Lets go back to the 1990s. Metaphorically, not temporally (if only, though). Video games were becoming more technologically advanced, making the jump from 2D to primarily 3D, leading developers along bigger and bolder paths. So many innovative titles were released for the Playstation console, but nothing quite reaches the heights of the original Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil in 1996. Solidifying “survival horror” as a profitable genre, Resident Evil become one of the biggest selling games of all time, spawning a series which just released it’s seventh installment this past holiday season. It’s had some high points, some low points (like Resident Evil 6, more on that later), but it’s kept the genre alive by evolving with the times and reinventing itself when it needed to. It’s one of my personal favorite series of all time, even if I haven’t exactly beaten any of the classic ones.
I remember renting a Playstation from Movie Gallery, back when physical movie rental shops still existed, along side a copy of Resident Evil 2, when I was in the single digits as a child. It’s always been terrifying and carried quite the stigma of fear with it. Even the blasé Capcom introduction screen freaked me out because I knew what was coming. As soon as I hit the “This game contains scenes of explicit violence and gore” interstitial warning, I knew I was in for a scary gaming session.
Too bad children are terrible at video games, and I could barely make it to the police station which is only about 15 minutes into the game. The controls, at least for the first three games, are awkward. You control your character almost as you would a tank, steering in a direction, then moving forward. Then there are the wacky, cryptic puzzles and item management, which take a considerable amount of brainpower to measure and compensate for, skills a prepubescent me most definitely lacked. Combine that with an ever-present fear that something around the next corner probably wants to eat me and, whoa, what an experience for a kid. Audiences ate it up, moaning and groaning for more, themselves becoming a massive, zombie-like horde. I mean, this game was so effective crafting terror that it somehow managed to make doors, the game’s hidden loading screens between rooms, terrifying.
Due to the series being such a massive success, it was inevitable that a film adaptation would happen. George Romero, of Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead fame, directed a short Japanese commercial for the release of the second installment of the Resident Evil series (called Biohazard in Japan). The buzz for the ad was so popular that, in what might seem like a wise move, Sony tapped Romero to be the one to bring the game to the big screen.
In 1999, Romero knocked out a script in six weeks which was, according to sources, was very faithful to the first game, involving the main characters of Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, alongside series antagonist Albert Wesker. There were gonna be lots of crazy mutated monsters and plenty of nods to the game, all while maintaining the spooky, slow-burn tone. Romero, as king of the zombies, granted an air of legitimacy to the project, as previous video game adaptations up to the point (such as the notoriously terrible Super Mario Bros movie) were less-than successful. However, Capcom and Sony execs fired Romero because the script was described as “not good.” The film was put on hold as another writer and director were sought.
Up and coming director Paul W.S. Anderson, fresh off the modest success of both his adaptation of the Mortal Kombat game series and his own, original idea that was Event Horizon, was hired by Sony to write a script. For some reason, they liked it more than Romero’s. He was hired as director and, come March 2002, the world had a Resident Evil film.
The first three games of the series were relative slow burns with moments of extreme terror, unwieldy puzzles, and spurts of gunplay. Their primary focus was firmly rooted in creating a foreboding atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Anderson and crew opted for a jump-scare-ridden action thrill ride, with a pulse-
pandering-pounding Nu Metal score provided by composer Marco Beltrami and Columbine-exploiter Marilyn Manson. The film lacks any sort of personality, aping better films like The Matrix and Romero’s Dead films in lieu of interesting characters or any sort of tension. The worst part of all is that the film has relatively little to do with the Resident Evil franchise besides the inclusion of zombies, the Licker creature, and obtuse, pointless references that are nothing more than aesthetic Easter eggs that do nothing to develop the film further. More like ResiDon’t Evil, huh?
Lets start by looking at the film as a film itself, yeah? Resident Evil, along side it’s sequel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, made Roger Ebert’s “Most Hated Films” list in 2005. Not a great start, huh? This quote from his great review states that Resident Evil is “Dawn of the Dead crossed with John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, with zombies not as ghoulish as the first and trains not as big as the second.” As accurate a summation as you ever will read. The plot, as it stands, goes as follows: a virus is released intentionally into The Hive, a secret underground lab run by the ominous Umbrella corporation. The Red Queen, the lab’s supercomputer overwatcher, kills all employees to stop the virus from spreading. Shortly thereafter, a team of soldiers, along side three civilians, enter The Hive to see what happened, only to befall a series of laser traps, reanimated office temps, and a surprising lack of gore for an R-rated film based off a game series that warns you about it’s gore content. It’s boring and linear, with a “twist” or two that could be telegraphed no clearer than if Samuel Morse himself was involved (p.s. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, so please laugh at my reference). I paid seven dollars for it on Blu-Ray because I am nothing if not dedicated to the pursuit of journalistic prosperity and truth—plus I’m pretty sure my ISP can track my streaming now so, what’s a guy to do?
Our “characters” consist of Milla Vovovich as a bad actress in a red dress who remains unnamed (although she’s credited as “Alice”), Michelle Rodriguez as Rain Ocampo, the most blatant Vasquez rip-off ever conceived outside of Vasquez’s twin sister, and two white dudes who, for the life of me, could as well have been tennis balls on strings and still have contributed just as much to the acting caliber of the this film. The only two moderately interesting characters are Colin Salmon as the leader of the squad, and Martin Crewes as Kaplan, the techie squaddie. Nobody is particularly memorable, not even Rain’s odd one-liners (“When I get outta here, I think I’m gonna get laid”). Alice and one of the white guys are suffering from amnesia thanks to some nerve gas, which isn’t helping matters. A blank mind makes for a blank stare, I guess.
So our protagonist is practically catatonic for the first act of the film, until she has awkward and over-saturated flashbacks. Oh, and she starts developing superpowers, like jumping off of walls to kick a dog in the face. She’s practically Neo, but without the charismatic vacancy of Keanu. Her mythos gets ridiculous as the series goes on, but in this first film, she just becomes a badass because, well, you remember when she fought people in The Fifth Element, right? She’s a tough cookie, this unnamed lady who we see naked multiple times in the film! Without characters to get behind, the journey this film takes us on remains flat, since the stakes that are present in the film don’t affect us as an audience because we don’t care if these “people” live or not.
Anderson’s direction lacks patience. He doesn’t ever allow a moment to build, he never lets sound fade away, and he doesn’t let anything genuinely surprise the audience. There isn’t a moment of horror in this whole horror movie. Everything has that stupid drone that indicates a “Wait for it wait for it wait for OH GOTCHA” jump scare is coming. There’s absolutely no emotion or tension, as I’ve said already. The action, the clean, PG-13 action, is so flat that it makes Mortal Kombat’s choreography look like Ip Man. The gun play tends to be shot-reverse-shot of solider, zombie, zombie on ground, solider looking in disbelief, then maybe a little running. All at a static, flat level. There’s some alright camera movement, at least it feels a little more kinetic than a true amateur director may have went with, but it doesn’t tend to make anything more exciting, just nauseating.
Plus, all the action is bloodless. In an R-rated zombie film, Anderson should have went hard with the effects, especially as he’s emulating Romero’s work, which was known for it’s fantastic zombie gore effects. There’s hardly any blood, almost like this film was shot as a PG-13, then they added a nipple in after the fact. It’s noticeably lame. Where is Tom Savini when you need him, am I right? The CGI, which is primarily how the Licker is portrayed, looks worse in this than anything in Event Horizon, which I think is goofy. Anderson’s choices don’t really make sense half the time. The film’s identity never feels solidified. He can’t grasp how to bring this game to life, so it remains undead, caught between life and death, lurching forward towards a stupid sequel bait conclusion, another terrible WS trademark that just won’t die: I’m looking at you, Three Musketeers!
I will concede a few things I did like about the film. I like the fact that it exists? I mean, without this and 28 Days Later, the zombie genre may never have been re-popularized in the film medium in the early 2000s, and we may never have gotten any form of The Walking Dead (comic, show, or amazing game), or maybe even Shaun of the Dead. Oh lord, can you imagine? The set design in the film actually does seem like it had a lot of attention paid to it, for the most part. The train is a pretty faithful recreation of a train appearing in multiple Resident Evil titles, and the laser hallway seems like a neat little idea. That action scene is actually the only tense one in the whole film, as the captain is in danger and pulls of a slick maneuver to dodge a laser, before being diced up by a cynical supercomputer. The hard-rockin riffs in the back actually work in that context, making the scene come together with an impact it otherwise wouldn’t. Lastly, the final “boss battle” with the Licker in the train actually really reminds me of how boss fights in the game work. You don’t come at giant enemies with force in every fight; you use the environment to help you. It’s the puzzle-enhanced combat the series is known for, and by trapping the monster in a precarious position and harming it by opening a door and exposing it to dangerous electric currents is exactly how you might beat a boss in any installment of the franchise.
That’s the thing, too, that is most disappointing about the movie. It’s not the fact that the film itself isn’t crafted particularly well, featuring wooden performances, the most bare bones dialogue, and an inert emotional core; it’s that it fails to capture the spirit of the video games. The film actually reminds me most of Resident Evil 6, the most maligned numbered entry in the series. That game was poorly received mostly due to it’s focus on action, poorer than average writing, and it’s over-reliance on boring, static quick-time events (aka “press this button when I tell you to press this button!” type game play). This flick feels like that game; all surface-level shimmer, no depth.
The main elements missing in this off-the-mark adaption are the horror and the fear. A better-paced director who actually cares about the source material would have been the biggest change. Anderson ostensibly knows how to create anxiety, because Event Horizon, while not perfect, is perfectly serviceable as a haunted-house-in-space movie. I don’t know why he couldn’t translate the best parts of that movie, as a now more seasoned director, into this huge IP. It’s not like Paul W.S. Anderson (Fun fact: The “W.S.” stands for “Weak Screenwriter”) didn’t have time or resources with which to develop the film. I mean, sure, the budget was half of Event Horizon‘s whopping $60 million (!), but the technical know-how should have been applied here, man. With less to work with, give the audience slightly less. Raise the mystery! Resident Evil is not slow-motion karate kicks and electric guitars; it’s scary doors, off-screen moans, and windows breaking unexpectedly.
The film’s music, too, was an obvious attempt to court the youth into tugging on Mom’s shirt hard enough that movie ticket money may flop out. I want the iconic creepy stuff from the game. Have you heard it? Check these out. The score of the games are the single biggest contributors to the anxiety produced in-game. Every area has it’s own distinct feel and threat. The game does a great job of creating atmosphere, something the film seemingly lacks in abundance. Heck, even the “safe” rooms in the game have a certain ominous feeling. Where was any of that in the movie? I guess when you hire Marilyn Manson, you’re not aiming for subtlety, are you?
I’m not particularly upset that characters from the game are in no way represented in the film. You can totally make a great Resident Evil movie without Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield or Leon Kennedy. Personality has never been a big strength of the series, as the writing is notoriously bad. The entirety of the first game’s dialogue is cringe-worthy, thanks to bad translating and poor voice acting. The hollow callbacks to the game, though, feel more like taunts than fun little nods. If you know about the game, Paul, then why not make something true to the game? Fans wanted a slow, spooky film that built towards one epic confrontation with a mutated killing machine. What audiences got was a Slipknot-influenced Matrix clone, featuring poorly done-up zombies and a lack of spooks.
The film series concluded earlier this year in January with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It was the seventh installment in the film series, a milestone the game series reached after 20 years. After the second movie, the pretense of the films being actually based off the games vanished. I wish I could say the quality improved, but I’m not much of a liar. I’m still a fan of the games. I have yet to play Resident Evil 7 (if someone wants to buy it for me on Steam, please do so), but I recently finished a replay of Resident Evil 5, and I plan on replaying through the old ones with a buddy in the near future. After re-watching the first Resident Evil movie today for the first time since I was a teenager—when I admittedly did actually enjoy it, especially the commentary where Milla talks about her nudity like it was the main draw of the movie—I might actually use the receipt and return it to get my seven dollars back. Fifteen years haven’t been kind to this adaptation which would have surely decomposed into just bones by now. Sadly, that was all that existed in the first place. Well, if you’ll excuse me, Raccoon City is a’calling my name with all it’s 32 bits.