Where to begin with Paul W.S. Anderson

A beginner’s path into the kinetic action cinema of Paul W.S. Anderson... and why it’s worth taking seriously.

21 June 2021

By Matthew Thrift

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

Why this might not seem so easy

Critics haven’t been kind to the films of Paul W.S. Anderson. Not one of his 13 theatrical features to date bears a ‘fresh’ rating on the review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. The box office may tell a different story, one in which his series of films adapted from the Capcom video game Resident Evil (2002-2016) have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. But for the two decades or so that followed the release of his 1994 debut Shopping, Anderson’s brand of B-movie spectacle appeared to be, at best, confined to the disreputable realms of the guilty pleasure.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson on the set of Monster Hunter (2020)
© Coco Van Oppens/Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

And yet, over the past few years, Anderson’s oeuvre has been subject to considerable efforts at rehabilitation. Where contemporaneous reviews of his films saw thinly developed characters, narrative incoherence and substandard CGI maelstroms, his growing army of devotees found an auteur hiding in plain sight. Here was a filmmaker who eschewed the niceties of dialogue and psychology in favour of kinetic, blunt-force pulp and an astonishing eye for movement and geometric action. 

Qualitative assessments aside, there’s no disputing that Anderson’s work bears a firmly identifiable style. His thematic and formal preoccupations echo from film to film: from a distrust of authority (and authoritarian) figures to his taste for confined, booby-trapped spaces. Most of all, there’s his keen sense of spatial orientation and eye for balletically capturing bodies in motion, notably that of his wife and muse, actor Milla Jovovich.

The best place to start – Monster Hunter

The Resident Evil series is the centrepiece of Anderson’s filmography, yet it’s not until the final three films that the franchise reaches its peak. For a single first taste of his compositional prowess, try his latest, another video game adaptation – Monster Hunter (2020).

Where the boss-level finale of Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) takes place in a clinically gleaming digital vacuum – its pristine white backdrop highlighting Anderson’s action tableaux – Monster Hunter takes to the desert, with nothing but a vast sweep of sand and sky (and the spatial moorings of a few rocky outcrops) to distract from the kaiju carnage.

Monster Hunter (2020)
© Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

How we get to the first big beastie smackdown is beside the point. Some soldiers, led by Jovovich’s Captain Artemis, are sucked into a parallel dimension lorded over by various flying or burrowing behemoths. Exposition, motivation, character development – all, in the best Anderson tradition, prove as functional as the film’s title. Even dialogue is largely dispensed with for much of the film’s glorious second act, as Jovovich teams up with local hunter Tony Jaa – named, with utilitarian economy, Hunter – for a riff on the mutual misunderstandings of John Boorman’s island-set two-hander Hell in the Pacific (1968). 

Armed with the iconography of his source material and a constant supply of pop-cultural references, Anderson readies the stage for his eruptive set-pieces, his characters dwarfed by the landscape, their weapons and their Lovecraftian foe. Monster Hunter may suffer in its secondary narrative – involving a band of desert pirates led by Ron Perlman – but when the marriage between Jovovich’s extraordinary physicality and Anderson’s gift for staging takes prominence, the algorithmic action sequences from the likes of Marvel are held in sharp relief.

What to watch next

Shopping (1994)

The Northumberland-born Anderson’s career got off to a controversial start when Shopping – his only British production to date – was subject to that peculiarly 90s brand of tabloid fervour. Featuring Jude Law in his first leading role, the film saw the conservative press throw a tizzy over its supposed glorification of ram-raiding. With its aerial shots of industrial wastelands and urban decay, it’s a hyper-aestheticised flipside to the contemporary Cool Britannia movement. Anderson was already in thrall to the propulsive thrill of movement – linked, via Sadie Frost’s handheld edition of Crazy Cars, to video games – and this is a debut mounted with nihilistic swagger.

Handed the keys to the studio play chest, Anderson brought a pair of 1980s pop-cultural monoliths together for the face-off that is Alien vs. Predator (2004). The film doesn’t shortchange on franchise iconography, but it’s in the intricacies of Anderson’s formal design – not least the alternating gambits of orientation and disorientation within the shifting spaces – that the film demonstrates its superiority to Ridley Scott’s recent attempts at Alien resurrection.

Scott’s Alien (1979) was clearly on Anderson’s mind when he made Event Horizon (1997), a haunted-house-in-space picture that finds a gateway to hell on the other side of a black hole. Many of the tropes that would come to characterise Anderson’s filmography are already apparent here, although his next picture, Soldier (1998), finds him at his most stripped-back and economical. The dialogue-free opening sequence that introduces Kurt Russell’s obsolete military assassin might just be his best.

Event Horizon (1997)

Quentin Tarantino cited The Three Musketeers (2011) as one of the year’s best pictures. Like his later historical film, Pompeii (2014), it was shot in 3D and shows Anderson’s mastery of every axis of his widescreen frame. The former is a nimble swashbuckling adventure; the latter leans into romantic melodrama – both demonstrate his choreographic ingenuity in spades.

Of the six films in the Resident Evil franchise, Anderson helmed the first and the final three, continuing as eagle-eyed producer on the second and third. Resident Evil (2002) introduces us to Milla Jovovich’s blank slate Alice, an amnesiac following a viral outbreak in Raccoon City. Cue a relatively straightforward mash-up of sci-fi and (determinedly non-metaphorical) zombie tropes, albeit one enlivened by Anderson’s 3D-mapping of the underground spaces in which the action unfolds.

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

Alice takes on various guises as the series progresses, all centred around a seemingly endless quest to reclaim her own identity – and body – from the grips of the insidious Umbrella Corporation. From wounded heroine to maternal figure to quasi-messiah, come The Final Chapter (2016), Alice is denied her selfhood and womanhood by the patriarchal power structures from which she is perpetually in flight. 

The series – and Alice’s tragedy – peaks with the feedback loop of the fifth film, Anderson’s masterwork Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), which finds her replaying events of the series ad infinitum. The corridor fight is his most beautifully sustained sequence of action choreography. For all the aesthetic comparisons made to The Matrix (1999) on release, however, it’s Alice’s search for self that ties the film most keenly to the Wachowski franchise.

Where not to start

Mortal Kombat (1995) was Anderson’s first video-game adaptation, and doesn’t want for energy. Riffing on Enter the Dragon (1973) in its tournament-based set-up, and scored with pounding techno, the film has its share of striking compositions but is hampered by the studio’s insistence on a PG-13 certificate. 

Death Race (2008) updates the Roger Corman exploitation classic for a gladiatorial demolition derby. There’s vehicular mayhem, terrific stunt work and ruthless indictments of corporate greed, but even a wisecracking Ian McShane can’t wholly alleviate its exhausting grimness. 

Completists shouldn’t overlook Anderson’s TV movie The Sight (2000). It’s a little rough around its low-budget edges but proves every bit the dry run for the first Resident Evil movie, even including a prototype for franchise nemesis, the Red Queen.

Further reading

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