Paul W. S. Anderson may have changed my mind — if only a little — about the merits of 3-D technology. For years, I’ve maintained that not one film has been made in 3-D that was better for it. Put another way, 3-D as a formal stylistic choice has not been a necessary component to any of the films in which it was utilized. I already ranted at length about the faults of Jimmy C.’s Avatar at Playtime, and that is the one film to which nearly everyone who digs 3-D has pointed as an example of 3-D being done well. I’ve generally avoided 3-D movies at the theater; the last one I saw was The Green Hornet. The screenings of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or Kung Fu Panda 2 that I attended were 2-D. Though boredom almost seduced me into seeing Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3-D in the theater, a vacant billfold persuaded me to stay at home instead. This last weekend, I finally caught up with it on Netflix Instant. It wasn’t very good, but then, that wasn’t really why I watched it.
Human nature leads us to do some inexplicable things. Some people climb Everest. Some people strapped themselves to a rocket and flew to the moon. Others wrestle alligators. There are things we do for no other reason than we feel a strong sense of completion for having done something that was there to do. “Because it’s there,” as James T. Kirk says in Star Trek V, offering what amounts to a Roddenberrian koan to Spock, who simply cannot fathom the allure of dangerous rock climbing. Like many film enthusiasts, I find myself inexplicably compelled to watch crappy movies. Not all of them. For utterly arbitrary reasons, some emerge as little Everests, challenges that must be surmounted. A perverse pleasure, mixed with a greater amount of pain, is usually the reward. So it is with the Resident Evil film franchise. The first in the series remains a surprisingly passable bit of pulp. A large part of the appeal is undoubtedly rooted in the disproportionate amount of gravitas Milla Jovovich brings to the role of Alice, a souped-up super-agent of destruction, who finds herself perpetually at loggerheads with the evil Umbrella Corporation, which has developed a zombie virus that is quite inconveniently loosed upon the Earth in sequel-sized installments.
In this series, Jovovich seems to be channeling Bruce Willis (her Fifth Element costar, you’ll recall), all steely glares and smirking one-liners delivered in a husky voice soaked in twilight hues. The scripts are always terrible, but they follow a certain lockstep methodology whose nonsensical predictability (or predictable nonsense) is disturbingly reassuring. Anderson is an awful screenwriter, with absolutely no gift for characterization beyond flimsy, stock archetypes; his dialogue is serviceable at best; his sense of pacing is leaden. But it’s all very sincere. And he (along with Russell Mulcahy, who directed the third film), unlike many of his contemporaries, favors action scenes that are shot with a modicum of coherence. Very few handheld shaky-cams. A sense of spectacle injected into almost every shot. It’s a comic book pocket universe he’s created (with the help of the video games’ blueprint), and the simplistic production design and monochromatic color schemes are at least legible, if not interesting. It all serves to bring more attention to Jovovich, who is frequently the only thing on screen exuding any presence or charisma.
I suppose you could call these films guilty pleasures (even though I don’t feel guilty about enjoying them). They were always very modest in ambition, and I respect that in an unironic way, especially given how efficient they are. Which is why the decision to make the fourth film in 3-D seemed both appropriate (a cheap, B-grade tactic, for a cheap, B-grade franchise!), but also a bit of a letdown. If even James Cameron couldn’t reap the potential of the technology, how could Paul W. S. Anderson?
For the most part, Anderson doesn’t. Armond White is a PWSA fanboy, so his review of the film employs his usual overwrought rhetoric (“If critics and fanboys weren’t suckers for simplistic nihilism and high-pressure marketing, Afterlife would be universally acclaimed as a visionary feat, superior to Inception and Avatar on every level.”), overstating the degree to which Anderson really harnesses the power of 3-D. He still sucks at dialogue and character scenes, and apart from a few cool shots (like a pan up, showing the levels of a creepy torchlit prison), the only scenes where I expect the 3-D was used to any effect at all are the action scenes. But White is dead on about those. The first fifteen minutes of Afterlife are a sustained, breathless example of effective action craftsmanship. Sure, it’s derivative as heck (“Paging Agent Smith. Agent Smith, you’re needed in the underground lair. Please use the white courtesy phone. Agent Smith.”), but Anderson does play — capriciously, as White terms it — with angles, depth of field, and camera movement to a degree I have not seen elsewhere in his filmography.
In other words, it is an exciting, well-crafted action sequence that rivals everything he’s ever done. The climax isn’t quite as thrilling, but it’s close.
Well, the 3-D technology changed. As a result, so did Anderson’s filmmaking, at least in the action sequences. Since Resident Evil: Afterlife was shot in 3-D, and not a 2-D-to-3-D conversion, the action scenes were designed with the 3-D effects in mind. Even when bullets and warhammers aren’t flying directly at the camera, Anderson is paying attention to the environment, to the spatial relationships of the figures. There are a few gaffes (like Ali Landry landing half out of frame from a wall-jump in a shower smackdown), but it is clear that he elevated his game as a direct result of working with a new kind of technology. It’s a clear case of a mediocre director getting better as a direct result of a technological advance. The 3-D, in other words, was necessary to the improved quality of Resident Evil: Afterlife.
I’ve noticed similar instances elsewhere. When I finally saw Tangled on DVD, it was obvious that several scenes were intended to take advantage of the 3-D by composing shots and moving figures within them with a lot more imagination than is typical. But even in 2-D, the effect was dazzling, and it didn’t run the risk of me getting a migraine from those stupid glasses — not to mention the fact that the bright, eye-popping colors were unadulterated by the lens tint. (As an aside: I suspect that a lot of the animated films that are made in 3-D use brighter colors to offset the effect of that tint. But I don’t know for certain.) However, when I saw Toy Story 3, little about it seemed out of the ordinary from other Pixar features. I can’t imagine that the use of 3-D added anything to the filmmaking process that wouldn’t have been present already.
And that’s the other side of this coin.
When I saw The Green Hornet, I was surprised by two things. First, by how much I enjoyed it. (And if you want to read a great appreciation of the film, check out Adam Nayman’s review in Cinema Scope.) Second, by the fact that I didn’t have a headache when I walked out of the theater. The reason for this is very simple. Michel Gondry is a very good director. He pays attention to mise-en-scene, even in a stupid January action comedy about a bumbling superhero. The 3-D didn’t particularly add anything to the film, but the film was already visually crisp and dynamic. That’s why the film didn’t suffer by the conversion from 2-D to 3-D — Gondry shot the film very cinematically. Similarly, the Pixar filmmakers have always made films that were visually dynamic and made extensive use of screen space. 3-D would be such a natural fit that they would have to do virtually nothing different from what they always have done. There’s no room for improvement from the conceptual side of the filmmaking. Anderson, on the other hand, had considerable room for improvement, and it’s a testament to his decent instincts that he realized that and evolved.
Not every filmmaker who uses 3-D will have the same potential for growth, even if that potential is latent in the technology. I still maintain that most films shot in 3-D don’t really benefit from that technology, but I’m now prepared to revise my previous position to acknowledge that some filmmakers — like Anderson — can be made to progress simply by acknowledging its possibilities. This makes me hopeful that the technology can eventually be put to more ambitious, artful use by filmmakers with a greater command of the medium than Anderson, and who have a lot more potential for development. 3-D camera tech is still waiting for its Gregg Toland or Karl Freund to come along and collaborate with a visionary director to push it to its limit. And I can credit Resident Evil: Afterlife for making me optimistic about that eventuality. Weird, huh? ☕