clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Paul W.S. Anderson Broke the Video Game Movie Curse

It’s true: Films adapted from video games are generally not very good. But ahead of Friday’s release of ‘Mortal Kombat,’ it’s time to acknowledge the one director who’s had more success with the endeavor than critics are willing to admit.

Scott Laven/Constantin Film/New Line Cinema

If there’s one thing that’s remained constant in Hollywood’s approach to adapting video games, it’s that the industry has a terrible reputation for doing it. From the tonally jarring industrial hellscape of 1993’s Super Mario Bros. to the overarching blandness of 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, the prevailing sentiment is that video games have never gotten a fair shake on the big screen. So every time a buzzy new adaptation comes around, as with Friday’s release of Mortal Kombat, the same question inevitably pops up: Is this the project that’ll finally break the video game movie curse?

That the discourse is rearing its head once again seems fitting, seeing as the director of the original Mortal Kombat adaptation released 26 years ago has spent the majority of his career dispelling the notion that all video game movies have underwhelmed. Paul W.S. Anderson has a strange standing in Hollywood: He’s a genre auteur whose movies, while financially successful on a consistent basis, are broadly lambasted by critics. (Every single one of his films has a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes; even Michael Bay doesn’t get this much flack.)

But Anderson’s many naysayers don’t see the enduring appeal of his movies: This is a knowingly schlocky director whose greatest strength is creating a sense of atmosphere with sharp visual storytelling and knockout action sequences. In other words, his sensibilities are an ideal match for adapting video games—many of which are defined by stunning, immersive environments just as much as character-driven narratives. For more than two decades, Anderson has not only transcended the video game movie curse, but cemented his somewhat unheralded status as the master of such big-screen adaptations. It’s about time this schlock god got the respect he deserves.

After his 1994 directorial debut, Shopping, the British indie crime drama that introduced the world to emerging star (and future sexy pontiff) Jude Law, Anderson was handed the reigns of Mortal Kombat. Loosely pulling from the arcade fighting games of the same name, the film sees a handful of humans competing in a tournament against the sorcerer Shang Tsung and his otherworldly minions from another realm called Outworld. If the Outworld fighters are victorious in the Mortal Kombat tournament, the realm and its evil emperor will conquer the planet, as these things usually go.

What separated Mortal Kombat from other fighting games of its ilk was its ludicrous ultraviolence, highlighted by character-specific fatalities that are undeniably fun to pull off in a 12-year-old-hopped-up-on-too-much-Red-Bull sort of way. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat had to adhere to a PG-13 rating—all the better to reach its core audience of teenagers playing the games at arcades—which allowed the film to mostly maintain the unapologetically silly spirit of its source material. It would be generous to say that Anderson’s film has a plot; mostly, it jumps from set piece to set piece of different characters squaring up, akin to picking a fighting arena at the start of the game. But watching something called Mortal Kombat and expecting an intricate plot is a losing battle: The selling point of the movie begins and ends with its fight scenes. On that front, Anderson absolutely delivered.

While 1999’s The Matrix was lauded for employing wire work (a staple of Hong Kong cinema considered novel to mainstream Western audiences at the time) in its action sequences, Mortal Kombat beat them to the (literal) punch by utilizing the same techniques. This is not to suggest Mortal Kombat is in the same league as an all-timer like The Matrix—I’m not trying to get shouted off the internet—but Anderson’s film is more influential than it’s considered. That appreciation should extend to the rest of the movie, which balanced goofier aspects of its source material without alienating a wider audience. (The same can’t be said of its legendarily bad sequel, Annihilation.)

The commercial success of Mortal Kombat, which grossed more than $100 million and was the no. 1 movie at the North American box office for three weeks, allowed Anderson to work with higher budgets on Event Horizon (1997) and Soldier (1998), both of which reportedly cost $60 million to make. But with the movies bombing badly at the box office—Event Horizon is still a batshit masterpiece, though!—the director worked with around half that budget when returning to the fruitful well of video game adaptations in 2002. This time, Anderson pivoted to horror and tackled Resident Evil.

Rather than closely adhering to the source material—as a scrapped adaptation from iconic horror filmmaker George Romero would’ve done, which is one hell of a what-if?—Anderson introduced a new protagonist named Alice, played by his future wife, Milla Jovovich. We first meet Alice while she’s suffering from amnesia, as she joins a group of commandos investigating why the artificial intelligence of a secret underground research facility sealed itself off and killed its inhabitants. Going down the figurative rabbit hole of the unmistakably nefarious Umbrella Corporation—the Alice in Wonderland allusions are hard to miss—it soon becomes clear that the people down there are still alive, in a manner of speaking. They’re just mindless husks with a sudden craving for human flesh.

The Resident Evil film franchise would spawn five sequels, all of which were written by Anderson, who also directed the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth installments. The movies progressively expanded in scope as the virus responsible for turning humans into zombies spread throughout the globe: The second film laid out how the outbreak affected a major city, the third saw mankind reduced to surviving in a Mad Max–esque apocalyptic wasteland, and so on. The only constant across all six films is Alice, whom Anderson puts through a gauntlet with action sequences that feed into each other, creating the feeling of game-level progression. It’s fitting, too, that the movies usually begin with run-of-the-mill zombies and culminate with some kind of final boss that’s much harder to vanquish, like the giant Licker in the criminally underrated Resident Evil: Retribution.

The films collectively made more than $1 billion at the box office, but Anderson’s six-part series still seems like it’s fallen under the radar in the age of superheroes. But the Resident Evil franchise brought a different flavor to blockbuster filmmaking—rather than the connected dots of a carefully mapped-out cinematic universe, Anderson’s franchise had a pulpy, simplistic quality that always gave the impression things were being made up as they went along. (It’s hard to imagine that reviving, like, half of its cast as clones was always part of the plan.) The fact that Resident Evil never totally fell off the rails, in spite of what its critical reception would lead one to believe, is a testament to the movies walking a fine line between trashy fun and carelessness.

In 2020, Anderson adapted his third video game series for the big screen with Capcom’s Monster Hunter, and with Jovovich once again along for the ride, the director solidified himself as one of Hollywood’s preeminent Wife Guys. (All kidding aside, she’s a bona fide action star, so why shouldn’t he?) Monster Hunter takes place in another dimension, one that is rather inconveniently populated by a host of massive, terrifying creatures. Jovovich plays Artemis, an Army Ranger whose squad gets sucked into the alternative universe by a sandstorm of cosmic proportions. Filming took place in remote locations in South Africa and Namibia, and Anderson let the surreal desert landscapes do the work of creating the sense of otherworldliness, while the immaculately designed monsters from the game took care of the rest.

Monster Hunter feels like what you’d get if the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse stripped away the human conflicts that have long been regarded as the franchise’s Achilles’ heel and just let the creatures cook. The human interactions in the film are admirably sparse; after Artemis’s team is wiped out, she’s mostly in the company of a character known only as the Hunter (Tony Jaa), an inhabitant of this parallel dimension who, obviously, doesn’t speak English. They communicate mostly through gestures—and exclusively in the service of trying to hack apart giant monsters with cool-looking axes, crossbows, and swords—a directorial choice that further lays out Monster Hunter’s blunt, crowd-pleasing priorities. (There’s also a human-sized anthropomorphic cat dressed as a pirate, if you’re into that sort of thing.) This is a big movie about big monsters best appreciated on the biggest possible screen.

It’s a shame, then, that so many viewers were deprived of the chance to watch Monster Hunter as Anderson surely intended. The film was released in December 2020, when major North American markets like Los Angeles and New York City hadn’t reopened theaters; the international rollout didn’t go any better, with Chinese cinemas pulling Monster Hunter over a controversial line of improvised dialogue with a historically racist connotation. Though the movie ends with the intent of setting up a sequel, Monster Hunter looks likely to be a one-and-done blockbuster—and on the level of commercial and critical performance, another prospective franchise based on a video game series that’s failed to launch.

But while Monster Hunter might not have the same cinematic imprint of the stealthily lucrative Resident Evil franchise or the ’90s version of Mortal Kombat, which has since been reappraised as a campy cult classic, Anderson remains Hollywood’s go-to director for adapting video games. Anderson has rarely found himself appreciated in critical circles unless his movies are being reevaluated years after the fact—again: Event Horizon is incredible and it’s about time more people got around to realizing it—and perhaps that makes him the perfect filmmaker for the task. After all, when the artistic merit of video games is routinely questioned, there’s no better choice to give their big-screen adaptations some legitimacy than an auteur whose schlocky greatness is constantly underappreciated and misunderstood.