Someone really should write an informal study of the aesthetic dialectic between Japanese survival horror video games and early-twenty-first century American action movies written and directed by Paul Anderson.
Resident Evil was one of the first truly bad games of the PlayStation era, an inexplicably overrated hit that would’ve been a movie back in 1998…if the effort to get George Romero to write and direct it hadn’t miserably failed. “Differences over the script.” So what did they do? Hire the director of Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon and Soldier.
With a filmography like that, Anderson really should go down as either one of the last truly Bad directors of twentieth century Hollywood, or one of the first of the twenty-first. Not just your garden variety hack, this one: I’m talking “Bad” in the Woodian sense of an artist whose ambitions far exceed his talents, resulting in muddled, half-crazy films that nevertheless bowl you over with their over-the-top ineptness.
Resident Evil opens strong and cold (despite the extraneous voiceover). Much like the containment lab we’re in. Biting our nails, we watch someone steal a few canisters of multi-colored liquid(yes, there’s definitely SCIENCE happening here) with the worst-looking pair of robot laboratory arms I’ve ever seen. Seriously. As he departs, our faceless thief casually tossing a green canister over a shoulder. It shatters, causing an automatic lockdown of wherever this is. Evil (or at the very least, indifferent) security camera POV shots show us various Office Space extras panicking, fumbling about, and dying in various, actually interesting, ways. Anderson, I’ll give you this: I totally called that last decapitation…but you pulled it out in the end, you magnificent bastard.
Cut to…a Dark City rip-off, ruining all the good will you’ve built up. Ah, but this time it’s Milla Jovovich who wakes naked in a bathtub with complete Movie Amnesia. In a palatial mansion, as opposed to Dark City’s rather than a dingy motel room. So already the movie’s torn me in half.
On the one hand, I want to thank Jovovich for that bit of side-boob she shows us in the course of getting dressed. And Mr. Anderson, for filming it. On the other hand, I can already see that I’m watching a film designed to hang my hope up by its short hairs with those hooked chains the Cenobites use, only to viciously rip it back down. This is the high point for me. It’s all downhill from here.
(The gamer in me would like to add this opening also rips-off the beginning of Resident Evil: Survivor…but he forgets that game concerned itself with a male protagonist named Vincent…who was many things, but not the God Mode Sue Mila’s character will eventually become.)
And I’m right. Here comes a team of SWAT STAR-looking stormtroopers, rappelling through the windows because…well, what else can you do with a perfectly good SWAT team, hooks, rope and a roof? Token Black Dude One (no, really, his name’s “One,” and he’s played by Colin Salmon) commands. Badass Chick Rain (Badass Chick Michelle Rodriguez), Token Douche J.D. (Pasquale Aleardi), and Team Nerd Kaplan (Martin Crewes) follow him. None of the other team members get time to stereotype themselves, with the exception of the medic…but we all know how long doctors last in zombie movies…not even Will Smith made it out alive…so I guess I shouldn’t get overly attached to any of these steroidal cocks. They might as well be wearing red Starfleet uniforms or whistling a jaunty chorus of “I’ll be right back.”
Turns out this mansion rests atop “The Hive,” a secret underground research facility designed by and for the Umbrella Corporation…which, the pre-title narrator informed us, is “the largest commercial entity in the United States.” These mercs who just came crashing through the window? Umbrella employees. Just like Milla, and the other amnesiac they capture, Spence (James Purefoy). The team also acquires a local “cop” named Matthew (Eric Mabius), who just seemed to be stumbling around when they came in. There’s more to Matthew than meets the eye…but not too much, so don’t worry. Nothing that won’t be quickly pushed away by an action sequence.
Okay. So the artificial intelligence that controls the Hive, the Red Queen, “went homicidal” and now Team Umbrella’s here to turn the bitch off. No problem. But if you’re such a professional paramilitary team of bad ass mercs…why take the amnesiacs into the Danger Zone? Why take the “cop”? Why tell the amnesiacs all your Evil Corporate Master’s secrets in front of the “cop”? Jesus Christ, were you planning to shoot him in the head at some point? If so, why not just do it now and get it over with?
This is very much a director’s script, dumping all of it’s exposition on us up front and leaving the actors to convey what little character they posses through the proper delivery of plot-centric dialogue. Like Predator…if the writers of Predator had all suffered strokes while rewatching Aliens for the four thousandth time. This kind of thing can work in the hands of a man who has the least idea of what it is to characterize through dialogue…but Anderson’s no wordsmith, despite being English, and his dialogue never rises above the functional, i.e. “bland as a dishwater milkshake.” There’s not one reason to care about any of this until over half an hour in…when the zombies show up.
See, shutting down the Red Queen automatically opens all the Hive’s doors, allowing the now-dead Umbrella employees to freely move about and attack Our Heroes. Seems Umbrella’s bought up whatever company made all that Trioxin gas at some point, and in ten years all they’ve managed to do is turn it into an airborne, weaponized virus.
Faced with this, and their dwindling supply of ammunition, Milla, Rain, Spence, Matt, J.D. and Kaplan must put their trust in the Red Queen and escape the Hive…before the doors lock. They have one hour and, of course, all die horribly because none of them have ever played a video game. If they had, they would’ve seen this whole Zombie Apocalypse coming a parsec away, and that hall outside the Red Queen’s chambers would’ve screamed, “Laser Hallway of Death!” at them, the same way it did at me.
Watching, you can tell Anderson fell deeply in love with shooting from the Red Queen’s perspective. And you know what? Filming half of the movie from the ship’s perspective might’ve perked Event Horizon up a bit. The Red Queen certainly behaves like a haunted starship, characterized as a duplicitous, coldly-calculating cunt…that is, a human being, meant to oppose Milla’s character…who’s name, which we never learn until the end credits roll, is Alice.
Get it? Good. Moving on.
This opens a floodgate of logical problems. If the Red Queen had, say, told the authorized Umbrella Employees about the zombie army milling around downstairs they might’ve been less inclined to shut “her” down. Why spend presumably billions of dollars designing a zombie virus in the first place? Even if everything goes right and Zombie Warrior Assembly Line gets off the ground, who the hell are you going to sell them too? Who are they going to fight? The Chinese? And it’s a good thing Milla’s character enters the film an amnesiac. Otherwise (as the film slowly but surely reveals) she’d’ve figured all this out in two shakes and snapped the plot’s neck twixt her supple, alabaster thighs to the general rejoicing of nerdy shut-ins the world over. Like me.
I hereby dub this the Amnesia Singularity, a plot contrivance into which even the best of us sometimes fall. I did, myself, once…and I’ll tell you why: Centering your story around a superpowered amnesiac is the best excuse in the world to dump exposition and a cast of ancillary, expendable characters into your audience’s lap. Sure, you trap yourself inside a mindless George Romero rip-off, but at least your protagonist will have a mystery to solve before the Obligatory Twist Ending sets up the Inevitable Sequel.
It’s not as if Anderson doesn’t have ideas…it’s just that they’re all so stupid. In an effort to elevate this material…make it something more than the sum of its source, he succeeded insofar as to turn a bad game into a bad film because (a) Paul Anderson is wrong for this material…which (b) wasn’t exactly the hottest shit on Shit Island to begin with.
The first Resident Evil was a shit-controls and bad-graphics souffle, served inside the eviscerated corpse of every point-n-click adventure game prior to 1996. Players scoured samey-looking corridors full of samey-looking monsters picking up every shinny object in sight in the hopes that, maybe, this time, they’d located just the right Plot Continuation McGuffin and could now backtrack through however-the-hell-far they’d come since that locked door they encountered three hours ago.
The game’s sequels did fuck-all to improve upon this because, honest to God, some people actually like these digital scavenger hunts. Personally, if I find myself in a video game facing a locked door I don’t want to waste hours checking under tables and bookshelves for the three items I need to make a door handle…especially not when my character has a gun, or functional legs. Either are quite efficient at the opening of doors, thank you. And besides, I’m on the run from a fucking Zombie Apocalypse. Time’s wasting, you know.
Stripped of this endless grind, we’re left with a fairly standard Zombie Apocalypse story, and the inevitable fact that if you make a movie based on a video game that was itself based on a movie (or three, or six), all you’re going to get is a rip-off of the original film. What is that? A rip-off cubed?
There’s your source. Now for the adapter, who obviously cared fuck-all about his source. Example: in one scene Milla Jovovich faces off against the Hive’s pack of mutated attack dogs, armed with only a pistol. She dispenses most of them with one-shot-kills in a sequence that could have reasonably taken place within a Resident Evil game…if it weren’t shot (for the most part) in extreme closeup, on Milla.
Compare this, pulled out of context from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass:
Here we see a director who knows his (ahem) target audience, aware of exactly the aesthetic he needs to get us to flap our flippers at him in praise, even as he exploits our culture for his own questionable ends. Anderson’s does the same thing, but his ends are staked to the floor, naked, bleeding, and not even in question, given that he’s pulled an entire career out of Jovovich’s admittedly-well-shaped ass.
I can’t really knock the man for that. In the universe of all magic tricks that’s a feat to make Dr. Strange sit up and applaud. Unfortunately, as an amnesiac superwoman, Jovovich begins capably freaked out only to end up suffering from the same sociopathic amount of psychological detachment all Action movie protagonists suffer from after they’ve clawed past their ninth pile of Death. A kind of Action Movie PTSD. It’s obvious Milla’s character knows just as much about her co-survivors as we do, and she reacts to their grisly deaths exactly the same way: temporary shock followed by a quick and complete recovery as she’s whisked from one vaguely-reminiscent action sequence to the next.
So much, then, for Resident Evil. A line-assembled, late-90s Action flick that took two years to dress itself up in horror/sci-fi clothing. An Aliens rip-off that passed through the digestive tract of a George Romero zombie with still-recognizable bits of The Matrix sticking out of it like peanuts. Written and directed by the man who so loved that slow-motion-run-up-the-side-of-a-wall-jump-roundhouse-kick Liu Kang did in Mortal Kombat he recycles it here, wholesale, with Milla Jovovich. And a zombie dog.
Once again, I can’t really complain about that aspect of the flick, but I can’t recommend it either. I’m forced to condemn it for the same reason I condemn corrupt politicians: it’s predictable, unsurprising, same as the ol’ boss. At least this time The One is a hot chick, so if that’s all you need, fine. I’ll be hunting for other, better zombie movies…I’ve heard even these get better as we go along. We’ll see.