As far as I can determine, the first movie to be based on a video game was 1993’s Super Mario Bros. It doesn’t have a stellar reputation, and twenty years on, the reputation of the genre — if we can call “based on a video game” a genre — still hasn’t improved. Nevertheless, production values have gone up, and Hollywood’s screenwriters are at least nominally aware of the genre’s reputation, and should in theory be working to improve it. So it’s at least plausible that a film from the middle of the genre’s lifespan, 2002, could be worth watching.
That is when the first Resident Evil film was released, and this being October, I thought it might be the right time to give this film a chance. I never played any of the games in the series that the movie takes its title from, so I don’t know how much it might diverge from the established stories (or indeed, if there’s really a story to speak of beyond “shoot stuff”). I knew that there were zombies, and that a company called Umbrella Corporation was responsible. That much at least is intact. The chances of this film making it onto a list of examples that video game movies can be good? Not so intact.
Turns out you need more in an action movie than Milla Jovovich running around in skimpwear.
In what I hope will not turn out to be a trend for this year’s Halloween Haunters selections, Resident Evil starts out — well, almost, there’s a prologue setting up the events of the film — with someone (Jovovich) waking up in a bathtub with no clue how she got there. In fact, she has no clue whatsoever about anything, as her memory is a complete blank. Just as she’s starting to get her bearings, a corporate security team busts into her manor, looking more like paramilitary than standard security. They inform her that she was gassed by the computer running an underground facility beneath her home, to which she was supposed to be one of the front security people. Her and her cover-identity husband (James Purefoy) are expected to recover their memories in a few hours, but the team needs to get into the facility immediately. The computer has gone rogue, trapping and killing all the scientists in the laboratory. They need to shut her down, so it’s all aboard the underground train to take them to “The Hive”.
Let’s just bring a couple amnesiacs into the stronghold of a homicidal super-computer. The risk is minimal.
The computer isn’t just homicidal, it also seems to have a mean sense of humor, as some of its attacks seem calculated to toy with its prey. This provides some mild amusement while it offs some of the emotional stick-figures that make up most of the security team. Of course, they soon find the computer had a reason to kill everyone and seal off the lab, as a dangerous virus was released in the laboratory, which would cause everyone to die and then become zombies. The zombies, despite the viral origin, are mostly in the Romero mold. They are brainless, soulless, and devoid of any sense of purpose.
The same could be said of the film.
If you watch Resident Evil, make sure you’re watching it for the right reason. That reason is that you want to watch Milla Jovovich roundhouse kick zombies in the head. If you’re looking for anything else, it’s not here. The plot is thinner than Jovovich’s dress, and characterization is pretty much a null. Michelle Rodriguez plays the only character with personality, and even then it’s just a stereotypical “tough girl soldier”. Jovovich’s character, who is the lead character, is as close to being a literal cipher as possible; if she has a personality, she can’t remember it. The action sequences are the only things to enjoy in this film, because they are the only things that are done halfway well. Director Paul W.S. Anderson includes some jump scares in the film which fail comically; a jump scare, even if it’s not a real threat, should still at least have the potential to be a concern. Having a jump caused by somebody leaning into the camera frame is about as pitiful as a jump scare can be, but there are multiple times where that’s what Anderson goes for, with various security team members “surprising” each other when even somebody who was half blind and deaf should have known they were there. They’re jumping at something that they knew was there three seconds before, and while Anderson may be able to direct the characters to jump at that, the audience is more apt to find it irritating.
I can’t even give the film a full pass on its monsters. While the zombies look about as good as those of any zombie movie, and the zombie dogs are at least marginally inventive, the film has to ramp things up near the end with some sort of super-zombie. Its origins and abilities stretch the premise beyond what credulity can bear, and the CGI is wholly unconvincing.
There are fragments of an idea in this film that could work. Indeed, “lab-created virus creates zombies” is a fairly common horror trope anyway. But there’s not much else here that holds up. Even just from a standpoint of watching Jovovich kick in heads, there are probably better films.