I always thought that the original Resident Evil (2002) had a certain amount of charm to it. It was not a carbon copy replica of any one of the Resident Evil games, but video game movies had been much maligned throughout history. As a video game movie goes, Resident Evil is not horrible, as the majority of VG movies are, and so it has always occupied a special place in my heart and memory. But I never indulged in the remainder of the movies beyond that first installment. As 2015 closes out, I decided to take on as my next mission watching the rest of the franchise, particularly now that we are in the one year run-up to the release of the 6th and final movie.
The setup for the first movie is an interesting spin from the original tale told in the first two games. In this case, Umbrella is developing the T-Virus in an underground bunker-like facility called The Hive. Its entrance is obfuscated by a mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City, inhabited by the head of security and one of her agents. When the virus is detected in the air by the Hive’s automated, computer-based security system, it takes action to keep the virus from escaping the facility. Action which predominantly means killing any living thing in the Hive at the time of the incident. Umbrella then sends in a spec ops team to recover the two agents in the mansion and to re-enter the Hive to investigate its status and the cause of the incident.
The first movie, simply entitled Resident Evil, hits a lot of marks, first of which was assembling an appealing cast. Milla Jovovich was most recently off of The Messenger and more notably for sci-fi fans, The Fifth Element. In terms of physicality, she holds her own in an action scene. Colin Salmon was becoming a familiar face to US movie-goers, having appeared as the stoic Agent Robinson in two Bond films alongside Dame Judi Dench; he would appear in a third later that year. Michelle Rodriguez had earned her bad-girl and bad-ass girl stripes in the first Fast and Furious flick. And then Sony Pictures put the movie in the hands of Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson was most known to geeks as the director of Event Horizon (not beloved) and Mortal Kombat (maybe not beloved, but probably the first decent video-game movie that had been done). Anderson and Jovovich would be married seven years later.
The script of the movie is as good as any B-movie, and notably better than that in most places. One interesting and risky creative choice is that the creators changed a lot of the environmental variables in this rendition of Resident Evil that skewed it away from the games. Gone were any of the canonical characters from RE1 and 2 that would have been immediately recognizable. Wesker, Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy, Claire and Chris Redfield…none of them appear in the film. I can only imagine that this made it tough for RE fans to connect to the movie. I was only a mild fan, having played RE1 and 2, but only completing the second one. And I was not a fanatic, it was just a cool thing that was neat to play one time. But what the movie does is sprinkle enough of the rest of the RE mythology throughout the 1 hour and 40 minutes to hook those familiar with the game into a point of at least mild interest. From there, it’s up to the script and the actors to rope you in the rest of the way, and they do a decent job at that. Because this pre-dated AMC’s The Walking Dead, the creature effects of the undead are up there with anything else that had been done in a movie up to that point. Colin Salmon does that thing he does that makes you love his presence when he is on-screen. As we see Jovovich’s character, Alice, regain her abilities, she becomes likable and without having to carry the baggage of a known character from the games. Rodriguez does the same thing as Salmon, do that character-actor thing of the tough-girl who holds her own around men that she is so well known for. Inject a prick of a villain who you can’t wait to see get his, and you have a decent to pretty solid action flick.
But then we get Resident Evil 2, circa 2004, where the whole notion of these films starts to go into the crapper.
You still get a pretty notable cast, whether they were recognizable then or would go on to some pretty hot properties. Most notable is Sienna Guillory, whom I had only seen in one of my personal favorites, The Time Machine, starring Guy Pearce. She does a great turn in Apocalypse as Jill Valentine. A bit over the top, but she has a harder and more believable edge than Alice, and I love how she does what she does simply because she is highly trained and disciplined. I am not sure why we have not gotten more of Guillory in these sorts of roles, but if we did I would gladly pay to go see it. They also added Oded Fehr, who was hugely popular as the actual cool guy opposite Brendan Frasier in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. As a villain, Thomas Kretschmann was added to the cast. Kretschmann had been in Blade II and U-571. So I am pretty happy with the cast that was assembled.
Anderson penned the story, so you would think and hope that we would not get something so tropish as it was. Alice awakens in Raccoon City after her abduction at the end of the first flick. As the story progresses, we learn that she has been made to be something more than human. Which totally shreds the character that was put together in the first film. In RE, she exhibits a certain amount of caring and vulnerability, even as she is becoming a bad ass. As a superhuman, all of that is stripped, and there is zero tone change in her performance from scene-to-scene. She becomes a very monochromatic character, and I felt that skewing away from that 2-dimensional rendering, which is very akin to what most characters are in video games, is what made the first film a good video-game movie. By making a character that was more complex than what you expect in a game-based property, RE elevated itself slightly away from the average video-game movie. But Apocalypse put the franchise squarely back amongst its peers. The second movie is much more about the spectacle, and the stunts. Listen to the audio of the first movie and you will realize that it is an audibly quiet film. There are giant blocks of very eerie silence and minor ambient noise. Apocalypse is as loud as any Michael Bay affair, and that skews it away from the feel of survival horror. It is very much the same schtick as Ultraviolet. In fact, when you read the plot of that film, you wonder why MJ made that and delayed the next RE until 2007. She’s essentially the same character in a plot that could easily have been another RE film: “A beautiful hemophage infected with a virus that gives her superhuman powers has to protect a boy in a futuristic world, who is thought to be carrying antigens that would destroy all hemophages.” Are you kidding me?
Another problematic plot point is that the story starts to become about the end of the world, which, I think, is where the remainder of the franchise continues to head. So, ok, that’s The Walking Dead schtick, and I get why you might want to do that. But to me that was not what the Resident Evil games were about, coming off of RE1 and 2. It’s Resident Evil, not Global Evil. It was not about the Apocalypse, it was about a horror in a small town and the notion that there was a chance to escape to safety; if you could keep your wits about you and survive to the outskirts of Raccoon City. It was about getting through a hallway, a library, out of the police station; it was mass claustrophobia. This notion of Apocalypse for me was just too big. And it destroyed the intimacy of the first movie, which apes the games more closely, in that it was just about escaping from The Hive.
Perhaps the objective of the film and the resultant problems are most visible in the selection of Director. Alexander Witt was and continues to be most known as a 2nd Unit Director or AD. This makes him very well suited to direct an action film (that’s what the 2nd Unit typically is tasked with) but gives him little experience in managing the acting part of the performance. And that is what you see in Apocalypse. A whole lotta stunts, very little character direction. It is a film that is devoid of the life and emotion and tone of the first film.
I am going to push on to the third film, Resident Evil: Extinction, and hope that things get better. Either way, I’m still having fun getting caught up on this franchise that I have missed except for the first film. I am curious to see if my ending judgment is that I should have just left it at the first film and ignored the rest.