Janus Film Review Cult Special: Resident Evil (2002)

as discussed by Daniel R. Browne

Format Reviewed: DVD/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2002).


The relationship between the motion picture and the video game is a long and mostly unfulfilling cabaret. The various attempts to synthesise something worthwhile from the combination have occasionally resulted in fodder for the irony brigade. More typically though, such collaborative endeavours have yielded a product offensive to the eyes, and the viewing public is left to behold unworthy trash, that both demeans the source material, and fails to succeed as any known form of entertainment; let alone a movie. In 1995, a filmmaker by the name of Paul W.S. Anderson helmed a celluloid adaptation of the infamous video game series, Mortal Kombat. It was by no means a classic example of the filmic form, but it did succeed in capturing the style and atmosphere of its source, whilst remaining true to the game’s rather unique content. Actual money was spent on the visual effects, and actors, rather than trained monkeys glazed with tinsel, were cast in the main roles. The film was a modest financial success, and creatively, you didn’t feel violated after the credits had rolled. It was definitely more cult than classic, but it was a relative success. So, when Anderson’s name was linked with the celebrated Resident Evil series, it was seen as a promising marriage.


‘Resident Evil’ is one of the most prominent names in the history of the video game industry. For the last quarter of a century, the series has survived the ebb and flow of the ever-changing tastes and whims of a fickle industry, and retained its status and prominence, whilst many of its contemporaries have foundered. It has continued to evolve, with varying degrees of success, and its longevity can be attributed in part to the fundamental simplicity of the concept. The best examples of the series are a fight for survival, amidst entirely frightening, always horrific conditions. Hence the term ‘survival horror’; a genre designation coined to succinctly describe the preferred experience of a Resident Evil game. However, in terms of popular culture, Resident Evil connotes one thing above all: zombies. The original Resident Evil game was directly inspired by George A. Romero’s seminal ‘Dead’ series, and in a rare moment of studio-based common sense, Romero - the father of the zombie horror film - was asked to adapt the gaming tribute act into an original movie. At the time, his appointment was seen as a heavenly match, but it was ultimately not to be. A year of bandied ideas followed, before those on high concluded that Romero’s approach was not viable. He would depart, and Anderson - the video game ‘veteran’ - filled the breach.


As previously noted, Mortal Kombat (1995) attained some of its relative acclaim off the back of a commitment to authenticity. It looked and sounded like the video game(s) on which it was based. Resident Evil (2002) takes the name of the series, alongside the moniker of the villainous corporate menace - the Umbrella Corporation - and discards almost everything else. The film is set in a building vaguely resembling a ‘mansion’ (referencing the iconic setting of the original game), and features an underground lab complex teeming with the undead. All the characters, set-pieces and the plot are otherwise original, with some obvious signs of prior inspiration mixed in for cuteness. This isn’t necessarily a poor choice. Though using the existing mythology engenders good will from the established fanbase, it also limits the ability to explore a narrative beyond established parameters. Creating characters from scratch is therefore an effective (if unsubtle) choice. Furthermore, Anderson does a good job of introducing his world via the camera. The opening salvos are smartly framed and edited - darting fearfully from shot-to-shot - as we find ourselves on something of a hair trigger; looking about and fearing that something is awry, but not knowing, with any tangible certainty, when that fear will take flight.


The film’s primary protagonist is Alice, as played by Milla Jovovich. She is introduced, having been inexplicably dosed with nerve gas, and this naturally induces short-term amnesia. Apparently - in the mind of Paul Anderson - all gamers are male, basement dwelling singletons (and five minutes away from their next wank), so the plot mandates that Alice be showering at the time of her collapse. Thus enfolds the ridiculous spectacle of Milla Jovovich ‘protecting’ her modesty with a sheet, whilst attempting to otherwise sell the scene. This double duty exceeds her prowess as an actor, and quite literally lays bare the first of the film’s many instances of lowbrow nonsense. In its opening throes, Resident Evil is an exercise in capably manufactured tension. We are introduced to various characters; all are revealed in contrived circumstances, yet the amnesia gag, alongside the solid filmmaking, does at least keep you guessing. That is, until the stereotypical special forces team takes centre stage. At this moment the film stops teasing atmosphere, or asking any questions, and defaults almost exclusively to vacuous action and crude titillation. Though hardly crewed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anderson’s Mortal Kombat featured an eclectic assortment of capable hands, and this resulted in an experience that was (mostly) greater than the sum of its parts.


In Resident Evil, the cast isn’t so much wooden as it is a living, breathing forest. Milla Jovovich can do two things well: kooky, and liberated sexuality. As this film requires neither trait, she mostly stumbles along as the thespian equivalent of a cheap automatic gearbox; picking and choosing for herself, and only getting it right occasionally. Jovovich’s Alice is both thick and wholly unrelatable. Matters are not helped by the supporting cast. Colin Salmon - here playing special forces leader James ‘One’ Shade - can do stuffy charm rather well, but playing ‘tough’ is clearly not his forte, and he provides a less-than-muscular performance. Perhaps this is why Michelle Rodriguez’s absurdly monikered Rain Ocampo spends the whole film sweating and gurning, with all the feminine charm of a six-pack of Carling. Hers is a dreadful performance, and I was actually delighted when she (spoiler) succumbed to the T-Virus and ‘died’. The bizarrely placed ‘journalist’ Matt Addison is a vapid character, to whom Eric Mabius, the actor portraying him, brings nothing. Even the always-reliable James Purefoy - the only legitimate piece of talent in the cast - seems bemused by proceedings, and sleepwalks his way through, prior to arriving at the inevitable twist involving his character (who is called Spence Park, just in case you cared).


Resident Evil is a bland, witless and obnoxiously loud experience, that voids its initial promise in short order, choosing deadly lasers and other assorted pyrotechnics over any semblance of imagination, and filters its ambition through a Michael Bay-shaped prism. Anderson’s film is essentially a turn-of-the-century B-movie, so the digital effects are hellishly ropey, and amuse rather than scare. On the music front, Marco Beltrami’s intermittently effective score is ‘complimented’ by a motley selection of hollering metal, punctuated by much noisy gunfire. The film’s zombies, though plentiful, are an ode to quantity over quality, and mostly resemble cosplaying drunks granted unlimited access to a freshly ram raided Superdrug. All of the above robs the film of even a veneer of substance, and having taken the decision to diminish the gore in hopes of attracting a slightly younger version of the horny male, the rest of us don’t even have some properly exaggerated violence to brighten our day. All the qualities that underpinned the excellence of the Resident Evil video game series are lined up - like so many zombified Humpty Dumpties - and smashed into smithereens. It is ugly to behold.


Curiosity enabled this particular film to prosper financially, but Anderson has turned the filmic concept of Resident Evil into his own personal cottage industry, churning out multiple sequels for his presumably grateful wife (he married Milla Jovovich in 2009), and repeatedly sullying the good name of a proud series. In fact, if you’re reading this and you’ve ever paid money to see one of the sequels, you should consider issuing a formal apology. The original film - which I admit I did see at the cinema, for my sins - is now considered the ‘classic’ of the series. I dare you to subject yourself to the overwhelming cynicism of Anderson’s film, and call it a ‘classic’ of any kind (good or bad). Then, as an added Brucie bonus, consider this frightening truth: Anderson’s Resident Evil film series has spawned six films. In the wake of Liverpool F.C.’s recent victory in the UEFA Champions League, the team’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, altered the title (and lyrics) of ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ by Salt-N-Pepa to ‘Let’s Talk About Six’, in honour of Liverpool’s sixth European Cup. Alas, when it comes to any Paul Anderson-associated film named ‘Resident Evil’, I don’t want to talk, think, hear or even perceive the notion of ‘six’. On the contrary: I want it to die six thousand deaths.

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