Something Old, Something New is a weekly feature that creates a double feature with a film released in the last few years and an older movie. These films contain aesthetic, narrative and/or thematic parallels that can erase decades of separation and show how ideas and styles echo across cinema history.
Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution are films that unfold on screens. Well, technically, all films are, but these two use screens within the screen, depicting surveillance footage as a bridge between dimensions. Only one takes its direct inspiration from a video game, but both movies treat their surfaces as interactive, capable of repurposing reality to one’s own designs. In Anderson’s film, this makes for a wry commentary on video games and their moral and philosophical implications. Scott, ever in search of a happy ending, puts his metaphysical trickery to use for a romance.
Stylistically, the two could hardly be more different. Anderson, using high-quality digital cameras and 3D rendering, uses formal elegance and long takes to carry its action plot. ‘Scope aspect ratios, bird’s eye views, slow-motion and more stress the limits of the frame, imparting as much visual information of a set as possible with each shot. But Anderson also uses his expansive framing to highlight the limits of the facility Alice (Milla Jovovich) and co. navigate, with each room—a recreation of a major world city, centered by a massive hub amusingly representing suburbia—showing off its falsity in a myriad of ways. The sky flickers and winks out in panels, a horizon is revealed to be a wall, and baddies visibly programmed by an A.I. appear out of nowhere to confront the heroes.
Scott, on the other hand, shoots Déjà Vu in the same manner as the rest of his late period, a slapdash, abstract assembly of film stock and DV that employs various exposures and speeds to make a frenetic montage of overlapping images. Denzel Washington’s ATF agent gets access to a portal that can gaze back in time, a technology originally meant to solve the MacGuffin of a bombing. An action sequence of Washington having a car chase through time through the juxtaposition of the camera frame and a smaller screen over Washington’s eye makes for the non plus ultra of Scott’s aesthetic. The jumble of images, however, looks beyond the reconstructed sights and sounds that provide piecemeal information leading to the responsible terrorist. Instead, the montage of superimpositions, fast edits and collage trade sensory overload for a visceral representation of those same senses as Washington comes to obsess over a woman (Paula Patton) whose indirect connection to the crime becomes secondary to the love Washington feels for her shade.
Both films contain a surprising amount of commentary. Resident Evil maintains the franchise’s satiric, Alien-esque view of a corporation willing to risk total annihilation for the sake of monetary gain, even well beyond the point that money ceases to have any meaning. Corporate drone-dom gets literalized here, the Umbrella Corporation now functioning solely through an A.I. program seeing its designated task of testing a virus through to the end, rewiring clones and even human beings to whatever personality and action it needs. Its capitalism as a self-sustaining, all-destroying entity. Déjà Vu, meanwhile, uses its post-Katrina New Orleans setting to deliberately conjure memories of domestic failure, its fresh wounds of government incompetence presaging the unprofessional, personal fixations of Washington’s agent. Likewise, the Christian supremacist at the heart of the attack reminds audiences that Islamists are not the only extreme religious zealots we have to worry about, and that terrorism often comes from within.
Even so, the greatest impact of Scott’s and Anderson’s films is primarily emotional. Déjà Vu practically serves as a postmodern update of Vertigo, trading the grim remodeling of a person in an obsessed man’s vision for the breakdown of that actual image until time and space open up and allow for Washington to affect the fate of the actual person. Anderson’s film is all about false representations of people, with cloning chambers and the resurrection of characters long since dispatched in the five-film series (albeit with wildly different personalities). This assembly line of characters forces one to consider the role of NPCs in video games, crafted and programmed with just enough emotional response to make their deaths satisfactory for spectators. Where Scott finds intimacy and hope buried in the distance of simulacra, Anderson grows ever more nihilistic. Taken together, the two films represent high points of contemporary American cinema, filled with provocative ideas that never get in the way of their entertaining action.