Resident Evil (2002)

D: Paul W.S. Anderson
S: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez

Film adaptation of the computer game in turn adapted from films including Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, offshoots, and imitations. A highly trained commando team infiltrate a top secret lab hidden underneath a sprawling country mansion where viral and genetic experiments have gone horribly wrong. Zombie dogs, walking dead, and genetic mutations are running, lurching, and crawling amok, not to mention a hi-tech computer system which is trying to stop the infection from spreading, even if this means killing off the commandos. Postmodernist recycling is clearly the order of the day here, and no one who pays money to see this film will be expecting much in the way of innovation. The game boasted a mock three-dimensional environment consisting of pre-rendered backgrounds with controllable characters viewed from a third-person perspective. It made use of an unusual selection of camera angles and had a predilection for long corridors which heightened the sense of visual unease. Vague moaning noises and footsteps offscreen would eventually give way to lurching, shambling zombies, who would either appear suddenly if you rushed ahead too quickly or gradually lurch into view if you waited for them, gun raised and ready. The overall effect was eerie, and though the experience was clearly derived from many cinematic precedents, the shift from passive to active participation (plus, in gaming terms, the level of explicit, gruesome violence) was enough to make it a hit. Series fans will be happy to learn that most of the trademark features of the game are accounted for, including character moves, imagery, and some sneaky references to other entries in the series, but they may be disappointed to know that in spite of this the film is only loosely based on the games themselves in terms of narrative. With a greater range of characters and a generally more sleek, futuristic look, the film visually resembles the game only insofar as some of the locations are similar and director Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon) throws in a couple of stylistic nods involving characters wandering around alone surveying scenes of post-zombie carnage in otherwise empty offices and laboratories. It is not so much the old dark house chiller vibe as the post-industrial cyperpunk strain which has proved most interesting to writer/director Anderson.

As genre flicks go, Resident Evil is serviceable enough. There is plenty of energy in the action scenes, one or two effective edge-of-the-frame jolts (mind you, given how many are used, one or two isn't a great success ratio), and lots of groping zombies in claustrophobic spaces. Real genre devotees will perhaps be disappointed at the relatively low level of gore (poor lambs), but most of the essential zombie rampage elements are in there. Anderson is conscious of his generic forebears, and he not only acknowledges it, but celebrates the lack of invention by allowing himself to proceed at full throttle through scene after scene of hugely derivative action. It is hard not to smile near the end as bitten and infected commando toughie Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) repeats a line of dialogue from Romero's Dawn of the Dead almost word for word to co-star Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element), and the suspense in the various scenes of resurrection anxiety are drawn not so much from "will it or won't it jump up and bite her" as wondering just when. Anderson does have a surprising amount of fun keeping his characters alive though, which allows him to continually reconstruct scenes from various zombie films without having to actually go through with the gruesome finale until he is good and ready and in another scene entirely.

The film's most amusing conceit is the use of on-screen computer readouts to provide extraneous data. Mimicing the point of view of the computer (nicknamed "Red Queen"), several of the early scenes feature information about characters, weapons, and locations which hearken back to the inventory screens of computer games in general (not Resi in particular). This also allows Anderson to get away with an outrageous amount of exposition as characters provide narration over graphics, advancing the story without bothering with anything so tedious as dramatic development. In fact the film leaps forward on more than one occasion by simply dropping what it is doing with live action and cutting to an otherwise unrelated computer graphic which brings you to the next bit of live action, neglecting to explain how (or why) the characters actually got from point A to point B. This is a reversal of the convention of the game, where (in the case of the original at least), extremely dodgy cut scenes featuring actors interrupted the game at key points to fill in the story. Maybe this is more an editing/censorship thing than an actual stylistic contrivance, but it is a feature of the film either way.

Thematically Resident Evil has nothing to say that hasn't been said before. The whole living/dead dichotomy was overstated clearly enough in The Bride of Frankenstein not to be fresh today, and the various mutterings about corporate power and genetic experimentation are nothing more than ways to explain the setting. The audience is asked to ponder the nature of evil on several levels insofar as we get to choose between scheming humans, amoral corporations, and gut-munching zombies. Take your pick and move on. We are a long way from the Vietnam-era nihilism of Night of the Living Dead here, or even the suburban satire of its immediate sequel. We are not even in the domain of the straight-for-the-jugular hysterical excess of the Italian splatter movies here, but a rather time and essentially empty postmodern product-placement as bereft of soul as any of its characters.

If you are of the right mind (which may, paradoxically, be anything BUT a right mind) to enjoy it, the film is entertaining enough. It has been very professionally assembled and is probably the most successful computer-game adaptation yet, but working with as large a range of cinematic precedent as Anderson has at his disposal (as Simon West did with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), one wonders where the game-playing begins and ends. Speaking of endings, the film concludes with the set up for Resident Evil 2, which again will please fans and come as no surprise to anyone else. Let's face it though, if you pick this one up off the shelf, you know what you are taking home.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.