“My name is Alice. And I remember everything”: Re-viewing Resident Evil 1-5

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With the sixth (and final?) installment in everyone’s #1 zombie-killing video-game adaptation franchise now in cinemas, it seemed a good time to go back and re-view the previous five installments, stretching back almost fifteen years. The original film came out so long ago, I wasn’t actually married. Damn. Now, however, I am. Which is why, one weekend in January, Chris and I ordered out for pizza, ensured the pillows were adequately fluffed and settled in on the couch for a marathon of maximum Umbrella mayhem. How have they stood the test of time? Here are our current takes on the series, preceded by summaries of our original reviews and a link to the full thing. But first, let’s warm up and refresh our memory with the trailers:

Resident Evil (2002)

“You’re all going to die down here!”

What we said then (3½ stars). “Not as good as it could have been, with even the most undemanding viewer able to imagine improvements. Yet, as an action/SF/horror film goes, it’s not bad at all, with very little slack or let-up. The virus is released in the first two minutes, and it’s pretty much non-stop from there on, with plenty going on. Jovovich looks the part, and the final shot has me anticipating the sequel, in a kind of Evil Dead 2 way, with her character getting totally medieval on the zombies’ asses. We can but hope.”

What we say now. This has stood up very well in 15 years, not least because it’s more practical effects than primitive CGI e.g. the zombie dogs. It’s worth remembering that, when it came out, zombies were not in fashion. This was before The Walking Dead, before World War Z; heck, it was even before the Dawn of the Dead remake. Indeed, it’s 40 minutes here before the first zombie shows up, and another 10 before Alice, as we know her, is born. Still, Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez) stands in well during the early going, the character being perfectly suited to Rodriguez’s sneer. She also gets the best line in the film. After fighting off an early corpse, thanks to Rain’s torrent of automatic fire, J.D. says “I shot her five times. How was she still standing?”, to which Rain replies, “Bitch isn’t standing now. ”

At this point, the makers were stating it was a “prequel” to the games, with Jovovich in effect playing the role of Jill Valentine. Not so sure about that, given subsequent flims, but it’s hard to deny the influence of the final sequence: Alice waking up in a hospital bed, to discover the zombie apocalypse, was also used in both 28 Days Later and the first ep of TWD. There was an alternate ending shot, with her going into Umbrella HQ, but I’m glad they went with the one used, which has an absolutely spectacular final shot, zooming back from her over a devastated city. The makers certainly extracted their bang for every penny of the $35 million budget, and the industrial soundtrack, including both Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails, is perfect. Current rating: upgraded to **** and our seal of approval.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

“I’m good – but I’m not THAT good.”

What we said then (4 stars). “There seemed to be two kinds of reviews for this: those who ‘get’ what’s intended here, and those who clearly don’t… How you react will likely be similarly split; given you’re on this site, I suspect the odds are in favour of Apocalypse, for its strong intuitive grasp of the ingredients necessary in a good action heroine, and its delivery thereof. Sure, the plot is some way short of perfect, and more/better-filmed fights would have been welcome, but the makers do a sound job of distracting you from the flaws, and there’s enough worthwhile stuff that will stick in your mind, to put it in the top quarter of this summer’s popcorn flicks.”

What we say now. If the original movie was Alien, this one is Aliens, upping the ante largely by vastly multiplying the number of enemies. The scope here is much broader: instead of the claustrophobic feel of a small group in an underground complex, it takes place across an entire city, and it’s not just Alice vs. zombies, she’s also taking on the human soldiers of Umbrella. Since she is the sole intact survivor of part one, we get a slew of new characters, including two from the game, in Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr); the former is particularly iconic in her costume. There’s also L.J. (Mike Epps), who adds occasional comic moments almost entirely missing from the original; not sure if that’s a plus or not.

Alice is now a fully-fledged and hardcore heroine, apparent right from her arrival, crashing through a church window on her motorbike, and capable of snapping her own dislocated finger back into place, with little more than a roll of the eyes. It’s a near-constant stream of action, offering a relentless adrenaline buzz to the viewer, although less adrenaline would have been welcome during Alice’s final fight with nemesis, which degenerates into a choppily-edited mess. And, really: who decided it was a good idea to go through a cemetery during a zombie apocalypse? Still, between Alice and Jill, this remains a two-for-one action heroine special, and can only be appreciated as such. Current rating: holds steady at ****.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

“Good thing I like a challenge.”

What we said then (3 stars). “S’ok. Mulcahy is no stranger to franchise cinema, having done the first couple of Highlander films, and the harsh desert lighting and exterior landscape is a nice contrast to the usual, dark, claustrophobic approach adopted by most Z-flicks. His experience is of particular use in the action sequences, where he does a better job of avoiding the cinematic excesses, in which Alexander Witt indulged, too frequently, last time up. The script is merely workmanlike: it feels too much like a series of cool set-pieces joined in the editing bay, rather than springing organically from the storyline.”

What we say now. I was confused by the opening, and wondered if I’d accidentally put the first film back in the DVD player. For I hadn’t seen this since its cinematic release, and it starts off by re-running the very beginning. Once that was established, we get Ian Glen as the villain – and he’s much needed, offering us a real human “villain” for the first time, and giving Umbrella a face of evil in Dr. Isaacs. The main problem is, Alice has now been imbued with superpowers. Speed and strength, I don’t mind, but telekinesis and the ability to block fire? What is this, X-Men: Extinction? Though clearly the main influence here is Mad Max, right down to Alice’s post-apocalypse chic of a long coat – plus, for no real reason beyond coolness, stockings and suspenders.

This film also absorbs the modern fondness for “fast zombies”, with the main set-piece taking on a slew of Umbrella-enhanced sprinters. While decent, and with an impressive depiction of Las Vegas, it’s likely placed too early in the movie, as nothing thereafter comes close. The only other sequence which might stick in the mind is an attack on a convoy of survivors by zombiefied crows, so I guess you can add The Birds to the list of influences here. I did like the “Pit O’ Millas”, the discards resulting from Dr. Isaacs’s experiments, and am surprised it took them three movies to use White Rabbit on the soundtrack, given its obvious Alice-ness. But Claire Redfield is disappointingly bland, and Alice’s increasing abilities cause way more problems than they solve. Current rating: dropped to **½, though likely a little above that, rather than above.

10 Iconic Sequences from Resident Evil 1-5

These are my picks for the most franchise-defining set pieces from each film. I aimed for two from each, but #3 was so weak, it could only manage a single entry (and that, barely!), so I pulled in an extra one from #4. These are not necessarily the “best” moments. For example, Alice’s fight against the zombie dogs in the original film, is memorable more because it’s the first time we’ve seen her kick ass. It was also that moment in the trailer which sold me on the movie. But having watched all five films in the last 24 hours, these are what stick in my mind.

  1. Alice enters the church (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  2. Alice vs. Zombie Dogs (Resident Evil)
  3. Million Milla March (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  4. Alice vs. Jill (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  5. Tokyo sequence (Resident Evil: Retribution)
  6. Running down that wall (Resident Evil: Apocalypse)
  7. The laser corridor (Resident Evil)
  8. Roof-top escape (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  9. Alice and Claire vs. the Axman (Resident Evil: Afterlife)
  10. Las Vegas ambush (Resident Evil: Extinction)

The play-list below includes all ten of these. Please enjoy. :)

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

“Do you know who I am?”

What we said then (3 stars). “There’s way too much moving about in underground darkness here, and elements are lobbed in from the video game, which make no sense in the context of the movie… Nor is there much feeling of threat to the characters, who cheat death with blithe abandon – the sense of “anyone can die, at any time” present in the original is all but gone… [But] the action, is, as usual for the series, solid – meaning this is, overall, just worth the 92 minutes of your time it will take up.”

What we say now. This saw the return of Paul W.S. Anderson to the series, and wisely, opts rapidly to discard the angle which saw our heroine gaining ever-increasing superpowers. I totally loved the attack on Umbrella HQ by multiple Alice clones – what I call the Million Milla March – which lifts copiously from both The Matrix and the original Aeon Flux animations. Indeed, The Matrix is a source in other ways, not least Arnold Wesker (Shawn Roberts), who clearly is inspired heavily by Agent Smith. This and the other lifts here are a bit too obvious to work: the zombie dogs v2.0 are straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and obnoxious asshole Bennett Sinclair (Kim Coates) is likely too close to Steve Marcus in the Dawn of the Dead remake. Even the use of a prison as a sanctuary from zombies was previously done a few years earlier, in The Walking Dead comics.

I note the walking pace of Evil‘s zombies continues to accelerate, here without any Umbrella tampering. But generally, this is on most solid ground when working with its own content, such as the Axman, who makes a ferocious foe for Claire and Alice (despite far too much slo-mo!). It was the first of the series to be made in 3D, and a lot of the shots used by Anderson make that very obvious, though I didn’t mind that too much. For someone supposedly back to being human again, Alice still seems to be insanely competent, best illustrated in an impressive escape off a roof-top infested with zombies. It even ends on the most hopeful note of any of the series so f… Er, never mind, scratch that. My mistake. Current rating: Upped to ***½; this was rather more impressive than I remembered it.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

“Congratulations. You’re officially a badass.”

What we said then (4 stars). “This is the best Resident Evil movie in eight years. It may not be anything significant in the plot department. There are not hidden depths or great moments of character revelation. But it does contain entirely acceptable amounts of Milla Jovovich Kicking Righteous Ass, and succeeds as an entertainment spectacle, almost entirely due to this. Though actually, this is almost a “greatest hits” package, especially in terms of participants.”

What we say now. Feels like Anderson has largely given up in terms of trying to attract new fans, with a start that’s deliberately confusing, from an opening that plays out in reverse, through Alice’s new suburban life. It also introduces, without explanation, game elements such as characters Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong, and the Las Plagas parasites. But if you’ve been along for the ride since the beginning, this is a blast. It brings in new influences, most obviously Aliens (Alice protecting a pseudo-daughter) and Blade Runner (Ada telling her, “You were one of the 50 basic models”). It’s good to see favourite characters from earlier films return, such as Rain Ocampo or Carlos Olivera, and the cloning concept allows for nice variations. Not all Rains, for example, are on Alice’s side, though you know the concept of our heroine as a happy home-maker is not one built to last.

The scenario, involving a giant Umbrella testing area of different environments, seems a bit contrived, but there was something very similar in the Resident Evil: Underworld novel. I’ll let it slide, since this offers scope for a host of spectacular set-pieces. In terms of pure hand-to-hand fighting, the Tokyo sequence may be close to the best in the series, but the film likely sprays more rounds of ammunition around than any other entry too. It’s also great to see Alice go toe-to-toe against Jill Valentine, harking back to the “But I’m not that good” comment from Apocalypse. In some ways, the gap between the games and the movies has never been greater, with this abandoning almost all creepiness for loud, rambunctious battles. However, this is so solidly entertaining, I’d be hard pushed to call that any kind of a bad thing. Current rating: retains every bit of its ****.

So, what have we learned? Generally, to answer the question asked in the intro, the films have stood the test of time surprisingly well. Video-game adaptations remain problematic for Hollywood (Assassin’s Creed says hello), and the longevity and sheer number of Resident Evil films is almost unsurpassed. I think it’s because Anderson and his team have never felt under an obligation to be “true” to the games. While that may have alienated a chunk of the core fans, it has allowed the makers to focus on a more important task: making entertaining films, for there are aspects of the games which simply would not work on-screen, such as the puzzle-solving. They were also wise to concentrate heavily on practical effects, which tend to last better than CGI.

Not to say there haven’t been mis-steps – the mid-series diversion giving Alice super-powers would be the worst of these. But at its best – and I’d order the series #5, #2, #1, #4, #3, from top to bottom – it is excellent entertainment, that looks far slicker than many films with far bigger budgets, and the focus throughout has generally been on what matters. Which is: a great heroine who kicks ass, with (The Hunger Games please note) no love-triangles and virtually zero romantic interest. It seems Milla Jovovich is certain the sixth movie will be her final chapter, at least. If so, it seems only appropriate to finish by saying: So long, Milla – and thanks for all the mayhem.

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