The last Resident Evil movie, Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), ended with superheroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) vowing to take down the evil, virus-unleashing Umbrella Corporation with help from her genetically engineered superclones. You may not remember this because the Resident Evil movies are not really designed to be remembered. They’re action-horror diversions slipped in between bigger events in both of those genres. Regardless, Resident Evil: Afterlife does indeed fulfill the promise of an army of Milla Jovoviches laying waste to an underground post-apocalyptic bunker.
The mission to destroy Umbrella’s headquarters serves only as a prologue, though, and soon Alice is back to her usual business, not just the business of previous Resident Evil movies, but that of any number of zombie movies from Romero onward. She finds a group of disparate survivors, and together they must fight their way toward a chance for freedom. In the past, this has taken place in an underground lab, a quarantined city, and a barren desert; in this fourth installment, the humans are barricaded in an abandoned prison. Even the telepathic powers Alice developed in the third movie are chemically subdued in this one, though to what degree, the movie is characteristically unclear.
This has become something of a Resident Evil trademark, promising ever more expansive and/or apocalyptic story turns in the final moments of one film, only to revert back to less ambitious zombie-shooting in the opening moments of the next, and getting away with it because no one remembers what happened in a Resident Evil movie from three years ago. In a sense, the Resident Evil movies serve as a canny reflection of the videogames on which they’re based. The story moves forward nominally while more or less hitting the reset button each time.
Resident Evil: Afterlife coasts on the same energies as its predecessors—ample inanity, convincing action figures, enthusiastic borrowing from every genre movie in sight—and is more or less equally dependable as B-movie entertainment. In other words, the fact that founding director and continuing screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson returns to the helm here is only minimally notable—apart from his abiding love of slow-motion, which must add at least 10 minutes to the film’s running time. Indeed, Anderson isn’t even as solid a craftsman as, say, Russell Mulcahy, the Highlander vet who steered the third movie, but his work is watchable. His slow-mo fetish at least makes the ridiculous action clear rather than hideously overcut, which in turn makes the 3D version of the film agreeable rather than headache-inducing.
Anderson also holds unique qualifications in the specialized field of Jovovich adoration. She’s his real-life spouse, and key to this franchise, too. B-movie rules allow her to play tough like Angelina Jolie without shoehorning in quasi-feminine vulnerability. Alice is unshakeable. No matter the weapon at her disposal—shotguns, machetes, swords—she will find a way to hold one in each hand while doing flips.
It’s all quite familiar, then, but Resident Evil movies are not about surprise or nuance. Anderson adds the tiniest morsel of satire by having this new, Los Angeles-based group of survivors consist of Hollywood types (a producer, an intern, an aspiring actress), but he won’t allow this to mess with his zombie-ensemble formula. If athlete Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) seems like a strong, sexy, stand-up type of guy, that’s probably how he’ll behave, and if sleazy producer Bennett (Kim Coates) seems like a wormy, disloyal type, then, well, the movie’s videogamey code writes itself.
And if Umbrella baddie Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) menaces Alice at the front of the movie and then disappears, you can guess when you’ll see him again, promising big things for Resident Evil 5. Most likely it’ll be about as good as Afterlife, which even steals from geek movies that not many geeks even like all that much (it’s the software of Matrix Reloaded meets the hardware of Land of the Dead!). Just as likely: it will show again that silly genre exercises don’t have to be expensive, pretentious or incoherent.