MovieGems : Resident Evil

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Resident Evil (2002) is the first in a movie franchise based on the Capcom games of the same name. I’m not going to go into detail about the storyline of the video games, because if you’re a reader of Retro Now and aren’t familiar with the Resident Evil universe, you shouldn’t be here. But as you are here, this is for the benefit of the one person out there who doesn’t know:

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The Umbrella Corporation has been experimenting in weaponry and has created a virus (the “T-Virus”) that somehow turns people into zombies. Raccoon City was the location of the first outbreak, and the next few games would see many other mutants and monsters crop up, with magical herbs being used to heal wounds, typewriters to record game saves, puzzles get solved, self destruct timers get activated, and end-of-game bosses get destroyed by rocket launchers. Resident Evil 4 took the fight to a remote European village, and incorporated improved game play mechanics and parasitic zombie villagers. Resident Evil 5 went to Africa; the zombies got too smart to be called zombies and fans got annoyed with the co-op player’s AI.

Resident Evil the movie starts by hitting the viewer with information about the Umbrella Corporation. I hate to dump on a movie in the opening seconds but this one doesn’t help itself. The straight delivery of plot information to the viewer is called exposition, and this is the worst kind. Like a lazy Power Point presentation, text appears on screen and a voice reads it out, letting us know in no uncertain terms that the Umbrella Corp is bad. I just wish I could say the dumbing down ends here…

The movie opens beneath Raccoon City in Umbrella’s underground lab, called “The Hive”. Straight away the T-Virus is purposely exposed to the air conditioning unit by an unidentified assailant. Cue a computer-controlled shut-down and quarantine of The Hive, at the expense of its workers. Straight away we know the computer is evil, as it uses video cameras to identify hazards and eliminate them, as well as any workers who get in the way. As formulaic as this scene is, it does end on a high by decapitating a poor woman who tries to escape from an elevator. I’ll be honest, I thought they were going to let her have a narrow escape, and although the actual head removal is off-screen, it does provide a welcome bit of shock value.

8 minutes and 25 seconds in… BOOM! Milla Jovovich wakes up naked and confused. While I’ll admit this is one of the two highlights of the film for me – she wakes up naked again later – I’m also a little disappointed at the producers’ attempts to pander to stereotypical gamers (i.e. young males). It seems all the more unnecessary as the games always did very well on their own merits without throwing in any nudity. But then she is beautiful.

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The next few minutes involves more exposition. This time the soldiers tell Milla (but mainly us) that the mansion is basically a security entrance to The Hive; amnesia can be a side effect to the house’s “primary defences” (the naughty computer controls the mansion to) that were set off when lock down occurred, and some other stuff that I won’t waste your time with. These scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie: heavy guitars play frantically over anything resembling an action scene, all information must be spoon-fed to the viewer, and even the scenes that are meant to be dark and atmospheric are bright and not scary.

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By now any remaining viewers should have realised that this is not a film that requires a brain. This is a movie from the Hollywood cliché department that requires guns to click in that way that Hollywood guns do EVERY TIME they are seen on-screen. Admittedly, this isn’t very important in the grand scheme of things, but it does annoy me. Another thing that annoys me is a cheap fake jump. This is when the movie attempts to scare you with something that isn’t scary.

For example, the music and camera work suggests something bad is going to happen soon, before the character is scared senseless by something lame, like a cat. Of course a big loud sound effect plays as the cat appears, which makes the jump even cheaper as there would be no sound effects there if it was real. This kind of thing doesn’t usually bother me I swear, as most horror movies do it once or twice. But in Resident Evil, I counted four instances of this lazy technique.

Speaking of laziness, I’m onto you Paul W.S. Anderson, writer/director of this and other masterpieces such as Aliens Vs Predator (2004) and Death Race (2008). You can’t just change a few words from the script of Aliens (1986) and pass it off as your own movie. Preposterous, you say? Let’s just check some similarities:

  • Elite military team sent in to investigate an incident without knowing what they’re getting themselves into? CHECK!
  • Female star of the movie accompanies them to help out and ends up saving the day? CHECK!
  • Female member of military team more bad ass than all the men? CHECK!
  • Alien/zombie in water-filled tank, bangs on glass to get a scare? CHECK!
  • Techie/hacker team member freaks out? CHECK!
  • Self-destruct mechanism triggered near the end of the film? CHECK!
  • One character turns out to be less than trustworthy and attempts to sacrifice everyone else to secure his own survival? CHECK!

I didn’t want to have to do that, Paul W.S. Anderson, but you forced my hand. In 1997 you directed the effectively creepy Event Horizon, so we know you can do scary films. What happened? I understand that someone else wrote Event Horizon, but all I’m asking for is a bit of atmosphere and a couple of scares in a film based on games that were packed full of atmosphere and scares. So I ask again, WHAT HAPPENED? I know Aliens is a great movie, and you’re not the first to copy it (Jurassic Park III, anyone?), but did you really think no one would notice?

Anyway, back to the movie. We soon discover that the naughty computer in control of this whole situation is called the “Red Queen”, which is a strangely similar name to the main alien in Aliens, the Queen. But I’m sure it’s just coincidence.

Furthermore, in a move symbolic of Paul W.S. Anderson throwing his hands up and saying “I don’t give a shit, I’ll get paid either way”, the writers decide to portray the Red Queen as a hologram of a girl in a white dress with a posh English accent. I guess cinema goers are unable to comprehend evil Artificial Intelligence unless it’s dressed up as a modern horror cliché.

But I digress again… by now most of our heroes and heroines have been wiped out by a corridor of lasers, in one of the movie’s admittedly quite inventive but unintentionally funny death scenes. Speaking of unintentionally funny, viewers may be amused to see one of the characters have a conversation on the radio and respond to some information with a nod, which doesn’t actually work over radio. Around the same time, Michelle Rodriguez makes the disappointing error of getting bitten by the first zombie she comes across, then she somehow lets it disappear when the camera is off it for 5 seconds. How does that happen? They shuffle slower than most pensioners!

Gamers will be pleased to see the appearance of “The Licker”, one of the mutant creatures from the Resident Evil 2 (1998) game. Retro gamers will also be delighted to see that the CGI effects used to create the creature also seem to be taken directly from the original Playstation game. Unfortunately, most viewers will expect a little more from a big budget movie made in 2002. Heck, George Lucas achieved more realistic looking monsters in 1977 using men in rubber suits.

7What about the zombies, I hear you ask? Well, these are “classic” zombies, who shamble and moan, rather than “modern” zombies who run and scream. In general they’re pretty good. The zombie with the axe and broken foot is nice and creepy, and when they attack in numbers they look genuinely threatening. Best zombie death undoubtedly goes to the lucky fella who gets Milla’s legs wrapped around his head before having his neck snapped. Zombie movie points are deducted for including a scene where Michelle Rodriguez comes across a recently zombified colleague who seems to recognise her, then Rodriguez is shocked when he tries to devour her face.

This zombie cliché occurs twice more in the movie, just in case any viewers had underestimated the extent of the originality on display here.

Back to the movie! At this point I remember looking at the actors on screen and realising that over an hour into the film I still didn’t know any of their characters’ names. And I had even been paying attention and making notes for this review. Characterisation obviously wasn’t too high on the screenwriters’ priorities list. Off the top of my head I could remember that Claire and Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker and Leon Kennedy were regular characters from the games, but none of them seemed to be present here, just a collection of walking, talking action movie stereotypes.

Infected rottweilers are thrown in at one point to give Milla something to do, namely stand in one spot and shoot them all with a pistol as they charge her. I understand that I shouldn’t expect a zombie movie based on video games to be realistic, but surely at least a spot of blood should have splattered on her face after 8 close range dog murders?

The other thing I noticed near the end of the film was that Michelle Rodriguez was still alive! Most people in zombie movies turn pretty soon after getting bitten, unless it doesn’t suit the film-makers of course. It seems strange that it was written for her to get bitten so early, as it means straight away we know her fate is to die fairly soon. I stopped caring about her early on due to this – surely viewers would have had more of an emotional response if her character was developed more during the film (and not just your stereotypical movie tough girl), then suffered a more shocking death at the end?

Fans of attractive women in wet red dresses are in for a treat at the 1 hour 17 mark, when the attractive Milla Jovovich’s red dress gets wet. She goes on to fulfil the last of the naked requirements of her contract at the end of the movie when she again wakes up naked and confused, this time in a hospital. She then goes on to hack an electronic key-card lock… with a syringe. For a movie that patronises its audience with unnecessary explanations of everything via expositional speeches and numerous flashbacks, the act of bypassing an electronic lock by swiping a needle through it is left oddly unexplained… oh yes, because it makes no sense.

Back in The Hive, by the time the big escape comes, most of the good guys are dead/un-dead, and the Licker must be defeated in a battle on a train. Somehow the huge monster managed to stow away on the fleeing vehicle without anyone realising, much like in that movie, Aliens. Instead of blasting the creature into space (that would have been a bit too random, even for this film), fire is eventually used to end the Licker. When my time machine is finished, the first thing I’m going to do is head back to 2002 and beg film directors not to attempt CGI fire in their movies. It looks bad now, and it looked worse in 2002. I know you can’t actually set the Licker on fire because it’s also made of fake-looking CGI so maybe there’s a bigger lesson here.

During the final escape, a timer is counting down, to self-destruct or quarantine or something. Although the characters reach the exit with mere seconds to spare, there is somehow no tension or sense of danger – they end up pretty much strolling through the door.

The final scene in the movie is actually fairly stylish as Jovovich emerges from the hospital to find an empty city that was clearly abandoned in a hurry. After finding a shotgun in a police car, the camera pans up and away to reveal the extent of the evacuation. It’s not particularly original, but it is well done, and hints toward a sequel that looks to be more in line with the second game.

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