FilmsFilmsFilms eleventh movie marathon and it’s a solo effort this time. The Resident Evil movie franchise being so maligned by critics and fans I just couldn’t put my fellow marathoners through it; I had to tackle this one alone.
We’ve come a long way since Pong. With the advent of the Xbox One and the PS4 computer games are more like interactive movie these days. And that’s fine if you’re into fantasy or war films; there’s plenty out there for you, be it Elder Scrolls, Call of Duty and the like. But if you’re a horror fan pickings are slim. The high point of the genre is still Capcom’s 1996 classic Resident Evil. At the time it was a revelation to horror lovers. Playing out like the best scary movie yet to be made it blended an Overlook Hotel horror house setting with George Romero zombie creeps and a twisty, conspiracy laden plot to deliver a sublime gaming experience. Reaction was the same across the gaming community; it was tailor made for a film adaptation.
Early signs were good, with Romero himself linked to the project; all the zombie Godfather had to do was shoot the story as it stood, straight from the game. But Romero passed and Brit writer / director Paul W S Anderson stepped in. Fans hoped he’d bring with him all the atmosphere from his Event Horizon (1997). Instead he brought all the cheese from his Mortal Kombat (1995). For fans of the original game Resident Evil (2002) was a crushing let-down, so much so for me that until now I’ve avoided all of the sequels. But never one to back down from a film challenge, I steadied my nerves with a supply of beer and snacks and returned to the scene of the crime.
Eleven in the morning and I fire up the dvd player. An hour and a half later the first film is done and my feelings remain undimmed; Resident Evil (2002) is still a terrible Resident Evil adaptation. Who the hell is this Alice bird, and where are Chris, Jill and Barry? There isn’t enough creepy mansion action, and the underground Umbrella complex is far too high tech. On top of that Umbrella are already a massive global company at the start of the film, rather than the small shadowy operator they were in the game. But despite my complaints, which I contend are still genuine, if you can detach the movie from the game there is a fair bit to enjoy.
It’s a good start having lead lady Milla Jovovich naked in the shower, and quickly following with some real tributes to the game (Alice wandering around a Victorian styled mansion, marble statues, a "locked” gun cabinet, soundtrack cues from the game). But that’s where the game similarities end as the mansion as a central character is quickly jettisoned in favour of the shiny underground Umbrella complex. Some horrendous techno rock music signifies the departure as Colin Salmon’s team of badasses swing through windows. Then we’re into the story proper. Forget searching for crank shafts and rusty keys; it’s all about beating the "Red Queen” security system and getting out of the Hive complex alive. The laser corridor scene is a tense and gory treat and is the first of Anderson’s steals from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), the equivalent of the Sub-Level 2 ass whopping Ripley and the Colonial Marines get. Resident Evil’s STARS team start to unravel in similar fashion despite being equally well armed. They even have their own Vasquez in the form of the gruff Michelle Rodriguez.
Things continue to improve when the zombies finally show up, but head back down hill once the awful soundtrack starts pounding out of the speakers and Jovovich starts unleashing lame post-Matrix (1999) kung-fu moves, somehow managing to kick the face off of a trademark Resi zombie dog. Some of the worst CGI of all time provides a climax of sorts when a Licker turns up for the train ride escape. But Anderson saves the day in the final scene but getting Jovovich in the nude again and offering up one of the best final shots of the last decade, a stunning pull back which gave fans hope that a sequel based on the brilliant second game might repair some of the damage this disappointing first film caused.
So much for that idea though; Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) is the worst film in the series by some margin. And when you consider how wonky the series is, that’s bad news indeed. Alexander Witt replaced Anderson in the director’s chair and delivered a film that tried its hardest to appeal to fourteen year old boys. True Resi fans were supposed to be satisfied with the introduction of Jill Valentine and the Nemesis monster. The former turns out to be a smarmy, cocksure annoyance, while the latter, though looking impressive and very true to Nemesis from the Resident Evil 3 game, stretches believability to breaking point. How Umbrella thought an eight foot tall, leather coat wearing cave troll would sell as an effective battle weapon god only knows. The beast somehow manages to drag around an infinite but apparently invisible supply of ammunition and is eventually bested by a super powered "Project” Alice who merely pushes him back on to a metal spike. I can't see it shifting many units.
Further plot contrivances beggar belief. Raccoon City is somehow land locked with only one road bridge in and out, despite looking in comparative size to Chicago or LA. Alice feels the need to drive motorbikes through random church windows without any explanation as to why. Despite the undead coming back to life the main protagonists think it’s a good idea to stop and discuss proceedings in the middle of a graveyard. And despite spending the entire film trying to recapture Alice, Umbrella let her walk right out the front door of their Detroit complex at the end without any explanation as to why. Still, least we get more Milla nakedness in the final scene.
I move over to blu-ray for the third film. Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) also marked changes in the series, with Russell Mulcahy taking over directorial duties and delivering a story which, apart from the introduction of Claire Redfield, had no links to the game series at all. In a clever repeat of the opening of Resident Evil (2002) we find Milla naked in the shower again, wandering around the mansion, escaping traps on the way. She’s a clone though, developed by Umbrella for their latest batch of testing. Things then go way off on a tangent, Mulcahy delivering on the promise of the previous movie, serving up the zombie apocalypse with a quick voiceover from Jovovich. It’s such a radical departure it feels like we’ve missed two or three intervening films, but at least the Mad Max–esque result is a world that’s slightly more interesting for the viewer.
Production values have increased to, the special effects and zombie make up improving, in particular the sight of Las Vegas returning to the dessert. Albert Wesker is introduced in the form of Eminem-alike Jason O Mara as the cliché shadowy chairman of Umbrella. No explanations are offered as to why he wears sunglasses indoors or why the other Umbrella stooges still wear suits and ties after the world has gone to shit. Alice’s weird psycho kinetic powers also increase, another bizarre departure from the games. There’s no mention of what happened to Jill, and Alice loses a second potential love interest when Carlos Oliviera exits rather coolly puffing on a doobie in an overturned oil truck.
Three films in and no signs of fatigue. Part four, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), saw the return of Anderson to the director’s chair. Alice and her clones kicks off proceedings with another Matrix inspired, concrete wall splattering attack on Umbrella’s Japanese headquarters. Wesker is still doing his Blues Brothers sunglasses thing as he somehow manages to get the better of multiple Millas. As if to confirm his return Anderson ramps up the techno rock soundtrack and slo-mo action moves to eleven. Thanks to the wily Wesker, Alice loses her powers of strength and replication but gains the ability to survive the world’s worst helicopter crash without a scratch.
A nice change of pace follows as Alice is left scouring the globe looking for fellow survivors. Alaska turns up no answers but she eventually reteams with Claire Redfield and finds her way to a prison complex where Claire reunites with her brother Chris Redfield. No one seems at all surprised by this massive coincidence, Alice seemingly distracted by her third potential love interest, former basketball star Luther West. The introduction of the giant axe swinging zombie from Resident Evil’s 4 and 5 is visually arresting but no one seems to question how an eight foot zombie has managed to come across an axe the size of a small car. Perhaps there’s a shop they all go to.
Try as I might though, I’m starting to rather enjoy myself despite all the crazy and baffling plot lines and forced tributes to the the game series. The special effects certainly have come on leaps and bounds by the fourth outing which helps. The climax aboard an impossibly sterile oil tanker is ridiculous as Anderson pours on yet more over stylised fighting action. Despite massively having the upper hand, returning villain Albert Wesker loses, twice. But Alice and co have mere minutes to enjoy their victory as Umbrella, led by a mind controlled (and finally blonde) Jill valentine, turn up to ruin the party.
The final film Resident Evil Retribution (2012) keeps up the furious pace. Anderson provides more treats for game fans as Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy and beardy Barry Burton get shoehorned into Alice’s ongoing story. Taking inspiration from the superb trailer for zombie game Dead Island, an in-reverse introduction explains the carnage that immediately followed the end of Afterlife, as Alice’s Arcadia oil tanker goes up in smoke mere minutes after she declared it a safe haven. Things then get weird.
Having fallen into the Pacific, Alice wakes up as a suburban house wife, with Carlos for a husband and a deaf daughter. When zombies bust in on the family home Alice is helped by the formerly zombified Rain (Michelle Rodriguez). Its all very puzzling. We’re none the wiser when a semi naked (again!) Alice is psychologically tortured by Jill in a giant Umbrella holding cell, then let out into a fake Tokyo city centre for a tussle with more zombies. We eventually find out that Alice is in an underwater Umbrella testing facility that has massive soundstages where fake street scenes are populated with clones of dead characters from the previous movies to test out their latest bio-weapons.
At this point some serious questions need answering, such as how the hell Umbrella manage to find the money and willing volunteers to build and man these massive facilities, specially as the world is now a post-apocalyptic dustbowl where food and resources are hard to come by. And who exactly is still buying these bio-weapons? There’s no one left to fight surely? These questions aren’t answered, and things get more confusing when it’s revealed that Albert Wesker is the one who is springing Alice from her underwater prison. There’s no explanation as to how he survived the fiery explosion that engulfed him at the end of Afterlife or his sudden change of heart, other than they need Alice to help save the human race from extinction. Seeing as Wesker was engineering bio-weapons seemingly for that very purpose you wonder why he suddenly gives a toss.
Still, at least Anderson offers up some crazy action sequences to paper over these massive story cracks. More hyper real battle sequences go off, ballet violent excuses for favourite characters to look cool while kicking the shit out of impossible villains (Umbrella are now making zombies clad in 1940’s Nazi regalia?). Leon and Ada serve no purpose to the story other than to have Leon and Ada on screen, floppy hair and impractically fashioned split dress and all. The cloning is a cheap way of bringing back old favourites; honestly, whose job was it to scoop up the cubes of Colin Salmon from the original Raccoon City Hive so that Umbrella could clone him later?
But despite all this it is fun to see familiar faces back on the screen, and by the time Alice is flinging a Bentley round the streets of "Moscow” with Barry and Leon firing out the back window you’ll be too entertained to care. More Aliens (1986) rip-offs follow as Alice finds her own Newt in the form of Becky and even has to dash off against the clock to rescue her from the "Queen” Licker as the underground complex blows up. Alice loses a third potential love interest when Luther goes down, but at least gets to keep her clothes on in the snow; Jill Valentine's wonderful cleavage isn't so lucky. Anderson delivers another grand, sequel baiting final sequence (Umbrella are now engineering flying dragons?) as humanity must make its final stand from the White House against a returning Red Queen.
A final sixth film in the series, tentatively titled Resident Evil: Rejuvenation, has already started filming, with talk of a reboot after that. Hopefully Anderson will move on and let someone finally deliver the Resident Evil movie that should have been made thirteen years ago. The current film franchise is a pretty tough sell, even to those fans that love the games and are briefly entertained by the site of an onscreen Barry Burton or Ada Wong. Still, I did find myself caring for Alice by the end of the fifth film no matter how ridiculous her escapades got. Maybe I was battered into submission; watching Jovovich deliver her millionth karate kick to zombie chops, you start to yearn for a scene where she sits and puts her feet up with a well deserved cup of tea.
The gaming series has reached an impasse to. The original produced a brilliant sequel, a solid part three, and an excellent part four. A terrific remake on the Gamecube kept fans happy, but the rot set in soon after. The likes of Resident Evil Zero and Code Veronica started to muddy the story waters, adding so many additional layers of mystery, intrigue and double crossing it was impossible to follow who did what to who, when, and for what reason. Part five of the main series ditched horror in favour of action, and though it was an excellent game to play, it just wasn’t Resident Evil. A poor man’s Umbrella in the form of Tricell kept the story ticking over, but things were getting repetitive by the time part 6 was released and the game suffered massively as a result. Rebooting the movies will be easy; just film the first game as it was written. How to reboot the computer game series is a much tougher question.