Monday, September 24, 2012

Resident Evil

It’s hard to believe it’s been only a decade since the original release of director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil [2002].  There have been five films: Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Apocalypse [2004], Resident Evil: Extinction [2007], Resident Evil: Afterlife [2010] and Resident Evil: Retribution [2012].  It’s hard to believe for me personally because it seems like an eternity awaiting the release of each of these wonderfully exciting installments and guilty pleasures.

Each successive installment has made big time box office globally pulling in the millions, roughly 102, 129, 148, 296 and 71 [so far] respectively.  They have all earned well in excess of their budgets and continue and like a T-virus continues to win hordes of new Resident Evil fan-like zombies.
Anderson has directed three of the five films, but written them all.  The life of Anderson is like the tale of two Andersons.  Most rarely call into question his stylistic choices or visual aesthetic. He always delivers the thrills, sometimes the right tone or atmosphere, but his skills as a scribe have always left a lot to be desired.  It is here Anderson stumbles most.   It is here he is forever called into question.
Roger Ebert wasn’t wrong when he complained, his “characters have no small talk. Their dialogue consists of commands, explanations, [and] exclamations.”  But the Resident Evil franchise either remains your cup of hot tea or it doesn't.  Fortunately for Anderson, the Resident Evil franchise lends itself rather easily to the action genre, foreign business and most are more than willing to overlook his shortcomings as a writer and that aspect of the films.  We’re trying to survive here people!  We need someone in charge!  We don't need a Shakespearean monologue.  Hot babes kicking zombie ass simply never fails at least not with a budget this size.  A story is great mind you, and the details to Resident Evil have forever been murky [haven’t they?], but not entirely crucial.  Repeat, hot babes kicking zombie ass equals a good time for all willing to check their heads at the ticket entrance.
Still, is it not worth stepping back to take in the bigger picture?  With Resident Evil there's much more than meets the eye and as installments go this original is one of a kind.
Resident Evil’s Alice, particularly with the original film, has sometimes been considered a reflection of the Alice character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland.  Could it be that Resident Evil, apart from being pure, unadulterated fan boy entertainment, works on another level as a modern day fable?  Alice In a twisted and grotesque wonderland down the rabbit hole and into the Hive.  That allusion has always been perpetuated, but it's not wrong.  Anderson’s Resident Evil easily applies the rules of the literary genre to his tale.  The Licker, the Red Queen, zombies all fall under the umbrella [pun intended] of the idea of animals, mythical creatures and inanimate objects come to life that lend themselves nicely to a moral lesson.  Whether it be a cautionary tale of tinkering with genetic engineering, playing with biowarfare or trusting artificial intelligence, Resident Evil firmly plants feet within the world of sci-fi/ horror fable.  So it’s easy to see how the fantasy worlds of Alice In Wonderland apply here.  Anderson succeeds in presenting ideas and symbols almost allegorically as Resident Evil plays into the concepts of a classic like the Carroll story.  But this is science fiction horror and those ideas and concepts come across in an almost grisly, ham-fisted fashion in the hands of Anderson.  Nevertheless, Resident Evil is the best of the bunch in presenting such literary ideas.  This isn't an overstatement as Anderson visually represents on screen in his original.
So with each passing year many of us continue to hope and pray that Milla Jovovich will either find the fountain of youth or replace accordingly with cybernetic parts a la Steve Austin.  Personally, I think I could enjoy another five more films.
One of the things I have appreciated within the franchise is how each installment has designed a certain aesthetic with which to encase its adventure.  Each has a unique look [the underground hive, the city escape, the desert] and I fully appreciate them all including the much maligned Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which I hold in contention equally with the rest as far as quality goes.  Many critics cite these films as merely derivative of Escape From New York or Mad Max, but I prefer to believe it as homage.  I'm a glass is half full kind of guy.
An ongoing series of images from one of the most unforgettable sequences in the Resident Evil franchise.  Looking back at Resident Evil, it remains a complete original within the franchise. It probably benefits the most from a plot-driven narrative structure thanks to a video game outline as its foundation and guide.  Still, The Walking Dead it’s not as far as character depth.  Even the The Crazies [2010] remake expends a bit more time on dialogue, but like that film Resident Evil delivers the fun and solid thrills.  In fact, when I consider the fantastic, science-fiction and horror tale that was Anderson’s Event Horizon [1997], it most assuredly benefited from a script, not by the clunky Anderson, but by Philip Eisner.  Not that Eisner is a thespian as scriptwriters go, but his input along with rewrites by Andrew Kevin Walker, certainly allowed for Anderson to focus on the visual staging of that film.  Anderson's skills there, his terrific use of quiet, atmosphere and mood combined with cinematography made Event Horizon shine.  I still consider Event Horizon one of Anderson’s finest moments.  I suppose the David Peoples-penned Soldier [1998] could also qualify, but Event Horizon remains my personal favorite.  But the fact is, a few years later and Resident Evil, too, follows as one of Anderson's best.
A decade on and Resident Evil remains a moody, vicious and sinister piece of horror and science fiction that offers more than mere zombies.   My recent umpteenth viewing of the original film proved I am still impressed.
It was time to reveal the almost hypnotic wonders of Resident Evil, a sci-fi experiment in horror that would spawn a franchise, to my son.   He was not only riveted by the sheer suspense built into the film, probably the best of the lot on that level, but needed to turn it off during a late night hour as the zombie Dobermans entered the fray.  Needless to say, that boy did not go into the good night of rest easily.
Resident Evil as a streamlined tale of survival benefits from being more than a zombie apocalypse by infusing it with corporate agendas, genetic experimentation, the popular trope of sentient/ artificial intelligence as enemy made popular to varying degrees in science fiction dating as far back as 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] and Space:1999.  The intensity never relents as a band of unsuspecting soldiers are essentially sent on a mission to unlock the T-Virus owned by the evil Umbrella Corporation located in a top secret, underground research facility called The Hive below Raccoon City.  Each step that takes them into the Hive builds on each passing step eventually leading to their efforts to escape a giant trap.  Antagonistic villainy ranges from the well-crafted intel of the facility dubbed the Red Queen to corporate and nefarious government operatives, zombies, killer Dobermans and a mutant called the Licker all very much on the loose.  Apart from the mildly dodgy CGI effects of the Licker, Resident Evil still looks impressive and works wonders weaving suspense and a build of dread throughout its story.
Notable moments include the grisly death of a number of soldiers at the hands of a laser grid weapons system controlled by the Red Queen.  It's truly gruesome.  Zombie battles never get old, but they've gotten even slicker than the ones found here, but they remain memorable.
I've always said breasts were overrated.  Milla Jovovich has none and she is incredible in a red dress. The film is also noteworthy for introducing Alice, a security operative for Umbrella, in a tentative role as heroine.  She gradually realizes her skills and strengths as her memory loss dissipates throughout the film.  Not only does the Red Queen’s nerve gas affect her own memory, but she also wakes from the very early moments in the series with a scar indicating Alice has been a key component of the Umbrella’s experiments.  She’s also not the automatic action hero of the remaining franchise films in this original.
Milla’s Alice in red dress and combat boots tackling a Doberman Pinscher horde remains a centerpiece in the film and an unforgettable, classic moment in film history.  Not only is the sequence staged perfectly when Alice literally leaps into action climbing the facility walls and coming to blows foot to mouth with the Doberman, but the scene is important in recognizing a change in the evolution of the character of Alice.
Milla doesn't actually kick into action until the doberman sequence literally at the midway point of the 100 minute film.  She only first takes a weapon and begins to realize her lethal capabilities at the 50 minute marker.  Not unlike Alice in Wonderland, this Alice is far from helpless.  She is anything but a helpless damsel in distress in her red dress.  It is in this moment Milla begins to find her footing.  As far as arcs go, Alice is anything but self assured and confident as action heroines go. She is the amnesiac version of La Femme Nikita [1990] [by Luc Besson, the French answer to Anderson whom Jovovich was once married], Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight [1996], a government killer (property of Umbrella), a true assassin but completely unaware of her potential and skill.  This isn't the well-honed, unbreakable expert Alice we know and love by the time we reach Resident Evil: Afterlife or Resident Evil: Retribution.  There’s an innate vulnerability and softness to her for the first half.  Not unlike the zombie transformations, Alice turns into the sweaty, gritty heroine digging in and clawing her way to survival out of primal instinct and sheer will rather than super heroine.  The character arc in Resident Evil is not insignificant despite those who write it off.  There is a real awakening in Alice during the Doberman attack sequence. And quite frankly, visually, it's exceptionally sharp and still looks amazing today.  From that point forward she becomes a beast awakened much like this film.
Cujo anyone? The approach to a St. Bernard in Cujo the book and film was always an inspired choice.  The application of an intelligent, aggressive, energetic breed like the Doberman Pinscher, long-studied and with a rich history is the perfect selection for Resident Evil.  Here is that remarkably potent scene.  It is the moment I fell in love with Milla Jovovich and Resident Evil.
It’s easy to see why Resident Evil might succeed based on this original.  The ingredients are fairly straight forward and character is generally sacrificed for good, maybe not old-fashioned, escapist fun.  But the original Resident Evil, while not at the level of a film like Event Horizon, does share more in common with that film as mood and atmosphere goes when Anderson suppresses the techno-heavy rhythms in favor of silence.  There’s a sense of build to the film and fear of the unknown is well-punctuated accented by the action.  The other films are certainly slicker, benefit from the evolution of CGI and bigger budgets, but they also feel a little less intelligent than this original.  I’m going against conventional wisdom here calling Resident Evil a solid piece of science fiction horror beyond fan boy dreams.
Critics are generally very hard on Anderson and he may be his own worst enemy, but he makes no apologies for what he is shooting and he is indeed a product of his generation.   His scripts are like a delivery system for his visual ideas like a tortilla for great salsa.  One of the points he makes in an alternate ending on the Resident Evil original is that he was looking to achieve a vibe reminiscent of those “bleak” 1970s conclusions seen in films he cites like The Omega Man [1971], Planet Of The Apes [though a 1968 film] and others that tapped into that popular approach in Hollywood that seems long gone today.  And perhaps that’s part of Resident Evil’s appeal.  Fans of the genre appreciate the grim depiction of civilization collapsed and humanity left in ruin as nothing more than flesh-eating zombies.  Of course, that backdrop is always a big part of it.  There is a great appeal to the concept of the apocalypse as a sub-genre.  It's clear Resident Evil works on different levels.  Of course, Milla Jovovich standing naked cocking a shotgun on a lifeless city street strewn with garbage and set ablaze has a lot to do with that other important component of the series.  Anderson isn’t working a literary classic here like Carroll, but Resident Evil is an exceptionally well-executed, effective, contemporary fable.  Resident Evil: B+.
Homage to the 1970s.  Coming soon:  Alice, Nemesis, Raccoon City and all things Resident Evil: Apocalypse.  For more on Milla Jovovich check out Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic's look at The Fourth Kind.


J.D. said...

I was hoping you'd tackle this film (and franchise) at some point so it is great to see you do so with the first one that started it all. I will admit that it took me awhile to warmup to this series but repeated viewings on the SyFy Channel wore down my resolve and I have all of them (save the last one to come out on video) on DVD.

As you point out, they are hardly original, groundbreaking, etc. but for what they are these films are entertaining eye candy. They don't pretend to be anything more than popcorn thrill rides and certainly succeed on that level.

As much as I enjoy this film, I still think the third one is my fave with all of its western/ROAD WARRIOR imagery. Plus, I really felt that director Russell Mulcahy gave the series a much needed jolt stylistically. That being said, the installment that came after is right up there. It has some fantastic set pieces and the whole prison setting was very cool.

I thoroughly enjoyed your in-depth look at this often-maligned film. I look forward to you tackling other installments in this franchise.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I've enjoyed them from the very beginning, part two was a bit off, but part three made things right again; probably because veteran director Rusell Mulcahy (of Highlander fame) was behind it.

Anderson started directing again with part four and impressed me with it, there's some genuinely cool moments on that one, and you know how I feel about part five.

I mean, I'm used to these movies being "light" on plot and characterization, but damn. I have to agree, these characters dont have small talk, all they do is give orders, or send us off to the next fight.

But as you say, this ain't Shakespear!This is b movie heaven! Believe it or not, I found myself enjoy part five after a second viewing...its still not my favorite of the bunch, I thought it was paper thin, but it has its moments. I just wish we had more of a story to go with the ass kicking, more character development...

Looking forward to part appears that its going to be filled to the brim with zombies! Looking forward to that!

Jack Thursby said...

Nice in-depth review.

Always enjoyed this first Resident Evil movie. Never been a fan of the games but I have played them a bit. I'm glad Anderson took it in a sci-fi direction because a straight adaptation of the games would have been a poor man's Romero movie. I've seen countless zombie movies set in creepy old mansions, I thought it was quite fresh to see them roaming around polished metal corridors.

Anderson is definitely NOT a good writer. His scripts are very clunky and disjointed - this film only works because it has a "countdown plot" that's difficult to ruin. I completely agree, he IS a good visualist though and knows what makes good eye candy. I think he borrows most of his style/look from Ridley Scott and James Cameron but I got to give him credit for doing it well. I just wish he'd stop putting half finished CGI creatures in his films.

Also, the score is brilliant. Usually I find Marco Beltrami's scores very dull but I think he did really well with this one. Probably down to collaborating with Marilyn Manson.

P.S. I think Milla's got another 10 years before she starts aging.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you for your kind words J.D.. The time not only semed right to look at this franchise a little more closely but to watch it with my son so I was able to do both which made it a lot of fun.

I also felt with all of the derogatory feedback on the franchise I would look at it fairly as I have seen it over the years. I look forward to giving the other installments their just due.

They are indeed entertaining like so many films that serve the audience in such an effective way so it's always amazing to see these films derided so blatantly each release.

So again, thanks and I too really enjoyed Extinction. We'll get there soon.

Thank you for the input as well TFC.

I agre that the stories are thin and dialogue is serviceable generally speaking, but they certainly do not get their justice for delivering on the visual level. This is where Resident Evil succeeds in spades for fans of science fiction horror. They just explode with fun.

Finally, Jack, I really enjoyed your additional input here. Like you, I enjoyed the sterile, "polished" environment of this original film and its sci-fi approach.

You're right! You have to give Anderson credit for going that sci-fi route. He could have botched it, but it's very streamlined in its approach to beat the ticking clock. The combination of sci-fi and horror really looks terrific here.

Additionally, I loved your point about the half-finished CGI. So funny. When it's done right it looks terrific. But when Anderson moves from prosthetic Licker head to dodgy CGI it can be a little jolting, but by and large the film does not rely heavily on it or at least does a nice job of masking the CGI with make-up too.

But I lreally enjoyed the claustrophobic feel of the corridors as well and the score as you mnentioned really works here. It didn't distract. In a way the electronic score matches the highly technical environment of this horror show. I think it works really well.

SO again, thanks for your additional remarks here. I concur completely. And, I hope you are right about Milla, because that might give us an additional 3-4 films. : ) All the best guys, sff

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

BTW J.D. - should you return. Do you remember being transformed into a zombie?

Joking, but in the film, if you have forgotten, one of the strike team characters that enters the Hive is eventually zombified. His name is J.D.! : ) Forgot to mention it.

J.D. said...

Hah. I had forgotten about that. Just call me the living dead blogger. ; )