Resident Evil (2002, Paul W.S. Anderson)
Paul W.S. Anderson is beloved by Cinema Scope writers, who have grown increasingly excited since he returned to directing parts 4-6 of this series. I saw part one in theaters and thought it was quite bad, skipping the sequels even though the first ends with a killer setup for future installments. So, rewatching it now looking for glimmers of auteurist excellence, then we’ll see how many more Resident Evils I can get through. But first, let’s hear from the termite-art critics on letterboxd:
Genuinely Romeroesque, Anderson sifts his formal preoccupations through immediate objective… and economic allegory … Anderson’s penchant for repeating shapes and patterns lends itself to depicting an environment of conformity for Milla Jovovich’s Alice to attempt to recover her identity within.
With this first installment, Anderson is not only focused on the classicist nature of the narrative but also developing a deceiving signature, paying attention to movements within spacing while observing how the main characters are affected. However, even “character” is a strong word for Anderson’s world. Besides Alice, stock feelings and conversations are the norm, highlighting a top-down observatory creation that is constantly being manipulated, shifted, and flipped on its head. It’s an evident theme from the beginning sequence – an escaped viral infection and an AI’s deliberately inhumane attempt to control the issue – and it’s pushed further and further through each immaculate scene, an array of delicious, pulpy construction rampaging against abstract, controlled motion.
And now the reality – it’s still a pretty bad movie. The characters have almost no traits, the Prodigy-esque music and ugly CG creatures badly date the film, and the middle half is underlit action with a too-close camera and an occasional Cube-ripoff setpiece or cool-blue flashback. Plotting is weak from the start… I don’t believe for a second that a team of super-soldiers responding to an extreme emergency would take along two amnesiacs and a suspicious rookie cop. But I guess it’s faithful in spirit and visuals to the video game series, and Anderson makes his future wife Milla look rad most of the time.
I like that instead of CG, they just put gore-sweaters on real dobermans:
Milla Jovovich (Fifth Element) lives in the mansion gateway to an underground Umbrella research lab with her fake husband James Purefoy (High-Rise, John Carter), wakes up with amnesia then is interrupted first by cop Eric Mabius (IMDB trivia: “Eric loves mustard and puts it on everything”) then a team of troops led by Colin Salmon (two James Bond movies in the 90’s, Alien vs. Predator). Colin gets Cube’d early on, then Michelle Rodriguez (Machete, Fast & Furious) takes over as team leader, maintaining her head-down/eyes-up badass pose long after it gets tiring. They’re investigating why the lab’s AI killed everyone – turns out this was to contain a zombie-virus unleashed by Purefoy. It also turns out Milla and Eric were working together to take down Umbrella, but given the apocalyptic wasteland that Milla finds after escaping, the company’s not their biggest problem anymore.
The commentary is great, the actors hanging out and talking shit about movies and video games and getting drunk while Anderson tries in vain to focus on what’s happening onscreen. Milla to Michelle: “Yo-va-vich! How difficult is it, for god’s sake? We made a movie together.”
Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse (2004, Alexander Witt)
When this originally opened (and I skipped it, having not enjoyed the first movie) I didn’t realize the ambition of the full series – you don’t usually use the Apocalypse subtitle in your first sequel. We’re now in the hands of director Witt, who has worked on 50 major movies, getting his start with Bergman and Fassbinder in the late 1970’s. Anderson’s still around as writer and producer, but he was off directing the detestable Alien vs. Predator. This movie looks a hundred times better than the first. There’s sometimes a low-framerate blur-cam on the zombies, making me think they’re compensating for makeup shortcomings, and fights are shot like garbage, but everything else is slick looking with less-horrendous music. Not saying I’m yet convinced of the masterpiece status of the Resident Evil series, but it’s a step in the right direction and I’m actually looking forward to the next episode. The critics disagree: “a disastrous step down”… “atrocious direction”… “mostly incomprehensible.”
Picking up right where we left off, Alice walks out into the ruins of the zombie-infested city. She meets badass supercop Valentine (Sienna Guillory of High-Rise) after Alice drives a motorcycle through a stained-glass window, blows it up in midair and kills the beasts that were terrorizing Valentine’s squad with an array of guns. So, Alice has been upgraded since the first movie, and so has her sidekick (Valentine > Michelle Rodriguez). The two of them will soon team up with Umbrella troop Carlos (Oded Fehr of the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies) and comic relief act LJ (Mike Epps, star of the Uncle Buck TV series).
Carlos and LJ:
Meanwhile, with the city overrun, Umbrella is trying to rescue lead viral scientist Dr. Ashford (Benmont in Dead Man, Lord Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls), who refuses to comply unless they also rescue his missing daughter, so Alice, still technically an employee, is put on that task. And Umbrella is happily using the chaos to test their new mega-mutant (formerly Eric from part one, now a bazooka/chaingun-wielding guy in a rubber cenobite suit, which is a huuuge step up from the CGI in part one), having him target city police for some reason.
Very videogamey – check out the ammo count in the corner:
Dudes hide their zombie bites then turn on their friends at inopportune times – this is gonna happen in all the movies, isn’t it? We’ve got a cowboy sniper cop, a corporate baddie named Major Cain (Thomas Kretschmann of Argento’s Dracula 3D), a reporter who gets eaten by children and a nuclear blast. Milla now has super-rabbit jump skills, and once she runs straight down the side of a building – it’s cable-assisted, but still great.
The movie ends even more cynically than the first – after the company destroys the entire city to contain the outbreak, a reporter’s tape documenting the truth behind the infections gets out, but it’s dismissed as fake news. Alice is captured again in a new city/lab, might now be a clone and has obtained Scanner powers, and after her friends break her out, her eyes flash with the Umbrella logo.
Resident Evil 3: Extinction (2007, Russell Mulcahy)
So this is when the series gets good. An early action scene is shot like hot garbage, with the action shot way too close and disorienting edits, but things improve later on. The look and plot are now ripping off Mad Max since the t-virus has turned the planet into a desert shithole, while in the subterranean Umbrella labs they’re ripping off Day of the Dead, trying to domesticate captured zombies. I love how the tech in futuristic movies work – they use Ericsson flip phones and point-and-shoot cameras, but they also hologram-teleconference into meetings. I guess Anderson was busy prepping his dumb Death Race remake, so now we’ve got music-video vet Mulcahy with the first feature of his I’ve watched since Highlander 2: The Quickening.
Carlos and Claire:
A band of survivors led by Claire (Ali Larter of the Final Destination movies) and including Carlos and LJ from the previous movie (but not Valentine – the actress was in Eragon around this time) search for gasoline and survivors in a truck convoy, avoiding the zombie-filled larger cities. There’s also a cowboy sniper in the group – wasn’t there just a cowboy sniper in the last movie? In a probable reference to the video game series, whenever these guys need some item, it’s located in a creepy dark passageway full of hidden zombies. Superpsychic Alice roams alone, traveling by night to avoid Umbrella detection. When they team up, she’s visited by the AI girl from part one, making a welcome return, and the crew fights off a cloud of zombie crows. Carlos gets bit and kamikazes a zombie horde… LJ gets bit too, but he’s the guy in this movie who will hide it until too late.
Firestarter Alice, taking care of the killer crows situation:
Underground, Alice’s evil-scientist father-figure Iain Glen (Tomb Raider, Game of Thrones) is using Alice’s blood to transform other zombies, and also cloning new Alices and running them through fatal tests. When the higher-ups get tired of Glen abusing his authority (using Sneakers tactics) and murder him, he arises as a super-mutant with hentai-tentacle powers and goes on a spree until Alice breaks in and lures him into the Cube chamber. Claire and the few convoy survivors are helicoptering to the last outpost of humanity in Alaska, while Alice has got herself an empty facility, hundreds of Alice clones, and the locations of the other Umbrella bases.
Eschewing the comparatively innocent side characters, the film ends by reaffirming the overarching series conflict between Alice and Umbrella, only this time, discerning the moral high ground between the two is much more complex task. If Umbrella wins, they’ll exert even more control over the new world they rebuild. If Alice wins, “the cure” isn’t found … it’s possible an organization dedicating itself to the restoration of mankind will have been destroyed by a peeved rogue.