Copyright 2002

[ July 9th 2002 ]

When a conspicuously padded Angelina Jolie helped the mega-budgeted Lara Croft: Tomb Raider earn l31m, the entertainment press noted that the curse of the video game adaptation - whose silicon-chip-to-cinema victims include Final Fantasy, Wing Commander, and Super Mario Bros - had finally been broken.

Yet the supposed curse had been disproved back in 1995, when Mortal Kombat, a popular martial arts game turned into a low budget martial arts movie, earned $150m worldwide and spawned three sequels and an animated TV series. Mortal Kombat remained the industry's sole crossover success until Lara, a virtual sex siren whose fame far transcended the gaming world. Now Mortal Kombat's British director Paul Anderson, and his longtime producing partner Jeremy Bolt, are out to show that videogame adaptations can work consistently, without massive production budgets and without Hollywood studio front money.

Their new film Resident Evil, based on Capcom's immensely popular zombie-killing games, is likely to make their point. When this action-horror movie debuted in the US, it had the largest-ever opening weekend for a European-financed film, and its global earnings ($70m so far, off a $35m budget) have ensured that a sequel is in the works. Where the movie didn't succeed, though, was with the critics, a detail that didn't faze Anderson, who says he hasn't read his notices since his first collaboration with Bolt, the car-theft drama Shopping, opened to controversy in 1994. Yet the critical response clearly vexes Bolt. "I wonder if some critics have ever played a videogame in their lives," he says, his voice rising. "If they don't like horror to begin with, perhaps they shouldn't be reviewing a horror film."

Or perhaps success is the best revenge. Resident Evil's opening weekend sparked a game-buying frenzy among US studios, which have snapped up the rights to new hit titles like Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, and Silent Hill. The zombie movie genre, dormant since the mid-1980s, is also undergoing a revival: House of the Dead (itself based on a video and arcade game) is due next year, and there is talk of remakes for I Am Legend, and Dawn of the Dead (one of the gory George Romero movies that influenced the creators of the Resident Evil games.)

Even so, game-players who've been burned by some truly dreadful film adaptations of their favorite games remain wary, says Andy McNamara, editor in chief of Game Informer magazine, which reviews games and technology. "In general, players are far more forgiving in the game environment of a bad story, bad dialogue, and bad acting than when watching a movie," he says. Though some Resident Evil fans complained that the movie wasn't as relentlessly gruesome as the game, the game's enduring popularity (five years and five versions, an eternity in the gaming industry) make it a surer bet for a movie franchise, he says.

Bolt and Anderson both concede that the film is inspired by the game, a prequel to its story of industrial bioterrorism, and not a straight adaptation. "One thing Paul learned from making Mortal Kombat is that you've got to be fairly loyal to the game, but you've got to give fans something more." Of the relative lack of blood and guts, Anderson says, "I loved those zombie movies of the 70s and 80s, the Romero and Lucio Fulci movies, but I doubt you could show what they showed and get away with it now." He cites Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens as an influence on Resident Evil. "Genuine horror can be evoked by something as simple as someone walking down a darkened corridor," he says. To that end, Resident Evil's special effects, while elaborate, are meant to be mostly unobtrusive: a pack of zombie dogs are not puppets but the real thing, and the creepy, looming sets are not CGI but unfinished Berlin underground stations.

Another nod to Alien, and to fans of video games, is a heroine who is the strong, brave, gorgeous, gun-wielding type: Milla Jovovich, who fights human, canine, and other - all the while wearing a cocktail frock. To Anderson, she's an ideal movie protagonist. (And an ideal companion; the couple now live together in Los Angeles.) "When you play the Resident Evil games, you have a choice of which characters to play, and I guarantee you that 95% of people who play choose the girl first," he says. When Anderson has pitched past projects with female leads, he found that studio heads rejected him with the canard, "'Female-led action movies don't work; the primary audience is young guys and they'll feel emasculated.' It's bullshit. Video game makers have known this for years, TV has known it, and finally film is figuring it out."

In her various forms, the action femme - once considered the sole property of Sigourney Weaver - has conquered her doubters in Hollywood. Angelina Jolie will star in a Lara Croft sequel, and a Charlie's Angels sequel is in the works. As soon as Milla Jovovich signs on for Resident Evil 2, Alice will return as well. In the meantime, Bolt and Anderson, who began their collaboration with Shopping and Event Horizon, are juggling what sounds like a complicated schedule of upcoming projects. Anderson has longed to remake the Roger Corman car chase movie Death Race 2000 and has submitted a script to Paramount (Tom Cruise is said to be involved), while Bolt is planning productions of a serial killer thriller called Birdman, by the British crime writer Mo Hayder. Their company, Impact Pictures, is negotiating to buy more videogame titles. Obviously Paul can't direct them all, we have to see what he can do next.

What's not likely to happen next is a repeat of their experience with Soldier, the would-be Warner Bros. blockbuster that cast Kurt Russell (pay cheque: $20m) as a futuristic, monosyllabic warrior. Made in Hollywood, with Anderson behind the lens and Bolt as one of a slew of producers, Soldier flopped badly in the US and went straight to video in the UK. Clashes with the studio and lack of control over the film's marketing dimmed their hopes of working in Hollywood again. Resident Evil was financed entirely out of Europe, by Germany's Constantin and Britain's New Legacy. Sony Screen Gems acquired the movie only when it was halfway through preproduction. The issue of creative control came up only at the start, when the videogame's makers, Capcom, approved Anderson's script and hired him. (Ironically, Capcom had originally hired Romero, whose movies had inspired the game, to write and direct, but they rejected his action and gore-heavy screenplays.)

That settled, Anderson and Bolt set about hiring whoever they wanted to - including some of their family and friends. Bolt's sister, Anna, learned to scuba dive in order to portray one of the eeriest undead creatures, a drowned research scientist who revives, horribly, under the effects of the zombie-virus, and the producer himself volunteered to play three different zombie-extras, even shaving his head for one of his death scenes. Bolt's friend from Bristol University, actor Jason Isaacs, who has appeared in all of Anderson's films (and usually died spectacular deaths in them) took a day off his work on an upcoming Jackie Chan movie to make a free cameo appearance. "We enjoy killing Jason in all our films," Anderson says gleefully. "He does the narration at the beginning, and he plays an evil doctor. You can practically hear him snapping the rubber gloves on."

In addition to the question of what to do next, Anderson is also faced with sometimes having to distinguish himself from his "rival," the American director Paul Thomas Anderson, who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Though the two have never met, they've been locked in a strange race to claim their shared name: the Briton made his directing debut first, thus claiming Paul Anderson with the US directors' guild, but the American had registered the same name at the writers' guild. Now neither will yield and both must add their initials when they write and direct. "We blame the other Paul Anderson, the pretentious Paul Anderson, for this ludicrous business of our Paul now having to add 'WS'," says Bolt. Anderson is keen for a fight, if necessary, to settle the matter: "I know I can beat him. I have gotten catalogs and magazines meant for him, and he wears very camp, gay clothes. And he looks very small as well."

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