Resident Evil at 20: A Good or Bad Zombie Movie?
Paul W.S. Anderson's video game adaptation turns 20, two of our editors argue over whether it's trash or treasure.
Is it really 20 years since Milla Jovovich’s Alice first kicked zombie ass in a red dress? The movie inspired by the much loved video game series spawned five sequels and a 2021 reboot, and has become a significant entry in movie zombie lore. Yet, lots of people think the films are rubbish. As Wikipedia puts it:
“Despite all the installments receiving generally negative reviews from critics, the Resident Evil film series has grossed over $1.2 billion.”
Well someone must like those films, surely?
Two decades on, Den of Geek has decided to revisit the original to work out once and for all whether this is a misunderstood masterpiece or a perfectly well understood trash fire. Movies Editor David Crow and UK Editor Rosie Fletcher had a rewatch and fundamentally disagreed. They duke it out below.
Rosie Fletcher: Paul W.S. Anderson probably isn’t the best director called Paul Anderson working currently. He’s not even the best director called “WS” Anderson, even though he isn’t actually called Wes Anderson. But that does not mean he’s a bad director.
Through various missteps it’s become all very easy and “hilarious” to dismiss Paul “what script?” Anderson as a hack (oh except Event Horizon, people are allowed to like Event Horizon). But not enough praise is given to Resident Evil. Watching it 20 years on and it still holds up as an effective, gory, and yes, actually SCARY horror sci-fi. Which, you know, PWSA is good at. We’re allowed to like Event Horizon after all.
First the set up. Resident Evil wastes no time at all in getting going and the opener – virtually a pre-credits scene – is pure horror. After a few lines of exposition explaining what the evil Umbrella Corp is we find ourselves in the underground lab complex known as The Hive. An unknown figure has stolen and deliberately released a vial of the “T-Virus,” contaminating the whole of the facility. In response the Hive’s AI “The Red Queen” shuts it down and eliminates everyone. Sealed rooms drown staff. A horribly claustrophobic lift sequence ends in decapitation. It’s a corporate nightmare where a recognizable day at the office turns into mass carnage. And that’s just the opening scene. Resident Evil does not fuck about.
And Resident Evil continues to not fuck about for the whole run time. We have well-spaced set pieces and jump scares all the way through, including but not restricted to: water zombie’s eyes open, Red Queen slices and dices lovely Colin Salmon (indicating anyone is fair game), zombie attack, zombie dog attack, Alice kicks zombie dog in the face, etc…
Resi also does a neat trick with its characters, making them both in the dark (like the audience) but also completely capable in this scenario: Alice, Matt, and Spence have lost their memories. When they come back, the audience knows what’s really going on, but not until then.
And then we have the cast: Milla Jovovich might not be the warmest performer but that’s not what she’s here for; she kicks ass (most of the stunts are her own) and she looks iconic in that dress. The fact that this series ran and ran is at least in part due to her terrific turn. Also, who doesn’t love moody Michelle Rodriguez, and sexy James Purefoy? Also the guy off Ugly Betty is in it!
No one is nominating it for a bunch of Oscars but that is not what Resident Evil was made for. It’s a fast-paced, frisky, and frenetic horror and still a lot of fun, 20 years on.
David Crow: First Rosie, let me say I appreciate you defending at least the early portion of Paul W.S. Anderson’s career. We all know what it became, particularly by the last few Resident Evil movies, but the guy still made the one mildly enjoyable video game adaptation to date, 1995’s kitschy Mortal Kombat, and, yes, Event Horizon.
But the downhill slope begins here 20 years ago to the day with the first Resident Evil. While the movie is a cult classic of sorts for those who were a certain age in 2002, no amount of nostalgia should blind us from the film’s inherent mediocrity. For all its kitsch appeal as a time capsule of early 2000s teenage boy-skewing action movie clichés—lasers! blue color filter! gratuitous nudity! Milla Jovovich karate kicking a zombie dog in the face! (Okay, that last one is pretty cool)—many of the problems that came to bedevil Anderson’s movies, including the RE sequels, are already present.
As with most 21st century PWAS efforts, this is a hand-me-down pastiche of better, then-popular movies. But strangely in this case, it was not zombie movies he pulled from. Instead we’ve got the free falling elevator from Speed, the protagonist amnesia schtick from the first X-Men, the corporate espionage in sci-fi labs, a la Jurassic Park (only this Dennis Nedry decides to let the proverbial dinosaurs out for the lulz), and the wire-fu of The Matrix. Most of all though, it’s just a top-to-bottom knockoff of Aliens, with the whole film’s “Hive” underground setting seemingly built around Anderson wanting to steal Newt’s cryptic little creepy girl line delivery.
And “you’re going to die down here” is no “they mostly come at night. Mostly.”
Through it all, we’re left with a remarkably un-scary piece of derivative drivel. A better cast might have been able to sell this—RE’s sister horror/action franchise at Screen Gems, Underworld, got miles out of hiring great actors like Kate Beckinsale, Michael Sheen, and Bill Nighy to deliver similar nonsense with conviction—but this one? The best they can do is get cut up by an admittedly cool laser hallway set piece. Worst of all though, it began Hollywood’s long legacy of wasting the potential of the genuinely good early Resident Evil games.
RF: Criticizing a zombie sci-fi horror based on a game for being derivative is like criticizing a sandwich for having bread in it! And just right now, when the world is singing the praises of The Batman for being like Se7en and Zodiac, or when Joker came out it was a “ooo, great, it’s like a Scorsese
knockoff film!” seems particularly unfair. As whoever-it-was said, there is nothing new under the sun, and taking cues from movies that Anderson enjoys is no crime. Indeed, he is a self confessed Ridley Scott fan (though, I would agree this owes more to Aliens than Scott’s original).
Secondly, to your point about nostalgia – well we were all a “certain” age in 2002 but I’m going to assume you mean a teenager. Which I was not. I do remember seeing the film at the time and liking it, and also, for the record, not all the Resi sequels are bad, I have a soft spot for Extinction… although that wasn’t actually directed by Anderson, but still…
Anyway, no to the simple nostalgia angle, I rewatched it Sunday and it holds up. It may be true that some teenage boys liked Alice because she was a pretty girl. But I like Alice because she’s the hero. She’s an environmentalist trying to take down a massive corporation. She’s a fighter, who is only rendered “safe” in the first half of the film because of the memory loss business. She refuses to kill Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain even though it would have meant safety for her and the remaining team members. She’s powerful, good, honorable, and cool, and Jovovich has a great screen presence. We celebrate plenty of male stars for being talented martial artists and stunt people, and she deserves her dues here too.
She might walk in Ripley’s footsteps but others have joined her ranks since, and we don’t get mad at Furiosa for having some of Ripley’s DNA. There just aren’t anywhere near as many bad-ass female protagonists (certainly back in 2002 but still now) so the similarities stand out. Find me a female genre protagonist, that *doesn’t* get likened to Ripley one way or another, or a female-led genre franchise that isn’t in Alien’s shadow and I’ll… give you a nice smile and be generally pleased. And you seriously don’t think Newt was the first creepy little kid in a horror movie, I assume?
Films riff on other films. I mean, the number of movies that tip a hat to Die Hard are legion (here are 16 films that are “Die Hard on a…”.) And in fact, re-reading your list, where you say it’s a bit like, Aliens, The Matrix, Jurassic Park, X-Men, and Speed – yeaaaahhhh!!! Isn’t that a film you’d want to see???
Now I can’t speak to whether this movie is true to the games. I have only consistently played Resident Evil Zero and I kept getting stuck places, which doesn’t happen in the film (one point to the movie!). So I am willing to concede if people wanted this film to be a bunch of things because of the games: I’m sorry for you. It happens to me too. I hated the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby so, you know, I feel your pain. But as a standalone, fun, sci-fi horror, Resident Evil is decent, and in no way deserving of the hate.
DC: Well, there is a lot to unpack, not least of all whether we should dig further into comparing Resident Evil (games or films) to Gatsby! But suffice to say that my mentioning of Aliens has nothing to do with an “Alice is Ripley” thought experiment–I too loathe when all female action heroes are put in a Ripley or Sarah Connor box–and more with the fact that Resident Evil, as a film, is such a shameless carbon copy of Cameron’s actioner that it has almost nothing left to say on its own beyond, “didn’t that look cool?” Sure, knockoffs go with the genre territory, but even with the Die Hard clones you mention, some, like, say, Speed, bring a lot more originality to the table than your Sudden Impacts.
Resident Evil is the Sudden Impact of Aliens clones.
I think comparing it to Joker is interesting. In their own way, both movies are pale imitations of another picture’s greatness (which is perhaps why I give The Batman more credit for standing in the footsteps of what came before and then going its own way). I respect your assessment that Alice felt like a refreshing and aspirational character, but much like the emptiness of the larger film, the thinness of her motivations and performance, even though she spares the far cooler Rain, leaves her largely a cipher in my mind.
But moving beyond comparing Resi to its inspirations, the reason that lineage is so bizarrely interesting is because the games genuinely are so much richer and more horrific than anything we’ve seen in a RE movie. They of course had their inspirations too, most obviously George Romero, who directed one of the cooler video game commercials of all time for Resident Evil 2 (the game) and was initially slated to direct the first Resident Evil movie when it was intended to be a horror instead of a studio’s B-action also-ran.
Now, obviously not all zombie movies have to be made by Romero or in his image, but when the Edgar Wright spoof of Resident Evil in the second episode of Spaced does a better job of capturing the tone and aesthetic of the games than any of Anderson’s RE movies, it’s a problem. Especially because the original three games were so insular and self-contained that (unlike most video games) they actually lent themselves to faithful big screen adaptations.
For all their hokey dialogue and questionable voice acting, the video game characters of Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, and Leon Kennedy had better character arcs, stronger motivations, and more convincing dynamics with those around them than Alice did with any other character in seven movies. Similarly, the Umbrella Organization’s menace, and the breadth of its corporate malfeasance, felt strangely apropos of the then-zeitgeist fear of capitalist conspiracies.
Perhaps more importantly, the games were innovative in their medium for eliciting tension, not laughs, inspiring true dread in a player who knows they only have two bullets left and are bleeding from a bite wound and now must cross a narrow hallway crawling with a half-dozen zombies.
The Resident Evil movie throws that all out the window. Umbrella becomes strangely more cartoonish than even in a ‘90s video game; the ammunition seems almost unlimited in set pieces designed to wow and encourage cheers instead of screams; and our heroes are interchangeable meat bags waiting to be picked off–and most of them by lasers, at that! In a movie about zombies, there seemed to be startling few brain cells on-screen.
RF: But Alice is the way this goes in its own direction. If you’re saying she’s not in the mold of Ripley – which I’d agree with – that’s the hook. She’s almost like a sleeper agent, slowly regaining her skills in the midst of a nightmare she doesn’t understand. In that sense, she’s more like Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Not comparing the two, I know Long Kiss is better.
And agreed, Anderson owes a few quid to James Cameron. But Cameron doesn’t seem to mind (he has said it’s his fave guilty pleasure movie). Is Alice a bit lacking in personality – yeah a bit, but that doesn’t detract from her impact as a female genre lead and she does at least have her own agency. Are there other films that are better than Resident Evil? There are. But does that warrant the absolute mauling that this film, a fairly scary (and you can disagree but the zombie in the water gag made me jump out of my skin the first time), pacy, and entertaining B-movie, gets? Nah! Leave it alone!
Are the games better? Probably, yeah. Does that make the movie inherently bad though? Nope. Both can exist in their own spheres.
So it depends whether we are arguing about 1. whether this is a good video game adap (I concede it is perhaps not – I don’t know) 2. Whether this is a masterpiece that stands alongside Romero’s films, Jurassic Park, and The Batman (I’m not a moron) or 3. Whether this film is unfairly maligned because Anderson became an easy target later in his career and some people were angry because this wasn’t the movie they wanted? Judged purely on its own merits in terms of structure, pacing, set pieces, production design, plot twists, atmosphere, and yes, performances, Resident Evil is a very competent three star movie.
DC: Rosie, you’re right that movies should be able to stand on their own two feet (or mutated four if they’re about lickers and zombie dogs!). It is a lousy adaptation of the early and best Resident Evil games. But that doesn’t make it a lousy movie.
Many of its other weak points do. I’m not against guilty pleasures or celebrating genre films where women kick all the ass. I would, again, love to do a retrospective like this with you next year for Underworld’s 20th (which I would assert stands up much better). But with PWSA’s first Resident Evil, the only character who really works is Rodriguez’s taciturn Rain. I’ve already forgotten all the others, and I watched the movie two days ago!
They exist purely as functional avatars–a bit like actual video game NPCs, now that I think about it–walking from A to B to shout exposition and then to trigger a set piece. Two of the spectacles work–lasers and kung-fu fighting dogs–but the rest are a numbing slog because no one on-screen, and nothing they do, matters. And in the last 20 years, its appeal has aged about as well as those CGI licker effects.
Most of the problems that we can agree exist in Anderson’s most recent movies, including those last few RE pictures, are present in the 2002 original. They might be more muted then, but they still cause this to be a hollow, obligatory time killer where almost everything is filler. And in a world with so many better zombie movies–including from the early 2000s which gave us 28 Days Later in the same year as this, and Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and even Zack Snyder’s excellent Dawn of the Dead remake a few years later–there’s little reason to exhume this corpse.
RF: Well I’m with James Cameron. And I don’t even feel guilty about it.