘level‘ for the protagonist to traverse. 
While Mortal Kombat set up the formal and conceptual aspects of Anderson’s films, Event Horizon laid out the visual motifs that have dominated the majority of his subsequent work: labyrinthine corridors, confined spaces, Alien-inspired architecture, maps establishing spaces and spatial relations.  These elements have defined Anderson’s films, providing the grammar to understand them not merely as cinematic spectacles but as a form of filmic game, a game in which Anderson serves as both creator and player: the hand casting and shaping the die.
The first element necessary for establishing these films as games—specifically, as board games—is to establish the game board.  Geometric spaces are delineated.  Labyrinthine, maze-like spaces are set for bodies to move through.  Anderson manages this spatial logic through a number of techniques.  Scenes open establishing a character in medium shots before then either cutting or zooming out to wide angle shots of the same space, establishing a character and then situating him within the context of his location.  These shots are also used to create an understanding of three-dimensional space within the frame; Resident Evil: Afterlife, for example, establishes with a shot looking up from an opening in the ground then cuts to further down the tunnel to create a sense of the tunnel’s depth.  Anderson’s concern becomes location in relation to a scene as much as location within a shot.  Maps recur in order to define the relation between spaces for the viewer and often for the characters within the film.  They exist on the level of the characters in order for them to find their way from point A to point B, but operate as a means of situating individual locations within the whole.  This function is echoed through aerial shots in Resident Evil: Afterlife and Pompeii to display the relation of characters to their surroundings and the relation of those surroundings to encroaching danger.  One sees the forest and the trees. Maps further serve a relational function through the repeated device of zooming into a digital display before dissolving into the room highlighted within the display, thus allowing Anderson to move between locations while maintaining a fundamental understanding of how those locations fit together.
Once the space has been defined, movement and blocking within that space become important.  Long takes, wide and medium angles, deep focus, and fluid editing are all used to keep sequences, action or otherwise, from fragmenting.  A continuity of motion is established where camera movement and editing unify scenes as three-dimensional space rather than the two dimensions of the frame.  Again, like with the relationship between spaces, the viewer understands the spatial relationship between characters in a scene, not just in a shot.  One understands where objects are and where they are going, unlike in the quick, choppy, disjointed editing of other contemporary action films, such as the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where scenes become flattened in space and the spatial unity between shots evaporates.  In Anderson’s films the firing of a gun and the fall of a body do not exist as two separate events presented one after the other only united through editing but rather as one event linked by the motion of the bullet through the scene.  The same holds true for all forms of motion.  Unity between shots exists because there is already a defined space for motion to occur within.
Anderson employs the driving, linear movement of games, combining aspects of both board and video games.  It is here that the commingling of the two styles of gaming becomes important.  Video game elements give purpose to the board game’s focus on space and movement.  The logic of video games is what is used to move the pieces on the board.  The films progress from one place to the next, punctuated only by action set pieces and puzzle solving.  Plot becomes a series of tasks, of movements, rather than the progression of Freytag's pyramid.  The plots in Anderson’s films are arbitrary, which is not to say that they are unimportant but that they exist as excuses for forward motion.  His films frequently feature conglomerates and figures of authority manipulating the characters in the film and forcing their actions.  These figures serve as puppet masters pulling the strings and orchestrating the necessary machinations of the film.  They give the game its start and define its rules but do so out of an arbitrary necessity.  Jason Statham is arrested and sent to prison in Death Race (2008), because he needs to be there in order for the film to progress.  This arbitrariness is never more apparent than in the six Resident Evil films which achieve a level of postmodernism through their insistent narrative disjunction, rewriting the story from film to film, even scene to scene, so that its twisting, convoluted mythology dissolves into the momentum of the moment.  Thus, plot continuity is spatial, rather than logical.  Resident Evil’s heroine, Alice, must make it from place A at the start of the film to place B by the end of it and there is little narrative beyond that concern.  The physical movement of Alice’s repeated journeys from A to B or Jason Statham’s races in Death Race create plot through the natural rhythms of their picaresque video game questing.
Anderson moves his pieces around on his board until a narrative emerges from those movements.  This process is never more apparent than in The Three Musketeers, a film brimming with images of maps and of games.  The prologue opens with armies atop a map—an image somewhere between a Risk board and the real-time strategy computer game Age of Empires—as a brief explanation of the political climate of 17th century France is given.  Similar maps will recur, indicating movement over great distances using tokens representing the characters who are traveling: the camera moving over the map for D’Artagnan’s journey to Paris, an airship moving across a map for the Musketeers’ return from London to Paris.  The Tower Of London appears as a 3D-modeled map, in one scene, as the Musketeers discuss their plans to recover the queen’s stolen jewels while standing over a blueprint of the Tower.  These images all serve to establish the film as existing on a game board.  The decor of Cardinal Richelieu’s great chamber points to the game at play.  The room features a large world map on the floor with figures of foot soldiers and cavalry placed around it.  Also within the chamber is a chessboard, at which the cardinal plays against the king.  The chess match between the two represents the central driving force of the film’s plot, the power struggle between the cardinal and the crown, one which the king remains unaware of beyond the chessboard.  On one level, this scene serves as a condensation of all subsequent action in the film—the Musketeers moving about on the map to thwart the cardinal’s plan to eliminate the queen—the imbalance in awareness as to the weight of the game serves here to represent that of the relation between film and filmmaker.  Anderson is the orchestrator, while the characters within the film remain unaware that they exist as pieces to be moved about for his aims.  Without revealing his hand, Anderson reveals himself as the architect of the games of movement and space presented before the viewer.
The narrator of “Snakes And Ladders” says, “[t]he map suppresses the labyrinth.  The history of cartography is, therefore, the business of labyrinth destruction.”   In the context of Paul W.S. Anderson’s films, this labyrinth destruction becomes the essence of “termite art.”  He builds a world only to lay it bear.  Maps deconstruct both the labyrinths of space and the labyrinths of narrative,stripping the films down to a formal level without eschewing the trappings of genre essential to them.  What remains is the recombinative, the ways in which pieces can potentially fit together, the ways in which objects and bodies can be moved through space.  Each film is therefore the result of a single casting of the die, a single artifice built around the orchestration of motion.


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