The French New Wave—among the most important and influential eras in the history of cinema—still resonates in the minds of many film critics. During an era when Hollywood movies were considered hopelessly crass, young turks like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut proclaimed the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock to be high art. "Auteur theory," the idea of the director as a film's primary author, eventually became the guiding principle of most contemporary film criticism. Yet no less than Andre Bazin, founder and editor of Cahiers du Cinema, warned against the dangers of creating an "aesthetic cult of personality."
Unfortunately, Bazin's fears were well-founded. In the past few years the auteur theory has been perverted by a new school of critics, most of them bloggers, who've elevated to the level of high art various studio hacks whose work can hardly be ranked with the classic Hollywood directors. One beneficiary of this movement has been action director Paul W.S. Anderson, the man behind such multiplex fare as Mortal Kombat (1995), Death Race (2008), and the Resident Evil franchise. Resident Evil: Retribution, his latest feature, opened wide last weekend without being screened for the press.
"Cinephilia and auteurism are partly about the possibility of raising a director like Paul W.S. Anderson to equal if not greater stature than a director like Paul Thomas Anderson," writes blogger Trevor Link (referring to the acclaimed director of Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and The Master). "From the very beginning, auteurism has served, among other things, to rescue low art and genre pictures like Resident Evil from the unthinking status quo."
Trevor is right about one thing: the auteur theory has indeed rescued genre filmmakers from the stigma of low art. Directors like Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock spent most of their careers indentured to the old studio system, and as a result most classic American narrative cinema is defined by the moments when they were able to inject their personality into otherwise impersonal projects. In the 1995 documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese refers to such filmmakers as "smugglers," an apt term given the subversiveness of their work.
But do Paul W.S. Anderson's films really need to be rescued? The personal stamp he places on them is all there on the surface; recognizing stylistic consistencies in his work is like shooting fish in a barrel. At the same time, he operates with a degree of freedom the old Hollywood directors could only dreamed of. Nowadays there's no need to assign authorship to a supposedly misunderstood film or filmmaker—auteurism has become the critical norm. A director's authorship is presumed from the start.
So yes—Resident Evil: Retribution is, in fact, the work of an artist. He just happens to be a shitty one. I'm not even faulting Anderson for his meager storytelling skills; like such bawdy stylists as Paul Verhoeven, John Carpenter, and Samuel Fuller, he's decidedly unconcerned with plot, character, and theme. In fact he's better off for it. When you're working with a premise as ludicrous as this one—Milla Jovovich as a badass mercenary who's been kidnapped by an evil pharmaceutical company and imprisoned in an underwater facility with hoards of zombies—you'd be wise to abandon logic in favor of pure visceral experience.
The more time you spend analyzing the movie, the less you're liable to enjoy it. The story is full of reactionary cheap shots, the sort of neoconservative drivel that filmmaker Michael Bay has dubbed "good clean fun." One character proudly refuses to carry a weapon ("I campaigned for gun control," she says), only to be mocked by rifle-toting roughnecks. And the aforementioned underwater facilities were apparently once operated by Russian communists, which suggests that Anderson, like certain prominent Republicans, is still stuck in the Cold War.
What we're left with, then, is the image, which is a text all its own. Anderson is one of the few directors actively concerned with the mechanisms of 3-D imagery. His signature "game board shot," in which he films directly above the characters' heads, is employed to great success at least twice in the movie, particularly when Jovovich is trapped at the bottom of a tall, cylindrical holding cell. In fact Anderson pays more attention to an image's depth than he does to its two-dimensional composition, demonstrating a relatively sophisticated understanding of digital mise-en-scene.
The primary problem with Anderson's filmmaking is the feverish editing. Television has diminished the average viewer's ability to focus on an image for more than a few seconds, while the attention span of video game enthusiasts—the obvious target audience for this film—is notoriously low. Anderson's chaotic approach to montage minimizes the value of any single image, reducing it to a fleeting component of a virtual reality.
The late Cliff Doerksen understood this when he reviewed Anderson's Alien vs. Predator for the Reader in 2004. Anderson, he predicted, would one day be recognized as a "key transitional figure" when movies and videos games merged. How right he was: following Anderson's example, such proudly vulgar filmmakers as Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer) and Greg and Colin Strause (Skyline) have apparently made it their mission to film live-action video games.
But is this enough? Can a film that's kinetic, exhilarating, and expressively designed be considered an artistic success? Sure, but only to a degree. Anderson is good at what he does, but that doesn't mean what he does is any good. Doerksen managed to see past the trees to the forest when he pointed out that nothing "differentiates [Anderson] from a dozen other journeymen working in a CGI-intensive action vein."
Critics who claim to be salvaging Anderson's reputation misinterpret or otherwise ignore what the auteur theory was all about. You can still locate Hollywood on a map of Los Angeles, but the Hollywood that gave us Hawks and Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, is gone forever. There are few smugglers left in American cinema. Anderson is just a cog in the machine, bombarding us with empty images and wholly unaccountable for the consequences. For all his highfalutin style, there's considerably less to his movies than meets the eye.