Saturday, November 28, 2009

Great malenky yarbles

Paul W.S. Anderson has earned some deserved notoriety for being a bit shit.
His debut feature, with bright-eyed, chisel-cheeked Jude Law when he was still unfamous, was the grindingly shite Shopping, and a prime vehicle to allow Jude’s rubbish side to shine.

Mortal Kombat followed as Anderson’s first videogame adaptation. Seemingly blind to the steaming afterbirth that was Super Mario Brothers, someone decided that desperately trying to squeeze a film out of a one-on-one beat ‘em up remarkable for its gore was a good idea. The result was a Western action movie in the pre-Matrix days, meaning the action scenes were pedestrian and the game’s gore had been toned down to gain a bigger audience. It’s rancid excuse for cinema didn’t prevent it from spawning a sequel and a TV series. Wonders never cease.

Soldier was Anderson’s fourth feature, was universally panned and was at least an important factor in the downfall of Kurt Russell, who if it weren’t for a few unwise projects could have found himself in the position Bruce Willis enjoys today, mixing interesting work along with the clag.

Resident Evil was the second videogame adaptation, somehow coming up with a plot worse than the original game, infamously bad voice acting and all. Essentially an excuse to watch Milla Jovovich kick ass and use a little bit of dodgy CGI, this is exactly the kind of filler horror bilge that somehow manages to appeal despite the correct knowledge that it will inevitably disappoint. So many people have managed to do zombie movies right, it’s almost insulting when someone cocks one up. Still, I get the feeling that even though I have avoided them so far, the small part of me that yearns to see the sequels will never die.

Whilst not quite evoking the reaction I had to Terminator: Salvation in terms of Franchise Necrophilia, Alien Vs. Predator deserves special mention for making Resident Evil seem like it actually didn’t cock up as a zombie move that badly, in retrospect. Two of the most popular alien horror series had already met in the comic world with some excellent results. A number of stories had envisioned a universe in which the species co-existed and inevitably intruded into the lives of humans, with some success both critically and commercially. So you’d think that making a half decent movie featuring the two xenomorphs would be a piece of piss, and maybe it is. Maybe Anderson went out of his way to fuck it up, just to see if Fox would still release the thing. It achieved an age rating of 15, which can only be seen as a mistake. If your aim is to re-envision it as a subtle psychological horror where any physical trauma is artfully implied rather than splattered on screen, that’s fine, but to go for a halfway house with not enough of anything for anyone we all just go home miserable. And then set it in pyramids, under the Artic ice. Basically a setting as far removed from the earthly or intergalactic arenas you would ideally use, and basically looking like a leftover Young Indiana Jones backdrop that hadn’t been dismantled because they ran out of ideas and money.

Four years later Anderson came back with Death Race one of a number of remakes of classic 70s films that almost certainly didn’t take the original title of Death Race 2000 as it was released in 2008. To be fair, I have heard a number of positive reviews of this, in terms of “it’s good for a bullshit empty action movie”, and it does feature Mr. Jason Statham as the lead, but the trailer really put me off being packed as it is with clichés of clichés in some sort of post-anti-meta-critique of base action films. I did go and see Gamer in the cinema this year, so I think Death Race probably does deserve to get a look in at some point.
The latest project is apparently a return to the Resident Evil franchise; this time subtitled Afterlife, although he did write the two existing sequels so it can’t be argued that he is resorting to a return to past successes. Perhaps this will prompt me to finally watch the sequels in some sort of masochistic Resident Evil marathon which climaxes in a visit to the cinema to see the fourth instalment and a subsequent trip to hospital after gouging out my own eyes?

Speaking of which…

The one Anderson film I haven’t mentioned so far is also unique in that it’s quite good. Event Horizon was Anderson’s third feature, released in 1997, and featured the sublime Laurence Fishburne as our hero spaceship captain, seemingly existing in a universe with an alternate sci-fi film history where none of the films exist that would dissuade one to ever captain a rescue vessel in outer space.

When I say “quite good”, I’m really using the word “good” far more freely than many would be comfortable with, but in terms of Andersons catalogue it is truly a diamond in the rough, Argos diamond or no.

Event Horizon could hardly be accused of being original and lifts elements from
Alien – space rescue going wrong
Various haunted house movies – hallucinations of ghosts caught just going off screen, through doorways, up ladders etc.
2001 – cramped, circuit-board lined passageway
Jaws – crash zoom in said tunnel
Star Trek - the Event Horizon echoes the design of a Klingon Bird of Prey
Hellraiser – hell as a dimension, Neil’s Weir character ‘going native’ and becoming a demon involves a fair bit of self harm (ultimately the worst hell has to offer is physical pain, with the psychological element used to butter you up, whereas it should be the other way round)
The false ending of Scarlet(?) dreaming that they are rescued by Weir is a well worn horror staple, found memorably in Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.
One of the deleted scenes features Neil’s Weir climbing headfirst down a ladder after Cooper and Scarlet, in bloody demon mode, and in the commentary for the scene Anderson admits it was inspired by the deleted “Spider Walk” scene from the Exorcist, making it unlikely that the similarities with myriad other films are coincidences. Most films, of course, can rarely avoid being influenced by previous works, but in this case it smacks just a little too much of recycling.
Two sequences in its favour are both based around vacuum – the well worn genre staple of a hull breach causing violent air loss is enhanced by Captain Miller’s rag doll buffeting as he struggles to escape, and an excellent sequence of a rescue mission for a crewmember caught in an airlock and about to be exposed to space without a suit.

One of the original elements comes from the set design, which does often try to offer something a little unusual even if it doesn’t always work.
The captain’s chair design, suspended from the ceiling of their ship, means that Fishburne’s Miller looks odd, like a toddler sitting at the grown-up’s table with his legs dangling.
The random spikes and ornate symbols on the surface of the gravity drive and its chamber seem highly unlikely for a scientific experiment – ornate decoration doesn’t really go hand in hand with cutting edge technological development.

To expand on nonsensical choices somewhat, the idea that no one on Earth would have attempted to analyse the first message of the newly returned Event Horizon, leaving the crew to have a quick crack at it on the way also seems unlikely. There’s an argument that the rescue mission would have been assembled with haste, but they undoubtedly would have wanted to try and get an idea of what they were sending the team into.

Thankfully the cast are good, with Fishburne standing out in particular as an evident leader who desperately tries to keep control in both himself and his terrified crew as everything goes tits up, and Sam Neil managing to keep close to the line separating camp from menace which probably adds to the atmosphere of unease. Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee also feature and help to avoid the cats becoming characterless victims waiting for their death scene.

The CGI tends to stand out, these days it’s so ubiquitous that for every shot of a car jumping into a helicopter for which you think “aah, CGI” there are a thousand shots with added buildings, added people and altered skies that you will never notice. All of the CGI shots here just look that bit too shiny and basically computerised, though they tend to only be used when necessary, to depict zero gravity for example. This may seem a cheap shot at a film made in 1997, but when Moon was released eleven years later with such excellent use of model work it is hard to believe that CGI would be the better choice, either aesthetically or economically.

For all its faults Event Horizon is perfectly enjoyable and doesn’t compare too badly to more recent examples of the genre such as Sunshine, so it’s a shame that based on the rest of Anderson’s output it looks like a fluke the likes of which he won’t produce again.