Resident Evil (2002)
Video games have tried, more and more over the years, to break free from just being escapist entertainment to being interactive art. Often inspired by, and containing many homages to movies themselves, it's no surprise that there have been a number of attempts to translate the more successful video game franchises into movies themselves.
The problem has been that in most cases not much thought went into making the game beyond using its name to put butts in the seats. Even if they were able to get a major star at the peak of popularity like Angelina Jolie for the Tomb Raider films, there was still nothing really there to recommend them. It didn't help that when it came to video game adaptations that an overwhelming number went to Uwe Boll, who famously used the movies as a scheme to make money from a German tax loophole.
The only series that has been successful, both at bringing in money and managing to somewhat be entertaining is the Resident Evil series of films, largely overseen by director Paul W. S. Anderson. Even then Anderson used to be mentioned along with Boll and M. Night Shyamalan during the latter's most embarrassing career downturn, although Anderson never really had an pretensions other than making an entertaining film. At least, at the beginning of this sextet of films, he achieved his goal.
An unknown thief steals a sample of a virus and its antidote from a secret underground lab, purposely setting off the virus as he exits. This results in Red Queen, the AI that controls the lab, to take drastic measures to seal off the virus and the resultant contamination. At the same time, a woman (Milla Jovovich) wakes up in a shower, unaware of who she is or how she got there. She finds a red dress which she puts on before exploring the mansion where she appears to live, eventually encountering a police officer named Matt (Eric Mabius). Before he can explain who he is, the mansion is infiltrated by assault commandos led by Spence (James Purefoy). They know who she is, and it turns out the memory loss was the result of a nerve agent released by Red Queen.
The mansion turns out to be an emergency entrance to the Hive, as the lab is known to the Umbrella Corporation. Umbrella is mainly known for consumer electronics and medical technology, but secretly works on genetic manipulation and weaponized viruses out of sight of the public. Spence and his crew have been sent to deactivate Red Queen and transfer her (and the data her memory banks contain) out of the facility before it is permanently sealed.
On the train ride down to the Hive the group picks up another survivor (Colin Salmon), whose wedding ring matches the woman's. Spence explains that they are both agents of Umbrella Corporation, and that their marriage was set up so that they would live in the mansion and protect the Hive from infiltration. Upon arrival they find a number of barriers to reaching their goal, including a hallway in which Spence and most of the commandos are killed by Red Queen's defenses. Still, with the lady in red's aid, a commando named Kaplan (Martin Crewes) manages to capture Red Queen, but the reboot of her defenses releases the scientists from the sealed rooms. Due to the agent known as the T-virus, they have been reanimated and begin to attack the living members of the party.
Led by Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), Spence's surviving second-in-command, the remaining group attempts to escape the Hive before it is sealed, eventually being forced to reactivate Red Queen in order to escape. Despite promises to aid, she still goes about her original goal of containing the infection, which has been spread to Rain and other members of the party through bites and scratches as a result of encounters with the dead. They also must fight off zombie dogs and a genetically mutated creature that was the result of early T-virus experimentation.
Resident Evil wasn't Paul W. S. Anderson's first foray into video game movies, having directed Mortal Kombat in 1995. Like Resident Evil, his former film was considered, despite its low budget and many flaws, to at least have been a good attempt to give fans of the game an enjoyable movie version. Unlike the former, this film didn't include any characters from the game, rather building a new story from the setting of the game. This is also because Anderson intended to make this movie whether or not it tied in with the game, having written a script based on it after spending quite a bit of time playing the games in the series.
Having never played the Resident Evil games myself, I don't find myself judging what happens as much as I would be if this was one of the franchises I played, but as a movie it does have some of the best and worst that Anderson has to offer. Visually he has always been great, and, though largely spectacle, at least don't feel as hollow as those made by Michael Bay. There is still a hollowness to them that is unshakable. In addition to being a video game adaptation Anderson also attempts to reference both George Romero and John Carpenter heavily throughout. While his zombies may not be successful on the first part, his camera work and general sense of atmosphere do recall the latter.
Part of that hollowness makes it really hard to care about any of the characters. There are reveals throughout, a few surprising and a few not much, but besides Milla Jovovich's character (who is not named by anyone in the movie, but is credited as Alice at the end) and Michelle Rodriguez, who is able to overcome an underwritten character in Rain, there is not really anyone to root for. The characters are largely not developed beyond playing their roles in the plot.
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of action and great set pieces to make up for it. We have a tense scene in a hallway involving laser defenses, Matt fending off a flaming zombie and Alice facing off against a pack of zombie dogs. It helps that in many cases, since digital effects were still extremely expensive, that many practical effects are used. It's an improvement over later installments of the series that ended up, like many science fiction and horror films these days, looking like video games themselves.
Still, where there is CGI (except for holograms of the facility and the Red Queen herself), it is jarring. Rather than makeup on some of the zombies it was decided to take the shortcut, and it looks absolutely horrible, even for standards of the day. Some shots of the Licker monster were also digital, and there is a marked difference from the truly well-done practical effect and the badly-rendered monster shown in other scenes, particularly as the green-screen work isn't great.
Resident Evil still manages to be a fun and entertaining film despite its imperfections, although I personally find the next two films in the series to be superior. Since I am not a fan of Event Horizon or his take on Alien vs. Predator, I also find this movie to be the only other movie of Anderson's outside of Shopping that I truly enjoy all the way through.
Resident Evil (2002)
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Michell Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, Colin Salmon, Martin Crewes
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson