It’s fascinating to watch how different film franchises develop as time goes on. With each new sequel, the filmmakers need to decide how much they want to cater to fans, how much they need to recap from the previous films to make sure everyone’s up to speed, and how welcoming they want to be to new viewers. The Saw movies, for example, get so convoluted that even by the time the third movie rolls around, you’ll be lost if you attempt to watch it without having recently swotted up on the previous movies.
Resident Evil: Extinction is the third Resident Evil movie, and it seems determined to pander to fans at every possible opportunity, even at the expense of coherence. It’s rammed with call-backs and references to the earlier movies, but with very little actual explanation of what’s going on – if you’re new to the franchise, it’s just going to seem like nonsense. And actually, as something of a Resident Evil apologist, I’m not convinced it’s much better than nonsense even if you are a fan.
It’s disorienting right from the beginning. Alice wakes up naked in the shower, lying in a heap with a conveniently placed shower curtain preserving her modesty. She walks through her house, dazed, and finds a familiar red dress laid out on the bed for her. She looks blankly at a photograph… and then finds herself having to run a gauntlet of traps and zombies. It soon becomes clear that this isn’t the Alice we’ve come to know and love from the first two films. She doesn’t have the skills and memories she’s gained. We’re back at the beginning.
Or, at least, she is. Because soon it’s revealed that this is all one big Umbrella experiment. Having failed to contain the spread of the t-virus, the Umbrella Corporation has essentially caused the apocalypse, as the whole world falls victim to the disease. Time has clearly passed since the last movie, because while Umbrella has lost track of the real Alice, one of their scientists, Dr Isaacs, has managed to figure out that her blood is the key to creating an antivirus – and he’s got an enormous laboratory filled with Alice clones to test his theories on.
That first sequence is among the most game-like in the entire franchise. Alice attempts to escape, fails, and then, essentially, reboots from her last save point: another clone is put in position, and takes her turn to try to get through the trap. Each time, she does a little bit better – and gets to try again, and again. But since this isn’t a game, the corpses are mounting up. It’s probably my favourite idea in the whole franchise; a sort of weird behind-the-scenes vision of the world of a computer game avatar. Unfortunately, it’s the only game-like bit of the film that really works.
Because for the next hour or so, the film feels very much like watching someone else play a game. Alice levels up, finding that she now has telekinetic powers, and meets up with a convoy of survivors led by Claire Redfield, the lead from the games Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Code: Veronica. Like Jill Valentine before her, she’s there as a nod to fans, who’ll recognise her name, but she doesn’t really get to do anything worthwhile here at all. Basically, Claire and her gang – which includes Oliviera and LJ from Resident Evil: Apocalypse – are there as cannon fodder, to add a little drama to Alice’s battles with the undead. But though it’s undeniably cool to watch Milla Jovovich hacking away at zombies with a knife in each hand, there’s something lacking from this movie.
Since this instalment wasn’t directed by Paul WS Anderson, it looks different from the previous two. Russell Mulcahy, primarily a TV and music video director (but also the chap behind the Highlander movies), abandons the bright blue sci-fi palette of the previous Resi movies in favour of a monotonous brown. Much of the movie is set in the desert, so the landscape is brown – and so are the zombies. And the zombies’ clothes. And the survivors’ clothes. And Alice’s clothes. Even the Mad Max-style armoured trucks are brown.
It seems like a conscious decision to make this movie look different, maybe because it’s no longer a sci-fi romp but more of a post-apocalyptic survival nightmare, but it’s not fun to look at. The cinematography is flat and uninspiring. Everything looks weirdly airbrushed; Milla Jovovich barely looks human, they’ve smoothed out her skin so much. And the monsters are monotonous, too: we get more zombie dogs, a few super-aggressive zombies, and another Nemesis-style boss. There’s a scene that might have been fun, featuring a flock of infected crows attacking a bus, but the birds are so hideously rendered that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief for even a moment.
There’s a distinct lack of original ideas in this movie. Mostly, it seems like a greatest hits reel: we get to revisit the Red Queen (or, at least, her ‘sister’ computer); we get to see Alice in her familiar red dress again; and we get to go back to the laser corridor, which is everyone’s favourite Resident Evil moment. It feels like fan service, though, because it’s hard to find anything new in this movie that’s interesting.
The few bits that aren’t taken from the previous movies are robbed from other horror movies – the zombie crows recall The Birds, for example, and the idea of training and domesticating zombies is taken from Romero’s original Day Of The Dead. You could play some kind of Resident Evil bingo or drinking game with this movie, and that might be fun, but as an actual film, it’s a bit, well, boring.
I’m not sure anyone has ever said this about any film, ever, but I think I’m glad that Paul WS Anderson took back the reins for Resident Evil: Afterlife. Well, at least until I get round to re-watching it. Watch this space…