Welcome back! As promised, this is the kick-off of our next retrospective series! This time we’re going to tackle the live-action Resident Evil film franchise (as a result, the Capcom CGI films Degeneration and Damnation won’t be covered, although I’ll probably give them each a very short review at the end of the series). And since we’re going to be covering a video game movie franchise, I thought it was appropriate to mention some of the current events in gaming before we dive head-first into these retrospectives. First off, as I mentioned in a previous post, I thought that Microsoft was testing the waters by leaking the restrictions on used games and required internet connection to Wired rather than announcing them in their press conference. Turns out I was wrong (mostly anyway).
Most of you have probably already heard this by now, but it would seem that Microsoft have waffled and are now placing the used games restriction in the hands of publishers. The online verification thing is sticking as well, although it is a 24 hour verification (or every 1 hour if you’re logging into someone else’s XBOX ONE). This might be forgiven if the system was priced extra-cheap, but it’s going to be $499 (with Europe and Britain getting shafted by exchange differences). I hate to be an obnoxious fanboy, but right about now I’m extremely glad that I am a PlayStation lifer: my first console was a PS1 and I’m probably going to stick with them out of misguided brand-loyalty forever – even if the shoe were on the other foot in this instance. That said, the only real negatives I’m seeing about the PS4 right now are that online multiplayer requires a PS+ subscription and that the system is HDMI-only… both of which are features of the XBOX ONE anyway and so wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. In any case, I’m getting really freaking excited for the next generation of gaming consoles, enough-so that I’ll probably be pre-ordering a PS4 soon.
Alright, enough of that, time to get to Resident Evil. The Resident Evil film franchise is the most financially successful movie series based on video games, having brought in almost $1 billion between the (thus far) 5 films. With a 6th film in production it is likely to surpass that mark, which would make it one of the most lucrative franchises of all time. Of course, money isn’t everything – despite its successes, the franchise has a rather… uh… toxic critical reputation to say the least (which we will, of course, be covering over the next couple weeks). In this entry, we will be discussing the first film in the franchise – 2002’s Resident Evil. This film has frequently been labelled as one of the best video game adaptations of all time, usually being brandied about alongside Silent Hill, Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider. Are these accolades* justified? Read on and find out…
In the early stages of production, George A. Romero was in charge of writing and directing Resident Evil. Yes, that’s right – the man who invented the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead and perfected it in Dawn and Day of the Dead was supposed to adapt Resident Evil into a film. Of course, the man was almost 15 years removed from those films at the time, but the prospect of him returning to the zombie genre was certainly an exciting one. At the time he had not returned to the genre in quite some time (and would not until the release of Land of the Dead in 2005), and so his involvement was one that generated much interest. Romero was apparently planning on making a fairly close adaptation of the first game in the series, using characters from the game (Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker, Ada Wong, Barry Burton and Rebecca Chambers). For whatever reason, Romero was fired (apparently the hardcore gamers would bitch about deviations from the plot and newcomers wouldn’t be engaged) and the film went into development hell. If you’re interested, you can actually read the original draft here… I haven’t, but if you have/do then let me know how it was in the comments.
At some point, Sony approached Paul W.S. Anderson to work on the project. Anderson was almost certainly approached for his work on the relatively successful Mortal Kombat film, and soon was both locked as both the writer and director for Resident Evil. At the time Paul W.S. Anderson wasn’t quite the hack he’s considered today (he wouldn’t release Alien vs Predator for another 2 years, and he was still living off the good will of the first 2 acts of Event Horizon), and so the decision wasn’t too troubling. Oddly enough, Anderson decided to move even further from the original story than Romero, with only the Umbrella Corporation, the mansion and monsters connecting the film to the video game series. In his own words, “under-performing movie tie-ins are becoming all too common and Resident Evil, of all games, deserved a good celluloid representation”… which basically translates too “the best way to adapt a video game is to not adapt it at all”. I’m not entirely against this line of thinking, but the movie risks alienating the core audience if it fails to “feel” like the source it’s claiming to be an adaptation of. Of course, there has to be a balance – for example, how awful will the Uncharted movie be if it’s a direct adaptation of the first game? Just make a new, well-written adventure story starring true-to-character representations of Drake, Sully, Elena and Chloe. Similarly, Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy managed to be an awesome fan film just because it captured the fundamentals of the source without being a direct adaptation of it. Many video games have perfectly serviceable plots which can be translated to screen, and Resident Evil was one of them in my opinion.
Also worth noting is that Paul W.S. Anderson was gunning for the movie to get a PG-13 rating. Yes, you read that right – a movie about cannibalistic zombies and monsters with no skin butchering people sounded like a fun time for the whole family. This sort of ties into my previous point as well – the Resident Evil games are fairly violent. Each game has a screen which warns you that there’s violent content and therefore appropriate only for adults. Hell, the game’s ESRB rating is “M” (not that anyone seems to follow that). Luckily they ended up going with an R-rating (a fairly tame one at that), but I had the same sort of problem with the recent World War Z – how do you justify making a movie about people getting violently torn apart and cannibalized and make it PG-13? You end up having to sanitize it which just cheapens the experience and practically ensures a bad product. I’m not usually someone who pushes for R-ratings like some others I could mention (would The Lord of the Rings really have been improved with an R-rating? No, no it would not). However, zombie movies they really do require an R-rating because the staples of the genre involve visceral violence and gore – taking those out with discretion shots tends to not work.
Anyway, when production began in earnest, 2 fairly big names signed on in lead roles – Michelle Rodriguez (who had been making waves as a beauty in Blue Crush and The Fast and the Furious) and Milla Jovovich (at the time, probably most famous for The Fifth Element). There were some more minor male roles of course, but these were the big two, as evidenced by the poster for the film. As a result, the movie was marketed as “sexy chicks kill zombies”. In fact, I can actually remember seeing a commercial for the film as a little 12-year-old kid, where the crux of the marketing campaign was basically “see this movie because a girl in a slinky red dress slow-motion kicks zombie dogs in the face, Matrix-style”. Oddly enough, that’s actually more appealing to me now than it was back then…
Ahem… so we’ve got pre-production out of the way, but was Resident Evil any good? Well, let’s talk about the plot first… or lack thereof. Resident Evil (and its sequels) are notorious for their shallow, illogical plots and this fact became evident in the first film. Put simply, a zombie toxin (the T-virus) gets released in an underground facility owned by the Umbrella Corporation called The Hive. When The Hive’s AI unit, The Red Queen, locks the facility down, Umbrella sends in its own private military unit (plus a couple civilians they decided needed to tag along) to infiltrate The Hive and shut down The Red Queen… of course, this releases the zombies. Based on that short rundown, can you spot a few major flaws? Like, if the AI locked down the whole Hive, why do they have to send in a PMC to investigate? Can Umbrella not communicate with The Red Queen directly, or maybe check security footage? Don’t they have failsafes or something? When they reboot The Red Queen, why can’t she just lock down the facility again? Why can’t The Red Queen warn the Umbrella Corporation that there are zombies inside? And probably most importantly why would they take civilians into The Hive with them!?! Is their m.o. to reveal Umbrella corporate secrets to damn well everyone (especially since one of the civilians turns out to be an NSA agent)?! Basically, the whole plot’s just a thin pretense… like a video game, minus good gameplay to make up for it.
Then there’s Alice, Milla Jovovich’s character, who is basically just a convenience. When The Red Queen locked down The Hive, she also releases some sort of stun gas which causes amnesia… for some reason, she also releases this at the Umbrella Mansion (despite it being kilometers away from The Hive), causing Alice and her fake-husband Spence to lose their memories. As a result, this allows Paul W.S. Anderson to seed us new information and skills when it’s convenient to the plot, to add some “suspense” and to allow characters to spew exposition at her. Need to suddenly deal with zombie dogs? Oh goody, I just remembered that I know martial arts, now I won’t be just a bystander all the time. There’s also the fact that Paul W.S. Anderson seems to do whatever he can to get Milla Jovovich naked – there are 3 separate scenes where she’s either completely naked or almost naked (her introduction where she’s knocked out in the shower, a flashback sex scene and the end of the film where she wakes up in a hospital). You’d almost think that Paul W.S. Anderson had a thing for her… of course, we’ll get to that in good time.
Speaking of Alice, the characters in the film aren’t very well drawn, or acted for that matter. No one really has anything to work with, but I felt that Michelle Rodriguez did a particularly bad job (which is unfortunate because in her later films she is an effortlessly badass bitch). The one major bright spot in the acting department though is Colin Salmon as James “One” Shade, the leader of the Umbrella PMC. His character is AWESOME, but dies way too early. To be fair this was a fairly clever curveball on the part of Anderson, but considering how weak the other characters were it was a bad move to kill off his best character. There’s also the fact that his death scene is pretty badass and definitely a highlight of the film.
Partly because of the weak script, Resident Evil just plain fails as a horror movie. I know that Paul W.S. Anderson can create suspense and horror – Event Horizon was really successful in this regard, at least until the 3rd act at which point it went off the rails. Unfortunately, he just plain failed to do so here, thinking that he can scare us by kicking a can off-camera a few times (hint: it’s not working). In fact, the first 40 minutes are rather boring because we’re supposed to be getting connected to the characters and getting scared by what’s happening, but fails on both accounts. The movie also suffers from using CGI on some of the monsters. I can understand having to use CGI to represent a Licker since it’s a pretty grotesque, out-of-this-world being, but the effects are just really cartoony and plastic. To make matters worse, they’re intercut between shots of an animatronic Licker which just reinforces how bad the CGI is in this movie. Think I’m overstating just how bad it is? This is one of the first zombies we see in the movie (read: it’s supposed to make us piss our pants):
Yeah, we’re pissing our pants alright… pissing our pants laughing that is. Did they render that on a PS1 to remain authentic to the game? The Red Queen hologram’s pretty awful too, with horrid lip syncing and extremely stiff movement. In fact, Resident Evil might have some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a professionally-made movie… and don’t give me any “oh it’s 2002, the special effects weren’t good then” bullshit. Jurassic Park came out 10 years earlier and it looked phenomenal. The Matrix came out 3 years earlier and looked much better than anything on display here. The technology wasn’t lagging here, it was the guys who worked on the movie who are to blame.
Also worth singling out is the extremely shoddy editing, which might actually be the worst aspect of the whole damn movie. One two separate occasions, the characters get completely surrounded by zombies and then, one cut later, they’re safe with absolutely no explanation as to why this is. That’s like if in Saving Private Ryan the Americans had been getting shot at on Omaha Beach as soon as they land, but instead of showing everyone getting gunned down, they instead cut straight to them firing flamethrowers at the pillboxes. It’s very noticeable and just suggests that they probably just didn’t film the whole damn movie (because why would you cut out the exciting escape or last-second scramble to get onto the pipes…?). There’s also a point where Alice fires a 9mm pistol at the zombie dogs at least 18 times without reloading . Now I’m no expert (unless countless hours of video games factor into that), but the Beretta 92FS that Alice takes off the dead security guard doesn’t appear to have a magazine capable of carrying that many rounds (the standard size is apparently 15 rounds)… as a result, I figure it’s probably just bad editing… and really, did she need to fire that many shots to take out a half dozen zombie dogs?
All-in-all, I think you can gather that Resident Evil was a pretty bad movie. Barring James “One” Shade, the zombie dogs and some half-decent action sequences, the movie is not very well done at all. The fact that it gets name-dropped among the “best” video game movies is baffling to me – as far as I’ve seen, all video game movies have been unfortunately shitty, and Resident Evil is absolutely no exception to that.
Be sure to come back soon for part 2 of this retrospective, Resident Evil: Apocalypse!
*Of course, none of these are considered “good”. I’ve only seen Silent Hill out of these 3 movies, and while it captured the atmosphere of the town quite well, it really failed as a proper film. On the laurels of its atmosphere and cinematography alone, I’d have to give it a 5/10.