Her name is Alice. And she remembers everything.
Huzzah! There’s a new “Resident Evil” film – “Retribution” – out in the UK later this week and I, for one, can’t wait to see Milla Jovovich’s one-woman crusade against the rights of undead Americans go global and take the fight overseas (sort of).
To give advanced warning In honour of this imminent release, I’m going to be watching the previous instalments in the series and bringing you up to date with a layperson’s guide to all things Alice, The Umbrella Corporation and Z-word related. Expect confusion, rampant Mary Sueism and all kinds of chin-stroking retcon action to carry the day and for your humble blogger to not care a jot – I love these splendid B-movies and will be happy to tell you all about them.
The initial salvo in the film series opened in spring 2002 and adapted Capcom’s enduringly popular series of survival horror video games – the latest of which, “Resident Evil 6“, comes to consoles in the first week of October – into a cinematic horror franchise under the direction of British genre film-maker Paul W.S. Anderson (who is definitely not to be confused with serially grumpy “Boogie Nights”/“Magnolia”/“There Will Be Blood” art house fave, Paul Thomas Anderson).
Fans of the games had long campaigned for genuine Horror legend George A. Romero to occupy the director’s chair and were less than delighted by publisher Capcom rejecting Romero’s screenplay out of hand and placing the project in the cheaper, all together schlockier mitts of the “Mortal Kombat”/“Event Horizon” director. In retrospect, it all worked out for the best, as despite critical reaction which runs the gamut from eye-rolling disdain to snarky dismissal, the film series has proved enduringly popular with audiences, financially successful and spun-off direct-to-video CG movies which are arguably more faithful to the games than the Anderson movies have ever managed to be.
The first film introduces us to a near-future world where the omnipresent
Apple Umbrella Corporation quietly exert financial and political dominion in the United States by providing computing, medical technology and health care services to its populace (all the while actually turning a profit by manufacturing biological weapons and engaging in genetic research). The catastrophic release of a sample of Umbrella’s T-Virus bio-weapon causes their underground, A.I.-controlled facility The Hive to go into forced lock down and kill every member of staff present in order to contain the outbreak.
Cue the introduction of series heroine, Alice, as played by Milla Jovovich as a combination of bad-ass action heroine and this-close-to-losing-it “America’s Next Top Model” contestant. When we first encounter Alice, she’s in the buff, has inconveniently misplaced her memory and is attempting to remedy that unfortunate situation when a detail of black-clad special ops dudes smash in through the windows of the plush mansion she’s woken up in.
In no short order she finds out that she’s a security operative for the Umbrella Corporation, living in deep cover above The Hive and that she’s going to be accompanying her rude interruptees back into the underground base in order to get to the bottom of why the A.I. system went all Jason Voorhees on everyone. It’s not been the best of days for Alice and it soon gets worse when the T-Virus outbreak currently contained within the walls of the Umbrella facility appears to be reanimating the dead and turning them into Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes’ target practice dummies of choice.
If you’re at all familiar with the games, there isn’t a great deal in that summation of the first film’s plot which indicates a relationship with the source material beyond sharing a snappy title – and you’d be right to make that judgement. The major issue with the film series as a cross-media translation of the games is that the deliberate, tension-building horror of the Capcom series is rejected more or less wholesale and replaced with run-and-gun ass kicking inspired more or less entirely by the cinema of James Cameron – “Resident Evil” is, in essence, “Aliens” with zombies and fashionable, post-“Matrix” slow-mo, wire-fu action.
It’s like going to see “Downton Abbey – The Movie” and finding that your Dame Maggie Smith starring, “Daily Mail” world view-espousing period drama has been unceremoniously reconstituted as a racy, teen sex comedy with a Katy Perry soundtrack. There’s a disconnect between the two, no?
To his credit, Anderson’s changes don’t fatally unbalance the movie and instead move us from the creeping dread of the games series to an action-orientated tale which finds new and gross ways to build on the zombie mythos and create memorable foes for heroine Alice to beat up on as she heads for the surface.
The writer/director’s major contribution to this film – for me – is to give it a look which is glacial, antiseptic and defiantly modern in tone. He builds on excellent production design by Richard Bridgland, who gives us a world which is all brushed metal surfaces, reflective glass, omnipresent CCTV and reality obfuscating trans-lights, which speak to the influence of the malign, invisible Umbrella Corporation – their staff work underground, working on amoral science projects which go wrong and consume them, only for their remote masters to figuratively bury them alive and send in similarly disposable teams to recover the flawed bio-weapons for future revision. It’s not your parent’s monster movie and it’s all the better for it, I feel.
Performances are fine – Jovovich is a spirited and unusually emotional action heroine. She’s resolutely not the ‘dude in a skirt’ that the film could have settled for, using her waifish frame to her advantage and making the frequent dust-ups with her zombie foes seem more like a life-and-death struggle than the foregone conclusion battles that Alice would subsequently encounter in future entries in the franchise. Similarly, Michelle Rodriguez is aptly cast as special ops bad ass Rain, her now trademarked ‘tough chick’ persona not yet forged by the likes of “Battle: Los Angeles”, “Avatar” and the “Fast & Furious” series.
It’s a rare film series where the male cast members essentially add up to eye candy, but that’s very much the case for Eric Mabius and James Purefoy, who get to look suitably gym-chiselled and hunky whilst having characters who don’t really add up to much. Of the male cast, it’s only Brit Colin Salmon who makes much of an impression, gruffly barking orders as the squad C.O. before exiting the picture in one of the more memorable horror deaths of the decade.
As you can tell from this review, despite genuinely enjoying this film I can see that it has flaws – show me the movie that doesn’t drop the ball at least once and I’ll show you the opining of an eternal optimist – but those shortcomings are not serious enough to derail either the movie or the series that it inspired. Anderson may not be an original film-maker but his taste in movies is decidedly similar to mine and I dare say that I would be paying homage to “Aliens”, “Day of the Dead”, “The Matrix”, Shaw Brothers kung-fu cinema and video game user interfaces in roughly the same fashion as he does throughout “Resident Evil”.
Come into this film expecting a visionary genre reinvention along the lines of “Rec”, “Audition” or “Martyrs” and you’ll be disappointed. Calibrate your expectations for a popcorn horror/action/sci-fi mash-up with a singular, steely blue colour palette and the best Marco Beltrami/Marilyn Manson score ever to explode from your surround sound speakers and you’ll be in (zombie) hog heaven.
- ‘Resident Evil': Milla Jovovich on zombies and strong women (herocomplex.latimes.com)
- Exclusive: Paul W.S. Anderson Discusses Resident Evil: Retribution, Future Franchise Plans and More (dreadcentral.com)
- “Resident Evil” – one film series, hundreds of dead(er) zombies, multiple opinions… (fluffrick.wordpress.com)
- A Look Back at Resident Evil (dreadcentral.com)