Thanks to the extraordinarily low benchmark for the world of video game adaptations, the Resident Evil franchise is king. A rambling, oddly plotted series of action movies based on Capcom’s superior series that became the benchmark of survival horror, it managed to stretch to five sequels that varied in quality from not that bad to very fucking bad – and it all began here.
Back in 2002, the announcement that a videogame movie was being directed by Paul W.S. Anderson wasn’t yet news that would make your stomach violently clench in anxiety; after all his crack at Mortal Kombat was actually pretty fun and his sci-fi horror Event Horizon is still a legitimately awesome version of The Shining in space (we won’t mention Soldier because none seems to remember it) so expectations were understandably high… Oh how naive were were…
A woman awakes in a deserted mansion with no memory as to who it where she is and it soon becomes apparent that the cause is something a lot more sinister than a night of Prosecco pounding on a girl’s night out. The woman’s name is Alice (although you only really find that out by reading the credits) and as she struggles to piece together her swiss cheese memory she’s “attacked” by an intruder who introduces himself as Matt Addison, a detective of the Racoon City police – but before Alice can react to this news, special forces team working for the humongous conglomerate known as the Umbrella Corporation smashes their way into the building and take command. The group, made up of the leader James Shade, tough talking Rain Ocampo and a bunch of other non-entities with “victim” figuratively felt-tipped onto their foreheads, reveal that Alice is an agent of Umbrella and was assigned to protect the secret entrance to a vast, underground, genetics lab dubbed The Hive which had gone dark five hours prior. It turns out that some silly bugger broke a vial of something incredibly dangerous called the T-Virus and the Hive’s super computer, an A.I. by the ominous name of The Red Queen, decided that the best way of containing it was to murder the hundreds of people inside – hey, when you name a computer programme The Red Queen, that’s what you fucking get.
As the group works their way down to The Hive and after hooking up with Alice’s cover husband, Spence Parks, they eventually discover exactly what the T-Virus is capable of as it’s turned the lab’s entire population into zombies, it’s guard dogs into skinless beasts and lurking in a holding crate somewhere is a genetically modified creature with Gene Simmons’ tongue game fans know as a Licker. On top of all that, The Red Queen – who manifests itself as a holographic little girl who can barely pronounce all the long words the script requires her to say – is also trying to kill them with a novel use of lasers and large amounts of exposition. Can these Umbrella employees escape a Hive teeming with bloodthirsty monsters and what revelations will Alice’s memory unlock once her brain gets the metaphorical nudge in the ribs it needs?
Over the years, I’ve actually mellowed a hell of a lot over my sizable hatred of the Resident Evil movies which once burnt as brightly as the power of a hundred suns. My problem was that I couldn’t let go of a previous version of the film that was slated to be made which would have seen none other than zombie overlord George A. Romero directing a vastly over ambitious script that got predictably canned due to budget issues. Another issue that grinded my gears is that for a game based on Resident Evil, the finished product barely attempts to recreate any of the iconic scenes of the game at all – but it’s here that the whole point of the movie lies. Paul W.S. Anderson never intended to make a Resident Evil adaptation but instead tried to craft a tale that was supposed to fit alongside the games and tell one big long story and when you take that into account, the lack of giant snakes, massive tarantulas and ten feet tall, genetic killing machines with a giant eyeball in their shoulder begin to be almost understandable.
That’s the good news… the bad news is Anderson (also the sole writer credited) managed to turn in an action/horror movie of such staggering blandness, I’m stunned to this day that the series carried on as long as it did (I said I didn’t hate the movies anymore, I didn’t say anything about liking them). The plot, and I chuckle sarcastically as I type this, is the usual kind of “people wandering around muttering military jargon” that’s typified every lazy writer who’s ever seen Aliens and on top of that the characters are possibly less developed than the blocky characters you once maneuvered past monsters on your Playstation One. Thankfully Anderson’s bacon is almost saved by his casting as some of the actors managed to create an extra dimention to their thinly written characters but sheer force of will. Firstly, despite whatever you may think of the quality of most of her output, you can’t deny that Mila Jovovich is probably the most prolific female action star in American cinema ever since she emerged from a pod wearing bandages over her naughty bits in The Fifth Element and her road to a career of asskicking movies pretty much slipped into fifth gear from this point on. While she’s given not much to do initially aside from look good in a red dress and wave a gun around, a scene that requires her to run up a wall and boot a zombie dobermann clean in the mush only hints at the superpowered, demigod the character would occasionally become. However, besting even Jovivich is that stalwart of the modern, tough-talking ball buster; Michelle Rodriguez who all but essentially steals the film on her charisma alone and who turns every bit of stale, overused dialogue she’s saddled with work simply because you believe she believes it and she’s the only character who even remotely has a working character arc that doesn’t involve amnesia. Finally, joining Sean Pertwee and Jason Isaacs in that fraternity of actors that Anderson loves to kill onscreen is the noble visage of Colin Salmon who brings life to his ill-fated commander role as he struggles with both slicing, dicing laser and a believable American accent and he stands out far more than James Purefoy’s shifty agent and Eric Mabius’ nice, but dim detective despite having half the screen time.
However, the thing that irked me most about this movie (both then and now) is it’s treatment of the game’s most obvious resource: the zombies. Visually boring and virtually bloodless, the film waits fucking ages before trotting them out and we have to wait even longer before it occurs to any of these trained killers to even remotely think about shooting them in the head (bizarrely, a broken neck will also kill these particular zombies); as a zombie movie, RE is – fittingly, considering their speed – a bloody shambles and a clunky, final act Licker attack hardly beefs up the scares or action.
The ending manages to leave a door the size of an HGV wide open for a sequel and is as subtle as a nine inch nail acupuncture session; but someone out there must have enjoyed it (possibly teenage, Europeans with ADD is my guess) because we kept fucking getting them.
I have to give credit where it’s due, they kept this franchise going when no other video game movies could, but Resident Evil should have stayed at home…