Looking back at Resident Evil

The first Resident Evil is a decade old. And with the latest film, Retribution, just around the corner, Sarah heads back to 2002 to see how the franchise began…

I like Milla Jovovich. Most people do, don’t they? She’s a likeable-seeming woman. Like many of the other actors I harbour inexplicable affection towards, though, Milla Jovovich has led me down some dark paths. Resident Evil is far from the darkest of these, but it’s not brilliant, either. Since it’s been ten years since the first Resident Evil film was released, and there’s a new one just over the horizon, I decided now was a good time to revisit the franchise, and see how it’s held up.

The answer is, predictably enough, not all that well. But the first movie has its moments. It begins with an ominous voiceover that spells out the basic premise of the story, for those of us not familiar with the videogame: the Umbrella Corporation is huge, wealthy and evil, and it’s been doing some genetic experiments. Cut to one of said experiments apparently going horribly wrong, and one of Umbrella’s top secret underground facilities going into lockdown.

Immediately we’ve got a set up, but that’s about all the film gives us, for quite a long time. Our protagonist, Alice (Jovovich), is suffering from acute memory loss, and the film puts us right there with her, because we can’t tell what’s going on, either. It’s kind of clever, in that respect. Over the course of the film, as Alice explores Umbrella’s facilities with a mysterious group of commandos and an even more mysterious random guy who also purports to be suffering from memory loss, she starts to remember. As the audience, we put the story together right alongside her. And as more of her past is revealed, our sympathies start to shift.

That’s probably the most interesting thing this film does: it gives us a protagonist that we’re not entirely sure we can like, or root for, because we don’t know who she is or what she’s done. (And through the rest of the franchise, she’ll become someone else anyway – but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.)

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Unfortunately, though, the rest of the story is pretty basic. Some people go to an isolated place, get attacked by zombies, try to escape, get infected, and mostly die. It’s every zombie movie ever. It’s a particularly annoying type of zombie movie, too, because it features an incredibly long and drawn out explanation of what the zombies are, how they were created, how they infect you, and how they can be killed. (Seriously: the scene establishing the basic zombie rules takes forever.)

The word “zombie” is carefully never mentioned, either: they’re walking corpses, they’re reanimated dead people, but they’re not zombies. It’s irritating, but at the time, this might have been just about forgivable. After all, this was 2002: a year before Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide was published, and two years before the Dawn Of The Dead remake and Shaun Of The Dead were released. Resident Evil was made right at the beginning of the zombie revival, so perhaps it’s not fair to hold these clichés against it.

And even in the context of the last decade’s zombie overload, Resident Evil does have one thing going for it: the high tech setting, and the use of an additional antagonist in the form of the Red Queen. The Red Queen is the facility’s AI, in charge of security, and she’s the main obstacle standing in the way of our protagonists’ escape. The one scene that everyone remembers from this movie is the one where a group of commandos end up locked in the corridor of lasery death: the Red Queen uses a sweeping laser to chop them up and, when one of the commandos proves limber enough to escape the beam, she creates a grid that turns him into human Duplo blocks.

None of the zombie-related deaths in the film comes anywhere close to the perverse glee of that one kill. That sci-fi edge made Resident Evil a bit different, and possibly opened it up to a larger audience, too. It’s not a horror movie, really: it’s an action movie that incorporates both sci-fi and horror elements, and that paid off. Resident Evil cost $33 million and took more than $100 million in worldwide box office.

The elephant in the room, though – and I’ve managed to get over 700 words into this article without addressing it so far – is that Resident Evil isn’t just a zombie movie. It’s a computer game movie. Although we’re used to those now, at the time there’d only been a handful of game-based movies: Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Turning a game into a film was still a fairly unusual idea – and a controversial one. Many fans weren’t happy with the decision to make up a new character and storyline, considering the games offered plenty of ready-made characters and scenarios.

The film’s link to the games is fairly tenuous, but that was a conscious decision made by Sony and Capcom. Because, interestingly, we nearly got a very different Resident Evil film. At one point, king of the zombies George A Romero was even attached to the project: he wrote a script that was much more tied into the mythology of the games, and featured Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine as main characters. Romero reportedly studied the dialogue of the games, and worked hard to capture that kind of spirit in his script.

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But Capcom hated his ideas. The whole project was nearly scrapped, but Sony brought Paul WS Anderson in to save the day. (Or not, depending on your perspective.) Anderson didn’t have many directorial credits to his name at the time, but he was responsible for the Mortal Kombat adaptation, and for another sci-fi horror movie, Event Horizon. He pitched a completely different version of the film, moving away from the game characters that Capcom had been so nervous about seeing onscreen and creating a separate mythology instead. The critics hated it, and many of the fans hated it, but Resident Evil succeeded where it counts (at the box office) and we know what happened next: they made a ton of sequels.

(By the way, if you’re wondering what Romero’s version of Resident Evil might have been like, check out Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night Of The Living Dead, which Romero wrote. It stars Patricia Tallman as a rifle-toting, ass-kicking version of Barbra. And it’s terrible. It’s likely we dodged a bullet when Capcom took him off this project.)

Resident Evil may not have contributed in any significant way to cinema, and in another ten years, we may well have forgotten all about it. But it did give us, in Milla Jovovich, a pretty awesome action heroine, and as those are few and far between, that’s worth celebrating.

Jovovich hasn’t made many great movies, and maybe she won’t win an Oscar any time soon, but come the apocalypse, I’d definitely want her on my side.

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