Resident Evil (2002)
"Survive the horror"
An accidental leak inside the Hive, a vast underground research laboratory run by the shady Umbrella Corporation, forces the AI system, the Red Queen, to go rogue and lock down the facility, killing everyone inside. A special military unit is then assigned to infiltrate the Hive and shut down the Red Queen. But once inside, the team realises that not only do they have to battle the Red Queen and her attempts to preserve herself but an army of flesh-eating monsters that have now been created thanks to the leak.
I’ll go on record before starting the review by saying I have never played a single Resident Evil video game. Not any of them on any console. I missed the whole Playstation generation of video gaming because I went straight from 16-bit SNES and Sega Mega Drive to PC gaming (and never looked back for years) and then became a dedicated xBox lover. I’d like to think this gives me some impartiality to discuss the film without worrying too heavily on whether it sticks to the lore of the games or not. The good news is, having spoken with people who have played the games and seen this, you don’t need to be a Resident Evil fan to get into it.
If there is a film which perfectly defines the late 90s and early 00s ‘nu horror’ filmmaking era, then Resident Evil is the archetype. You know the type of films: glorified MTV music videos with flashy lighting and effects, nauseating editing, lots of hip young talent in front of the camera and booming rock soundtracks. It’s the likes of House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, Freddy Vs Jason, Ghost Ship, Queen of the Damned, Dracula 2000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the 2003 reboot)…the list goes on. A generation of kids (and young adults who were in their twenties during the 00s) weaned on video games would find themselves right at home with the frenetic visuals and simplified plots. Why bother with complicated stories when you can button-bash your way through a game? Thankfully gaming has massively evolved in the past twenty years, becoming far more multi-layered with in-depth stories and plots which are filmic in scope. Resident Evil is such a product of its time, it’s ridiculous: a snapshot of the MTV generation.
At one point, George A. Romero, the man who popularised zombies in the horror genre with the Night of the Living Dead series, was attached to direct but he left due to “creative differences” which probably means he could see the writing on the wall from an early stage. This was never going to be anything but a junky throwaway zombie film. Resident Evil is daft fun, extremely brainless and derivative fun it has to be said, even though a lot of the time it feels like you’re just watching someone else play the video game. Clearly cobbled together around a patchwork of set pieces, the script follows the Aliens plotline very closely – a crack team of soldiers is sent into a sprawling futuristic industrial complex to investigate losing communication with those inside. Said team is decimated in first encounter with the hostile threat and then spend the rest of the film trying to get out alive, with their numbers dwindling with every new encounter. If you thought that was enough, even the characters feel like hollow caricatures of those in Cameron’s film: tough heroine, even tougher female soldier, slimy corporate type, doubting soldier, etc. The dialogue is functional, meaning characters say as little as possible to expand on the plot and some ‘conversations’ degenerate into little more than short sentence word salads. Director Paul W.S. Anderson has an extraordinary eye for the visual – one only must look at Event Horizon to see the perfect example – but he’s useless when it comes to scripts and characters. The sad thing is that this first entry is the franchise’s high point, and the watered-down characters and terrible dialogue only gets worse and worse with each entry.
With the big budget remake of Dawn of the Dead still two years away, Resident Evil has a bit of a free hit as far as the zombie film went. There hadn’t been much going on in the sub-genre and so it does feel a bit fresher, giving zombies a bit of a big budget makeover with a variety of set pieces in some quality sets. Production values here are very crisp and you can see where a lot of the budget went. There’s nothing new about the type of military/industrial complex sets that Resident Evil has but they look good, especially in high-def transfers. The opening sequence, where the facility is locked down, starts the film off on a high note but then it takes a while to kick back into gear. There are some decent set pieces along the way, though with the film’s more audience-friendly rating, don’t expect to see Tom Savini levels of splatter. Unfortunately, a lot of the set pieces involve the same things over and over – people just shooting guns at zombies and CGI creatures - the zombie dog attack is my stuff of nightmares! The film’s best scene (and arguably the franchise’s best too) comes early on as the commando team inadvertently trigger the security system, trapping them inside a narrow tunnel with an increasingly unpredictable laser pattern firing out at them. It’s a great set piece, worthy of a better film, and is one that was created especially for the film – it proved so popular that one of the later games incorporated it into one of the levels. Sadly, there is some shoddy CGI gore involved in the scene, which would have been better served with prosthetics. In fact, the CGI overall in the film is sub-standard, with the monsters in the second half looking every inch the video game character rather than something out of a blockbuster film.
If there is one glaring issue with not just this Resident Evil film but all of them, is the choice of lead. There’s a bit of nepotism going on here with Anderson desperately trying to turn his wife, Milla Jovovich, into the next real-life Lara Croft-style action heroine, filming her in a variety of action poses which would no doubt titillate a teenage boy looking for his first celebrity crush. Jovovich is horrendously wooden, sucking the life out of the screen with an expressionless face, like she hasn’t got a clue what she’s doing and is waiting for the next line, turning Alice into such an uninteresting main character that you don’t really care who she is or what her back story is. You could argue that Resident Evil is virtually a vanity project for the husband-and-wife duo, something which will become even more blatant as the series developed. It’s up to the spunky Michelle Rodriguez, always a reliable hand, to make some sort of impact and she does a far better job in chewing the scenery and give the audience someone to root for. Colin Salmon, as the ill-fated leader of the commando team, makes a decent impression before his impromptu departure. This isn’t a film for Thespians though and unless your surname was Jovovich, then there’s no guarantee you’ll make it until the end credits, a big problem that would torpedo every other film.
Shock rocker Marilyn Manson worked with composer Marco Beltrami to score the soundtrack and it’s a perfect mix of industrial-esque eeriness, adding some spookiness to the scenes of the characters exploring the facility early on before ramping it up to kick in the excitement during the action-orientated sequences. Some people may not like how in-your-face it gets from time to time but as a rocker myself, I thought it suited the scenes perfectly.
As far as video game adaptations go, Resident Evil might be the best one, though it’s a horrendous playing field without much serious competition. The film is far better than it has any right to be, but outside of the laser sequence, you’ll be hard-pressed to think of any other memorable moments that will make you go back and revisit it. Resident Evil is slick, polished and pacey horror designed to appeal to the masses of teenagers who’d think this was the best thing they’d ever seen. Everything from the choice of music to the constant gun battles and the numerous shots showing Jovovich nearly naked have been carefully chosen to tick a certain box. For what it’s worth, if I was a teenager again, I’d probably feel the same way. As an adult, not so much.
Director(s): Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer(s): Paul W.S. Anderson
Actor(s): Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, James Purefoy, Martin Crewes, Colin Salmon
Duration: 100 mins