Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Resident Evil (2002, USA)

Resident Evil starts quickly with an introductory monologue that explains all about the nasty multinational Umbrella Corporation which, just like the multinationals in real life, smiles as it keeps the masses happy with products we love to purchase even as it secretly develops all sorts of nasty things to be used in love and war. Possibly less like the real multinationals, the Umbrella Corp develops its evil stuff in an underground compound (called the Hive and located far below the imaginary Raccoon City). By the end of the introductory credits, the T-Virus, a dastardly biological warfare weapon (which among other things makes dead people become zombies) and its antidote are not only both stolen, but the virus itself is also released within the underground compound by an unknown person. A lot of people die in all sorts of nasty ways, but enough die in one piece to ensure for an army of zombies later in the film.
Up above ground, Alice (Milla Jovovich) awakens in a shower with no memory, the result of a knockout gas the compound's central computer releases in moments of disaster. No sooner has she pulled on her cocktail dress than does she get ambushed by the supposed policeman Matt Addison (Eric Mabius, an unexpectedly good actor, equally effective here as he is playing a long-haired guitar-playing object of desire in the excellent In the Dollhouse (1995) or a wacked-out dealer in Reeker (2005)), but before they can really get acquainted a whole slew of military commandos show up, ready to break into the Hive and find out what has happened down there. They drag the reluctant pair along with them, entering the compound through a hidden entrance located behind a mirror. (Anyone who pays a little attention can find a lot of parallels throughout the film to the classic fairy tales Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. At one point, the psychotic central computer — called the Red Queen — even gets to say "Off with her head!") Down they go, picking up yet another companion when the amnesiac and unconscious Spence (James Purefoy) basically falls into their hands. In no time flat they are faced with both an uncountable number of hungry zombies and a murderous computer out to kill them all. She does a really nifty job at slicing and dicing three of them with a laser before she is finally shut down, and the rest of the movie features the remaining survivors trying to escape. Along the way the truth about who released the virus and why is revealed, some nasty CGI monster with a ten-foot tongue decides it is hungry and one by one everyone gets disseminated (hate to think what would have had happened had that thing been horny). The film ends with a pleasant little nod to The Day of the Dead as it sets up the situation for the inferior sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse that came a few years later in 2004 and the derivative but entertaining part three (Resident Evil: Extinction) that hit the screens in 2007...
In general, when this flick first came out, most people who trashed it seemingly fell into two categories: George A. Romero fans and die-hards of the original Resident Evil/Biohazard game.
The Romero fans couldn't seem to get past the great tragedy that George A. Romero, the director of the all-time classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its two sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), was eventually replaced by director Paul W. S. Anderson. In their eyes, no director other than Romero is capable of making a zombie film, and they castigated Resident Evil as being a soulless imitation of Romero's originals and the various gore-heavy Italian productions which followed in the wake of the second installment of the original Dead Trilogy (let's have some respect for the old man and pretend that the heavy-handed and abysmal fourth installment Land of the Dead (2005) doesn't exist). Aside from completely overlooking the fact that all the Euro-gore movies were/are pure Romero imitations, what they all also seem to forget is that when all those Euro-imitations first appeared, they too — despite their eventual reevaluation as cult gore and zombie classics — were all castigated as cheap and sleazy third-rate Romero imitations. The basic fact of the matter is, it is impossible to make a flesh-eating zombie movie without imitating Romero, for his is the film in which zombies were first shown to be in search of lunch. Thus, to not imitate the man, one would have to first make a film which features no killer zombies — something that is pretty hard to do when you are making a film version of a video/computer game that features zombies out for lunch.
As it is, what Romero fans fail to admit is that aside from the original Dead Trilogy and a few of his early low-budget movies like Martin (1978) and Code Name: Trixie (1973), most of his films aren't very good. True, they might be quirky and infused with more social satire and insight than the average horror flick, but they tend to be on the slow side. Not good for a film project that is, by its very roots, intended for hormonally driven teenagers with undeveloped intellects and raging hard-ons.
With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why Romero was eventually replaced by a director such as Paul W. S. Anderson. Aside from his pretentious first film, Shopping (1994) and his singular TV movie The Sight (2000), Anderson has concentrated on making brainless but suspenseful and quick-moving science fiction action films such as the high-octane Solaris imitation Event Horizon (1997), the predictable and uninteresting Kurt Russell vehicle Soldier (1998) and, probably even more influential to the producer's decision to go with Anderson, the commercially successful film version of Mortal Kombat (1995). To put it bluntly, although he has yet to make a classic, on paper and on the screen Anderson probably seemed a much better match to the material than the Godfather of Modern Zombie Films himself, who hasn't really had a real hit since the marginally interesting Creepshow (1982).
True, it might have been interesting had the powers that be taken a chance and gone for Romero. Who knows, perhaps he would have even finally made another film that isn't best seen on fast forward. But Romero went the way of the wind, and to cry over spilt milk is not only pointless but also comes across as whining. The question that counts, is Resident Evil any good?
In the eyes of many fans of the original game, it seems not to be. The most common complaint is that the movie features different characters than the game and is actually a sort of "prequel" in that it narrates everything that happens up to the beginning of the game, when Alice wakes up to a zombiefied Raccoon City. In truth, these are minor quibbles, for who wants to see all the old characters die and is it really that terrible that Anderson finally supplies a background to the events that are a given in the game? In all, the complaints of the game's fans are similar to those voiced by anyone watching a movie adaptation of their favorite book, comic book, television show or computer game: how dare they change anything! By the nature of adaptations, it is a virtual given that everyone who loved the original source is probably going to be disappointed by the end product it inspires. Due to this given fact, whether or not a film is a success should probably be judged less by how closely it sticks to the original source than by how well it stands on its own individual feet.
And in that sense, Resident Evil does a dandy job. Were it not a film version of a game, it would be more than adequate as a brainless, adrenaline pumped non-stop action movie with a high level of gore. Anderson starts the movie in high gear and doesn't slow down a bit up until the screen goes black at the end. Sure there are holes in the plot and logic — the biggest being that if the T-virus is indeed a mutating protein that can change from liquid to airborne to blood/saliva transmission, why doesn't it do so indiscriminately and infect everyone simply as they walk around? — but Anderson is such a kinetic filmmaker that the inconsistencies fly by virtually unnoticed as the viewer is taken on a tightly edited, blood-drenched and special-effects doused rollercoaster ride.
Some fans also complain about Milla Jovovich's fashion sense in the movie, but in all likelihood such complaints stem from pimply virgins with a fear of strong but sexy women who can still look attractively feminine even as they kick butt. Face it, as out of place as Milla Jovovich looks strolling around a compound full of flesh eating zombies dressed-up for a Vogue photo shoot, not only does she look damned hot when she starts doing Hong Kong wall-walking or twists a zombie's neck with her thighs, but the incongruence of her costume adds a nicely humorous twist to the events. (Hell, zombies don't exist in real life so why bitch about her fashion sense as being illogical or unrealistic? The concept of a realistic zombie film is an oxymoron in itself.) Besides, one shouldn't forget that she is a trained agent suffering memory loss, so her sudden talents — such as her killer thighs or impeccable aim when shooting zombie Dobermans — are probably forgotten trained abilities reawakened.
Of course, there is the ever easy complaint about a person's acting ability and more than one critic has complained about the movie's inadequate thespian aspects. But get real: if someone is looking for good acting, is a gore-drenched zombie film the place one expects to find it? (Even Night of the Living Dead, the great classic that it is, features some of the lamest acting ever filmed.) The actors in Resident Evil were hired to play type, not win Oscars, and they do their job well enough. In the case of Milla her acting abilities are more than satisfactory. Not better than in Dazed & Confused (1993), The Fifth Element (1997) or The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), but miles better than in her first starring film, Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991).
All in all, Resident Evil is an excellently made piece of multi-violent trash, a perfect film to watch some Saturday night with the boys when downing a few beers too many, eating cheap delivery pizza and smoking the last of your stash. It's got as good of a plot as one could hope for, a lot of great action sequences and a lot of real suspense. If you're tired of circle-jerking to rented porn videos and want to start watching fun, mindless multi-violent trash, then Resident Evil is just the film to get.
Part two, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, is much less satisfying on the other hand, and is definitely not recommended viewing unless you want to understand the developments that lead to part three, Resident Evil: Extinction (2007).

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