Back in 2002, post-Matrix black leather and slo-mo aesthetics were the defining traits of the next wannabe blockbusters. One of these, Resident Evil was a relatively tame video game adaptation, borrowing ideas more so than plot (something that has never been a strong suit for the series in any iteration): A group of soldiers enter a facility run by the Umbrella corporation called The Hive. It’s a simple premise that grows in scale with each entry, propelling itself through ever-evolving scenarios.
Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson’s score influences the techno-horror vibe writer Paul W.S. Anderson is going for. Resident Evil is a technologically infused haunted house movie where an artificial intelligence is the ghost and the T-virus is the plague upon the house. Anderson’s appreciation for symmetry and space isn’t as full fledged in Resident Evil as in Afterlife or Retribution, but he still manages to build an atmosphere reminiscent of horror uncommon in American cinemas.
The ever-popular laser sequence is perhaps one of the series high-points, notable not just for its creativity but intensity. It’s lean, darkly ironic, and oh-so efficient. In any defense of the Resident Evil movies, this sequence is exhibit A. The corridors of The Hive feel sterile in contrast to the scuttling undead stumbling through every inch of the facility. As far as video game adaptations go, the first movie is at least inline with the series’ sensibilities in relation to horror and mystery. It hardly makes a lick of sense but you’ll definitely be wrapped up in it for a prolonged period of time. It even has a great pulpy ending that takes the phrase “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” to heart.
And then we come to the second film in the series: Resident Evil: Apocalypse. After I re-watched this series I’d call myself a fan. At best, they are disposable lean 1.5 hour courses of action entertainment. At worst, they’re Resident Evil: Apocalypse. This is a movie so hobbled by trying to appease fans, awful makeup work, and incoherent action editing into something that resembles a Frankenstein’s monster of a product. This outing isn’t interested in the corporation vs. identity struggles that permeate the rest of the series. Instead we catch glimpses of scattershot generic zombie apocalyptic storytelling with passing hints of the weirdness in the W. S. Anderson helmed installments. At least there’s a giant zombie that walks around with a machine gun.
Apart from being a bore and lacking any hint of its own identity, Apocalypse is an actively terrible step backwards that attempts to recycle thrills from more successful properties. So in many ways, a perfect adaptation of a video game.
With Resident Evil: Extinction all bets are off as the series shifts gears and becomes a Road Warrior mashup with zombies. Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Extinction opens with Alice alone, far away from the surviving cast members of Apocalypse to keep them safe from the Umbrella corporation. The vast desert landscapes show just how far the world has fallen as we follow disparate groups of people just trying to get by. Alice establishes herself as a loner and protector in this installment, forsaking her own bonds with humanity but never forsaking humanity itself as she becomes something else entirely (she has telekinetic powers now because why not). It’s not as efficient as the works of Fury Road or The Road Warrior but surely what is? The continuing narrative of Alice’s agency beating back against the current of Umbrella’s corporate nonsense is one shown through action instead of plot. In fact, the majority of these movies have no interest in plot or recurring characters as nearly every film opens with a minor retcon of the previous events that transpired to set the stage for whatever story someone wants to dictate. It can get frustrating, but credit where credit is due: each of these is remarkably different from the last.
When we step into the world of Afterlife, the hope Alice and company fought so hard for turns out to be a false hope. What follows is a John Carpenter style siege film with another round of red shirts and further into the bombastic flare of CG mayhem. But it’s the opening of Afterlife that kicks down the doors into uncharted territory with a literal army of Milla Jovovich’s. Further cementing the series as the ultimate exercise in Matrix homage, dozens of copies of our latex-laden protagonist drop into an action scene at home in any of the films directed by the Wachowski sisters. It’s not as clear in its intentions as the better of these movies (Extinction, Retribution) but still a wonderfully bonkers exercise in style. The highpoint? A three-minute long action scene in a prison shower where Ali Larter outsmarts a 7 foot tall hooded axe-man.
Retribution is where Anderson is fully unleashed. His proclivities for exploring action in confined spaces is amplified on a global scale. I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or terrible, but a major movie studio backed this production and allowed Anderson to make a $65 million dollar B movie that forces its protagonist to confront artifice. There are also hordes of Soviet zombies; almost everyone who died in a previous installment gets to return. All the while, Anderson plays with striking, imaginative imagery that ignores surface level video game ideas to impose the baseline structure of one. That is to say, Retribution follows a level-by-level progression, almost episodic by nature, to its storytelling style. Waves of enemies are defeated, characters and parties are assembled, there’s a final boss fight, etc. It’s sheer lunacy, but it’s real lunacy. That’s more than I can say for most studio produced blockbusters.
To their credit, Resident Evil movies have never made promises they were unable to keep. Here is a franchise with a kick-ass woman taking charge of her own agency through a sprawling six-film series with its own iconography and vision. All this mixed in with gargantuan ludicrous science fiction elements and zombie hordes. They are exactly what they say they are, and deliver the goods on B movie plots with (mostly) clear, concise action sequences. It’s not an easy feat, and one worth commending.
Featured Image: Screen Gems