This is Part 1 of 2 in a series examining the religious filmmaking and visual theology of Paul W.S. Anderson. In the following piece, Anderson is postured as a religious filmmaker who deserves critical attention to that aspect of his filmmaking. The second piece, using the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher as a resource, is an auteur analysis of the visual grammar of Anderson’s films that argues his visuals invoke a sense of a “divine player” through their resemblance to the visual grammar of video games.
Regrettably, Paul W.S. Anderson has not received attention or analysis as a religious filmmaker. Anderson, whose films are starting to be re-evaluated by critics, isn’t publicly religious like Martin Scorsese (see: The Last Temptation of the Christ, Kundun, and Silence), doesn’t make metaphysically reflective films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2010), isn’t concerned with adapting biblical stories like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and doesn’t deal with religious-cultural conflicts like Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979) and First Reformed (2017). He makes action and genre films, like Death Race (2008) and Alien vs Predator (2004), and he’s colloquially known by amateur and immature YouTube film reviewers as the director “RUINING Video Game Movie Adaptations.”
Viewing Anderson through the prism of his personal beliefs (which are in no way public) and subject matter, for the most part, may justify the lack of writing on the religious elements of his filmography. But with different criteria—visual style and mise-en-scene—his films evoke a sense of the divine. In particular, they invoke a feeling of utter dependence on a mysterious Other.
A New Perspective on Paul W.S. Anderson: A Religious Filmography
Before theologically reading his visuals, it’s necessary to note that, even though in comparison to directors like Malick and Schrader his films on the surface appear areligious, the story isn’t that simple. Religious elements, content, and characters appear throughout Anderson’s body of work. Though these elements in most cases appear secondary, his work is primed for religious analyses and perspectives.
In his most recent work, Monster Hunter (2020), Hunter (Tatchakorn Yeerum, also known as Tony Jaa), a native to the New World where humans coexist alongside monsters, is one of the most explicitly religious characters in Anderson’s films. In fact, he’s a rather flat character whose only note is praying to a homemade shrine of his dead family members.
In Mortal Kombat (1995), a minor character named Rayden, played by Christopher Lambert, is a literal god of thunder and lightning and coaches the humans to preserve the realm of earth from demonic powers. And although Rayden comes from the video game franchise (where his name is spelled “Raiden”), he’s still a god roaming around in Anderson’s second feature—and “roaming” is probably the best word to describe his role in the plot. Rayden doesn’t engage in mortal combat but floats above it, in-and-out of action.
On occasion, unannounced, he randomly appears just to save the fighters representing humanity and quickly leaves the story. In terms of the fighting tournament, though, Rayden’s powers feel needed—and to my knowledge, no clear explanation is given regarding why he can’t intervene. His absence turns what could have been a classical Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods) over the earth into a human endeavor, putting our fate into our own hands.
The most consistent aspect of Anderson’s filmmaking that can be interpreted as religious is his inclination toward the mythic. To borrow the language of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the worlds Anderson creates are “enchanted,” they stand in contrast to the disenchanted world where “belief in God is no longer axiomatic.” The supernatural, or at least not quite natural, is operating in his filmography.
From Alien vs Predator to Pompeii (2014) to the Resident Evil movies, with a few notable exceptions—his first film, Shopping (1994), and arguably Death Race—there is a spirit of myth that undergirds his films. Generally speaking, this is presented visually and narratively. Shakespearean storms, vast empty landscape shots, hollow archetype characters, and scarcely populated worlds/spaces are frequent partners in Anderson’s filmography—and when combined with grandiose themes or creatures, such as Pompeii’s volcanic eruption or Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s unnamed dragonoid bookending fights, synthesize for a mythic effect.
In Monster Hunter, for example, Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich) is a military officer of some sort, and while on a mission she and her crew end up summoned by a storm to another world. But, in New World, humans aren’t the apex predator; in fact, other than Hunter and his small band of comrades, no people indigenous to New World appear on screen; there seem to be no cities and few signs of civilization. The characters, Artemis included, are all single-note. Jovovich’s Artemis twirls a wedding ring she doesn’t wear. The aptly named Hunter prays to a family shrine and kills big bugs. The Admiral (Ron Perlman) is still cranky over his previous encounter with Artemis’s world. But, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters in Lord of the Rings, the characters are mythical archetypes rather than full-fledged dynamic characters with complex character development. After all, it’s a video game adaptation; character development isn’t exactly the primary focus. The two main characters’ names, “Artemis” (as in daughter of Zeus) and the occupational descriptor “Hunter,” testify to the mythic nature of the plot. And, of course, they fight dinosaurs and dragons to presumably, though not explicitly, save the human species, which is inherently mythic.
It doesn’t get much more mythic than Monster Hunter, but it’s also not Anderson’s only movie with mythical or even biblical inclinations. The romantic destruction of Pompeii, the apocalypse of the Resident Evil movies, and the revision of ancient history in the world-building elements of Predator vs Alien all follow a similar pattern. Even his more claustrophobic and smaller-scale stories like Event Horizon are inclined toward myth. In Event Horizon, Dr. William ‘Billy’ Weir (Sam Neill) has a supernatural vision of hell that changes the very ontology of his character from good to evil. The change in his character takes the Catholic notion of the beatific vision, in which “[God] opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it,” but changes the object of the vision from God to hell. No matter the vision’s object, it maintains mythical significance.
In Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016), Anderson reworks (or depending on your personal theology, retells) the biblical narrative of Christ’s atonement into a feminine, sacrificial, salvation narrative that comments on the action film industry. One of the film’s most famous lines, “the Trinity of bitches,” referring to Alice (Milla Jovovich), Alicia Marcus (also Jovovich), and the Red Queen (Ever Gabo Anderson) directly brings the Christian Trinity to mind, a Trinity that is usually coded in the masculine language of Father, Son, and the agender Holy Spirit. The casting decision to have Jovovich play two characters and Ever Gabo Anderson, Jovovich and Anderson’s real-life daughter, play the third member adds to the general Christian thematic texture since the Trinity uses familial language. Importantly, in traditional Christian theories of atonement, the Incarnation of God (the person of Christ) as a male human joins broken and sinful humanity to the glory of God. This language is represented in the maxim from the early church fathers, “What is not assumed cannot be redeemed,” and in the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury’s reference to Jesus as the “God-man.” Quite simply: humans can only be saved if the savior is human, not just divine. For modern feminist theologians, these theories of atonement create a new problem: is femininity assumed? If not, is it unredeemed? Anderson firmly says “yes, it’s assumed,” and provides a feminine incarnation.
Alice—an imitation of humanity—is almost the reverse of Christ in every way. Most obviously, she and the entire Trinity are women, making God full feminine. And, as the thoughtful and popular Letterbox user Neil Bahadur observes, most of the remaining characters we are aware of are in fact women. Society, it appears, will reflect this new “God-woman.” This confronts the maxim quoted above headfirst. Is femininity assumed in the traditional Christ-model? This recalls the great feminist theologian Mary Daly’s famous line “If God is male, then the male is God.” With Alice’s super-abilities, as well as being part of the Trinity, she becomes “God.”
She even recreates the world. In the final shots, she—as at the beginning of the film—is in a battle with a sort of monster-dragon-bat; in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, as well as in the Ancient Near East context, it’s assumed that during creation God engaged in a primordial battle of sorts (See Psalm 89:10). In some of the greatest uses of these passages in the Bible, humans participate in recreation, such as when Tobias slays the fish in the Book of Tobit to bring the chaotic world back to order. In Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, these monsters feel foreign and out of place. This happens through the scenes’ bookmarking of the story and lack of impact on the plot in any way.
The first scene starts in Washington D.C., where Retribution ended and Alice appears to be the only survivor from the offscreen onslaught hinted at with Retribution’s conclusion. She fights a zomboid-dragon, then the plot about returning to the Hive is introduced; thus, the scene is irrelevant to the movie’s dramatic force. The second scene occurs as Alice rides her motorcycle away from Raccoon City with an internal narration where she says “my work here is not done [until the antivirus has reached every corner of the globe.” A similar zombie-dragon creature appears in the corner of her mirror. She smiles, revs her engine, and the credits roll. The cosmic battle is only hinted at here, but as with its predecessor, it makes no impact on the plot, which in this case has already concluded. It’s also noteworthy that in both appearances she is completely alone—heightening the feeling that it’s her against the cosmic forces of the world. A creation story from Psalm 74:12-14 reads, “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” With such verses in mind, especially within this already biblically steeped story, it seems Alice is recreating the world—as a woman, and thus, “in her image.” The world is feminine now.
This use of biblical imagery sets up Anderson’s metacommentary on the blockbuster action genre. Since the Resident Evil (2002-2016) series arguably kickstarted the trend of female action heroes, the action genre had been reimagined into a feminine form by the time of The Final chapter. 2002 was the first year the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film started to track representation in the highest-grossing box-office films of the year, and that year just 16% of films featured female leads. In 2019 it reached 40%. I’m not arguing Anderson’s zombie franchise with Jovovich at the helm shouldered this change. But I do think the longevity of the franchise that spanned two decades is a testament to this turn toward the feminine. After all, during the series’ life span the top box-office films increased just shy of 30% in female leads.
A sampling of the plethora of female-led action blockbusters following its wake would include Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003), the heroines of 2000’s Underworld and 2005’s Aeon Flux, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2010-present), Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012), and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (2017). While women have always had roles in the history of the action genre, something seemed to have changed in the 2000s, a change perhaps marked by the first Resident Evil film. By 2016, the release year of The Final Chapter, the English-speaking world’s socio-political culture had changed to a degree where blatant underrepresentation would be increasingly regarded as problematic, whereas in the early 2000s such socio-political arguments would have been considerably more fringe and sparse. Through this perspective, Anderson and Jovovich have recreated the action genre, using a new subject for their image: the woman.
From this short look at his filmography, we now see that Paul W.S. Anderson is a religious filmmaker, even though he will always be known as the video-game adaption guy. These two directorial characteristics are beautifully tied together in his visual style. In his adaptations, I will argue, the visual style of his cinematography and mise-en-scene invoke a sense of a “Divine Player.” Even when he works with original source material, such as in Event Horizon (1997), his visual storytelling is dependent on similar tools and thus invokes a similar feeling.
Watch this space in the coming for part two!