Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson

Three films watched recently, all of which have been directed by Milla Jovovich’s husband.

Alien vs. Predator (2004)

This crossover between two SF monster franchises has a very simple plot. Billionaire Weyland finances an expedition to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious heat signal, and he and his team stumble upon a hidden pyramid that predates human civilisation, with hieroglyphics that seem to indicate alien builders who helped shape mankind. It also houses a number of hibernating alien creatures who revive just as a heavily armed crew of Predators arrives to hunt them down for sport. The humans find themselves caught in the middle of a fight between two deadly opponents, neither of whom give a shit about them, but all the same are forced to choose sides. I caught this at the cinema when it came out, and my opinion now is pretty much the same as it was then – decent SF action film, which manages to pass the time in a mildly entertaining manner, but doesn’t really add anything to either franchise and does nothing memorable. What occurred to me this time around is how similar it is to HPL novella At the Mountains of Madness, with an expedition to the Antarctic finding ruins of extra-terrestrial origin that overturns all our thoughts on how life evolved on this planet, and with the Predators in lieu of the Elder Things and Aliens for Shoggoths. No giant albino penguins though, just a common or garden variety hopping around in the ruins, which was a disappointing omission. It’s a comparison that probably merits an essay, but won’t get one, or at least not from me. Nothing else to really say about the film. It was fun while it lasted, but is already fading in my memory now it’s done.

Death Race (2008)

Wacky Races with extreme prejudice meets The Shawshank Redemption in this tale of a dystopian near future where lifers drive heavily armed cars in gladiatorial style races for the entertainment of a pay per view audience. Jason Statham is Jensen, the Andy Dufresne character, sent to Terminal Island for the murder of his wife, but of course he’s innocent, while Ian McShane is the Red character, a former con who has become institutionalised to the point he decides to stay on as a mechanic when his sentence is up. Jensen is not an accountant, but he was a champion driver, and so can be put to use by Warden Hennessey driving the car of the masked Frankenstein, the people’s favourite who died on the operating table (something only the Warden and her henchmen know). And so the scene is set for three days of motorised mayhem, with Jensen killing off his rivals while he plots escape and revenge on the Warden. Lots of other grace notes, especially at the end, that put me in mind of Shawshank far more than the 1975 David Carradine film to which, according to the director, this is a prequel. Again, it’s fun in a pass the time sort of way, and who doesn’t like seeing hard men in beefed up muscle cars knock all sorts of shit out of each other. But the attempt to inject a little personality into the characters doesn’t rise above the level of pro-wrestling style hero and villain stereotypes (something the film does actually address in the person of masked driver Frankenstein, but doesn’t really explore), while the plot elements that are meant to give a backdrop for Jensen, such as the murder of his wife, simply don’t work that well. Nobody distinguishes themselves in the acting stakes, with Statham’s role here almost indistinguishable from his Transporter persona, and McShane trying his best with a dull role, while the rest of the cast mail their performances in, acting out one stereotype or another. The most interesting aspects have to do with the dystopian society in which the story is set, but these are sidelined in favour of numerous action set pieces, all culminating in the death of somebody or other.

Pompeii (2014)

This is pretty much Gladiator, with added explosions, which must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but doesn’t really come off. Kit Harrington, the pretty one from Game of Thrones, is Milo, enslaved when his Celt tribe was wiped out by the Romans. A talented gladiator in the Maximus mould he is taken to Pompeii to be exhibited in the arena. Along the way Milo wins the affections of Roman maiden Cassia, the daughter of the city governor, who is impressed by his way with horses. Also in town and seeking the lady’s hand is the Roman general who wiped out Milo’s people. And so the stage is set for bloody vengeance and true love’s course admitting no impediment, or something like that. Steel clashes with steel, as Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the background, with the earth shaking, a tidal wave and buildings collapsing, all as a prelude to the final explosion that doomed the city (and I hope that isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Again it’s the emphasis on fighting and sfx while doing little in the character development stakes that costs the film. It’s great to look at, but virtually impossible to care about any of the people involved in this drama, as most are no more than ciphers – the hero, the hero’s best buddy, the bad guy, the bad guy’s henchman, the instant love interest, and so on. I will admit to being surprised by an end twist, one that seemed rather poignant and entirely right for all that it was against expectation, but that aside you pretty much knew how the whole thing would play out within the first half hour, if not earlier.

I’ve come to the conclusion, based on these films and also his Resident Evil outings, that Mr Anderson knows how to entertain an audience, and that’s not something to sniff at, but either doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to accomplish anything more than that. Can anyone think of a PWSA film that doesn’t fit this template?

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