Labyrinths: The Films of Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson

By R. Emmet SweeneyFebruary 18, 2021

Labyrinths: The Films of Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson
LATE IN RESIDENT EVIL (2002), an amnesiac security officer named Alice (Milla Jovovich) kicks a zombie dog in the face. It is a moment of Proustian self-realization, the undead canine a drooling madeleine that triggers memories of her role in the multinational boogeyman known as the Umbrella Corporation. This emergence of Alice-as-superhero signaled the beginning of an unlikely franchise, and the personal and professional collaboration between Jovovich and director Paul W. S. Anderson, who married in 2009. They have worked closely together on female-fronted action movies of sleek and brutal intelligence, with Anderson building elaborately detailed labyrinths that Jovovich determinedly destroys. Together, they have charted the subterranean postapocalyptic corridors of the Resident Evil franchise; the steampunk Paris of their The Three Musketeers (2011) rethink; and the desert battlegrounds of their latest video game adaptation, Monster Hunter (2020). It is one of the most fruitful collaborations in contemporary action cinema, as inventive as Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise on the Mission: Impossible franchise or Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves on John Wick. Regrettably, Anderson and Jovovich are often overlooked due to the critically reviled nature of video game movies.

Jovovich’s Alice was not a part of the Resident Evil video game series, but an Alice in Wonderland–inspired invention that allowed Anderson and his longtime producer Jeremy Bolt to stray from the game’s convoluted mythology. With no guarantee of a sequel, they couldn’t spend much time on world-building. Instead, they churned out a controlled piece of survival horror taking place almost entirely in The Hive, Umbrella Corporation’s down-the-rabbit-hole underground lab.

Resident Evil was the first screenplay Anderson had written since his debut feature, Shopping (1994), a violent youth-in-revolt dystopia starring a dewy Jude Law and his then-wife Sadie Frost. During one of their joy rides, Frost plays Crazy Cars, a handheld video game. From the start, Anderson demonstrates his interest in how virtual worlds can be more truthful than reality. In his features, surfaces are deceptive: something propped up by a repressive regime like Umbrella, and it is the virtual space, the world within or behind the visible, where society’s subjugation is revealed. Anderson grew up in Northeast England, in the crumbling post-industrial town of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his films are usually set in modern structures gone to seed, left to rot by a fascistic authority. Shopping’s London is a smoke-belching wasteland; Event Horizon (1997) is set on an abandoned, seemingly decrepit spaceship; and Resident Evil turns a modern glass-testing facility into a bloodbath.

For his next project, Anderson was hired to adapt and direct the feature film of Mortal Kombat, based on the arcade smash he used to play as a college student. He wanted it to be a combination of Bruce Lee and Robert Clouse’s 1973 Enter the Dragon and Don Chaffey’s 1963 Jason and the Argonauts, with its stop-motion six-armed monster. Under the guidance of Hong Kong fight expert Robin Shou, the film hit its throwback mark, becoming a box office hit. Despite fan disappointment that George A. Romero wasn’t hired to make Resident Evil (he wrote a script that the studio rejected), Anderson was the logical choice.

On Resident Evil, their first film together, Anderson shunts Jovovich’s Alice down a corporate rabbit hole to an underground Umbrella facility that produces the “T-Virus,” an experimental weapon that happens to turn dour government types into drooling zombie brain-eaters. Aided by a brusque security team and an enigmatic artificial intelligence named the Red Queen, Alice tries to lead the ragtag group back to the surface. Operating more like a locked-room thriller than a gruesome zombie splatter fest, Anderson kept costs down, completing the film for a comparatively slight $33 million with the help of the German production company Constantin Film.

Jovovich has been in front of cameras since starting a modeling career at the age of 12 and has a keen knowledge of how to utilize her body as a weapon. Up until the age of five, she lived in the Soviet Union with her mother (actress Galina Loginova) and father (Bogich Jovovich). Her family emigrated to London and ended up in Los Angeles, where her parents cobbled together a living doing housework, including cooking and cleaning for writer-director Brian De Palma. When Bogich was imprisoned for participating in a health insurance scam, mother and daughter had to fend for themselves. Galina, a successful actor in Russia, started coaching Milla for a life in front of the camera. As a teenager, Milla was supporting her family by modeling for fashion photographer Herb Ritts. Jovovich told Purple Magazine that, as a kid, she “liked reading Japanese comics and seeing ninjas swooping from tree to tree. I wanted to have that kind of control over my body, the kind dancers and martial artists have. It fascinated me.”

Jovovich did not receive an opportunity to explore that physicality on screen until she was cast in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), which she credits as the turning point in her film career. She had appeared in films before, but only as eye candy, like her shipwrecked teen in Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991) or her hippie chick in Dazed and Confused (1993). The Fifth Element’s Leeloo was something else: a divine alien naïf with martial arts skills. She played her like a baby bird who could lash out if threatened: jittery, wide-eyed, and limber. This ability to seem otherworldly, while being able to handle the athleticism necessary for many of the stunts, made her a natural Alice.

Jovovich took the Resident Evil job on a lark, since her brother was a fan of the games. She was upset after reading revised versions of the script, though, which handed off many of the action scenes to her co-star Michelle Rodriguez, who was fresh off of The Fast and the Furious (2001). Jovovich told The Guardian that she stormed into Anderson’s hotel room and threatened to leave the project. Instead, they spent four hours “going over the script together, line by line, giving her back the scene where she runs up a wall, scissor-kicks the mutant dog, and breaks the neck of the zombie by crushing his head between her thighs.” An athletic, commanding presence, Jovovich wanted to take center stage, and Anderson was happy to cede it to her. This impromptu rewrite would become the model for their working relationship.

Anderson obsessively maps underground tunnels and corridors in his films, and Jovovich is his willing avatar, able to conquer these torturous constructions — the explorer to his cartographer. Anderson’s family worked in coal mining. He told The New York Times about “the lure of going down there into the dark. It’s in my blood. My grandfather, who brought me up, was a coal miner. I visited the mines with him. I remember it vividly. It was horrible. I’m glad I didn’t go into the family business.” He could never get away from the imagery, though, admitting to Cinematical,

I can’t remember who it was now, probably some other French filmmaker, said that there are two kinds of filmmakers — there were farmers and miners. Farmers every year would grow different crop in their fields, right? One year it would be wheat; the next, it would be corn, so those are the directors that go make a comedy and they go make a drama and they go make a horror movie. And then there are those who are miners, and all they’re interested in is gold. They just dig on one seam, and I guess I’m a miner.

As a result, CG schematics are a familiar image in the Resident Evil series, an aid to orient the viewer in the franchise’s labyrinthine spaces. Anderson wrote and produced all six Resident Evil movies, but only directed four of them: Resident Evil, Afterlife, Retribution, and The Final Chapter. Yet, through each installment of the franchise, Anderson establishes destination as destiny — knowing where you are going is the only way to survive.

The series utilizes diverse landscapes to change the direction and texture of each journey. Resident Evil is an underground lair, with Alice surging upward. Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004, directed by Alexander Witt) takes place in the ravaged urban space of Raccoon City, with Alice ranging horizontally out of the locked-down metropolis. Resident Evil: Extinction (2007, directed by Russell Mulcahy) takes place in the desert — and she must travel downward, back underground to find another of Umbrella’s secret labs. Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) ranges in the sky to the Pacific Northwest and down into the sewers of a Los Angeles prison.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) is an amalgam of the previous four, taking place in a testing facility that simulates T-virus breakouts, infecting replicas of Tokyo, New York City, Moscow, and a suburb of Raccoon City. Alice’s travels through these simulacra create the illusion of movement when she is the one standing in place as the world dies around her. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter returns to The Hive from the first film and mimics its upward trajectory, but in casting their daughter Ever Anderson as the Red Queen, it turns the film’s climactic apocalypse sequence into an improbably moving vision. Alice turns out to be a clone of a sick child that the Red Queen was modeled on. As a final gift, the Red Queen gives Alice the child’s memories to keep as her own, to fill the gap in time before Alice was created. This is rendered visually in real home videos of Ever growing up, as Jovovich’s eyes well up with tears. This bloody zombie franchise all of a sudden becomes a documentary expression of a family’s love.

The Three Musketeers is the first film Anderson and Jovovich made together outside of the Resident Evil universe, and it is a film of dizzying verticality. From a purely visual standpoint, it is their most beautiful collaboration, as they secured permission to film in Bavarian castles commissioned by King Ludwig II, ornate Neo-Baroque in style, modeled after Versailles. Anderson indulges his inner cartographer by installing a floor map inside Cardinal Richelieu’s (Christoph Waltz) quarters, on which he deploys world armies like chess pieces. Milady de Winter (Jovovich) is a duplicitous double agent who plays Richelieu against the British Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). Jovovich again fills out her role to include a few spectacular fight scenes, including a jewel robbery that features sword-fighting, safe-cracking, musketry, and a soupçon of base diving. Her big dive sets up an even more death-defying one later, as Da Vinci–designed airships cannonade each other in the clouds. It is a supporting performance, but a bravura one.

Over the years, Anderson has grown as a nimble director of fight sequences, keenly attentive to spatial clarity, but his collaborations with Jovovich are always the most physically dynamic and innovative. Working with Jovovich has expanded the possibilities of violence in his films. Jovovich is a relentless trainer who loves to fight, and she weighs in on the details. The viewer can witness her thinking during each bout, planning every counter, and Anderson ensures each punch lands inside his rigidly defined spaces. This perfectionism is present even in the timbre of her voice — she demanded to rerecord all of her lines in Apocalypse to lower the pitch of her voice and give Alice more of a Dirty Harry menace.

According to director of photography Glen MacPherson (Anderson’s DP since Resident Evil: Afterlife), Jovovich does lots of her own stunts and

does a lot of modeling still, so she knows about light, and if I’m in a tricky situation, she’ll stand there on the mark for 10 minutes just to help me out. […] She trains for weeks before the production, for all those fight scenes. She has to get into harnesses, and they pull her up in ropes and pulleys and things. And working with the fight choreography, I don’t know how they remember that stuff. It’s like pretty elaborate dance moves, you have to be at the right place at the right time.

Anderson is one of the few Hollywood directors to fully embrace the possibilities of 3D film, so Jovovich must be more precise with her movements. MacPherson said that in 3D, punches must “brush their nose with your fist,” or else you can see the gap. It is a matter of precision and trust, qualities the duo have built up over their decade of working together.

2020’s Monster Hunter gives Anderson and Jovovich an enormous sandbox to play in, a South African desert standing in for an alien landscape populated by massively scaled monsters, taken from the blockbuster Capcom game. Anderson treats the locations as levels for Jovovich to conquer, as her UN military squad travels (with the help of a combative Tony Jaa and a swashbuckling Ron Perlman) from the quicksand of the burrowing horned Diablos; to the cave of the Nerscylla mega-spiders; to, finally, the vaulting mountains, the stage of a climactic boss battle with the dragonlike Rathalos. Video game critics have been impressed by how faithfully the film mimics the game’s style. But for a viewer who hasn’t played it (like myself), the visual scheme feels like a Frank Frazetta painting come to life, with surging peaks bisected by giant flaming swords.

The Nerscylla battle is most emblematic of the Anderson-Jovovich aesthetic, staged in an underground lair from which Jovovich surges upward in the dark, scattering pus-filled spider spores as she scrambles from darkness to light. It represents the elemental pleasures of their cinema, two artists honing what they each do best: constructing a grotesque dystopian world that a hard-bitten female annihilates with desperate fury.

Monster Hunter received a doomed theatrical release at the end of the pandemic-ravaged 2020 and was further set back by an insensitive pun that offended Chinese audiences, requiring it to be briefly pulled from that country’s theaters. As an international co-production partly funded by Chinese money (Tencent Pictures), this was an economic deathblow, and the ending cliffhanger seems unlikely to net a sequel. The only thing certain for their future is that Paul W. S. Anderson will surely build a new world for Milla Jovovich to tear down, another expression of their mutual love of assured destruction.


R. Emmet Sweeney works for Kino Lorber, Inc. producing DVDs and Blu-rays, and has written for Filmmaker Magazine,Film Comment, Turner Classic Movies, and NeoText.

LARB Contributor

R. Emmet Sweeney works for Kino Lorber, Inc. producing DVDs and Blu-rays, and has written for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment, Turner Classic Movies, and NeoText.


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