Had you asked me to review Resident Evil back in 2002, I probably would have refused to do so. My general dislike for Resident Evil and its first sequel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, was so great that I’ve never bothered to sit down and officially review them for The Zed Word – Zombie Blog or bother seeing any other movie in the series. So why begin now?
Well, after ten years, the series is still going strong with its fifth installment, Resident Evil: Retribution, due for a September release. I’m no longer the angry young man I once was, and it dawned on me that a decade-spanning series like Resident Evil deserves a fresh look. Therefore, I’ve decided to review and re-assess each Resident Evil film in chronological order leading up to the release of Resident Evil: Retribution. Perhaps I’ll find that I’ve warmed up to these movies and maybe even find something to like.
To find out, I take my first steps down the rabbit hole to where it all began: Paul W.S. Anderson’s RESIDENT EVIL.
In the fictional world of Resident Evil, the Umbrella Corporation dominates the world’s commercial and industrial landscape as the leading supplier of pharmaceuticals while its mega-profits are generated by illegal military weapons research, genetic engineering, and viral warfare programs. In a move that would make even Cobra Commander jealous, Umbrella has created an underground scientific research facility known as the Hive deep beneath Raccoon City where scientists go about their research. Unfortunately, security at the Hive is not up to snuff, and someone manages to steal a sample of the horrific T-virus and release it into the compound.
How bad is it? Well, this mutagenic virus, which is transmitted through air or bodily-fluid contact, has the nasty ability to reanimate the dead as flesh-hungry monsters. In order to keep the virus from escaping, the Hive’s artificial intelligence computer known as the Red Queen, decides to kill everyone in the compound and then seal up the whole facility. Unfortunately, a team of Umbrella commandos (including Michelle Rodriguez essentially playing herself) is dispatched to gain access to the Hive to find out what happened. For convoluted reasons, they must bring along two amnesiac Umbrella security operatives — Alice (Milla Jovovich) and Spence (James Purefoy) — as well as a local cop (Eric Mabius). Waiting for them deep in the Hive are hordes of the undead, large mutant creatures, and the revelation that some of our heroes are not what they seem to be.
From a story point of view, Resident Evil remains a deeply flawed movie whose plot holes haven’t grown any less glaring with time. Yet, my opinion of this shiny and electronically scored horror/action film has certainly improved. In 2002 I would have called it terrible. Now, having seen so many worse films (some even from the Resident Evil franchise), Milla Jovovich’s first outing as Alice has graduated to the status of passable, mindless entertainment in comparison.
Above everything else, David Johnson cinematography on Resident Evil gives the movie’s sets and action sequences a sleek, shiny, and coldly haunting atmosphere. The action scenes — clearly influenced by The Matrix’s obsession with bullet-time — never become too obnoxiously slow-mo. Meanwhile, the limited CGI used to create the mutant Licker creature, the holographic Red Queen, and some of the zombie’s faces have aged surprisingly well. They were mediocre to begin with, but they’re still better than the CGI you’ll find in most Asylum films (case in point: the zombie tiger from Zombie Apocalypse). The Hive, although lacking character, is sickeningly sterile as much as it is full of dark and dingy corridors for zombies and mutant monsters to creep around. And you know what, the zombies are pitch-perfect as Romero-inspired undead with a bit more spring in their steps. Sure, Resident Evil doesn’t break any new ground in terms of horror visuals or concepts and it’s half-baked references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland don’t go anywhere, but it’s pretty to look at in the age of DVD and Blu-ray. Even Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson’s score escapes ridicule because it set the precedent for electronic metal music in zombie action films instead of run it into the ground like so many copycats.
Despite the nice visuals, it’s too bad that the characters are so dull. Take Alice, for instance. As an amnesiac, she’s our identification character, and for what that’s worth she’s an effective plot device. Like us, the audience, she’s thrust into a weird situation without much context and putting things together as she goes. Unlike us, Alice can bust out martial arts moves whenever the plot needs her to. She’s a functional cipher but a lousy character; she has no life of her own. When she recalls the fact that she was attempting to bring down Umbrella from the inside by leaking information, the information doesn’t seem to change her in any noticeably way, and it’s never clear what her stake is in the struggle against Umbrella or what her role is in her supposedly sham yet sexual relationship with Spence. And then there’s Spence, who goes from bland Hugh Jackman lookalike supporting character to bland Hugh Jackman lookalike villain at the drop of a hat. Finally, both Alice and Spence are flanked by Matt (Eric Mabius showing his training from the Mark Walberg Cinematic School of Blank Stares) who, despite having the most emotional stake in the whole plot, never gets to shine. It’s not a good sign when the character with the most gravitas is a stone-cold army commando (Colin Salmon) who gets mercilessly cubed in a laser grid at the end of the first act.
It would be okay if the characters were only dull, but their motivations are often nonsensical. Never mind that we never learn why Alice wants to bring down Umbrella. How do we explain Spence’s actions? In the film, we see him listening in on Alice’s discussion with an anti-Umbrella saboteur about the black market value of the T-virus, so he decides to steal to make a future for himself and for Alice if she wants to tag along. Okay, I can buy that. But why the hell does he decide to smash a vial of the T-virus in the Hive before he escapes? This is baffling for two reasons.
1.) Presumably, Spence knows how dangerous the T-virus is, yet he decides to unleash it into the air of the same compound he’s now trying to escape from. Into the same air he’s currently breathing. That would be like stealing two nuclear bombs and detonating one of them behind you before you’re out of the blast radius. Stupid, suicidal, or both?
2.) If the T-virus is worth enough money for Spence to risk his life by backstabbing Umbrella to steal it, why waste such a valuable commodity by smashing it on the floor? Ostensibly, Spence could make even more money selling two samples of T-virus than selling just one. Spence has just deprived himself of millions of dollars but for what reason? Listen, I understand the desire to throw a big “FUCK YOU” to your job as you walk out, but this is ridiculous.
Don’t get me started on the Umbrella commandos. If Umbrella could install such an advanced form of AI as the Red Queen to manage the Hive, wouldn’t they install some kind of off-site way of shutting her down? If not, does Umbrella not have the resources to send more than a handful of operatives to break back into the Hive — a compound containing some of the most dangerous and frightening perversions of science known to man? I give great props to Anderson for bringing Resident Evil to the screen with an original story and original characters, but the script needed a lot more polish to give its characters some well-defined motivation other than “we need to make a video game movie!”
So, what’s the final verdict on Resident Evil, ten years after its release? I certainly like it more today than I did when it first came out. I’ve forgiven it many of its superficial faults, but as you can tell by this review, I haven’t forgiven its illogical premise and character motivations. In short, Resident Evil is an awkward bag of tricks that has more or less settled into a comfortable position.
Resident Evil may be the least offensive film in the franchise. Despite its faults, it has managed to break even as a perfectly adequate action movie with horror elements.