There appears to be little to recommend Resident Evil, aside from the poster, which does, admittedly, kick ass — surly girl Milla Jovavich, in short red dress and black boots, hefting a large gun and backed up by the ever-glowering Michelle Rodriguez. This promotional design, if not entirely true to the film’s plot (the girls don’t spend nearly enough time together) is entirely understandable: who wouldn’t want to watch this dynamic duo battle evil?
But there’s lots stacked against this film: it’s financed by a startup production company (Constantin Film, based in Germany) that set out to make “an international action picture” (not a terrifically admirable goal) and based on a beloved video game series, which is, of course, the kiss of death, any which-way you look at it, from Super Mario Brothers to Dungeons & Dragons to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Much as you might be rooting for Surly Girl and Surlier Sidekick, you’re likely walking into the theater with a sinking feeling in your gut.
But then it starts, and Resident Evil is not quite what you’re expecting. Granted, the plot is essentially incoherent, chucky-full of the kinds of obstacles and tests that take up time in video games, and the flesh-eating zombies business looks more unoriginal splatter-mongering than cunning homage to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. (Here, they’re called the Undead.) And granted, the ultimate monster-thingy, called the Licker, is unimpressive — slimy and repeatedly mutating, but not so frightening or new as to make you fret much.
What saves it (as much as it can be saved, given all that stacking), and makes it one of the better video-game-based flicks, is that the film acknowledges upfront that the plot makes no sense, such that the lack of linearity is the point of emotional and moral departure for protagonist Alice (Milla Jovavich). This is likely attributable to the delirious genius of co-writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, whose dark predilections for constructing Terrible Places and fragmenting the heck out of narratives (Alice in Wonderland-style) made his previous film, Event Horizon, an alarming and smart, if not entirely successful SF-horror adventure. (He also directed Soldier, but he’s apparently refined his delirium since then.)
These predilections serve Resident Evil well. It opens at a moment that might be best described as mid-psychosis, that is, the titular evil is overtaking the residence, a research facility owned by the ominously named Umbrella Corporation (which owns or exploits essentially everything on earth) and called, again ominously, the Hive. This facility exists beneath someplace called Raccoon City, whose citizens depend on the Umbrella Corporation for food, air, etc., and it’s where Umbrella develops such consumables, along with military technologies, bioengineering, and viral weapons.
Within seconds, the Hive’s technicians, scientists, and administrative types are under attack by the computer that oversees the facility. And though you won’t find this out until later, the computer is called Red Queen, now “gone homicidal.” Elevators stop, rooms fill with gas or water, Dobermans jump and bark in their cages. And all the people die. The fact that the Red Queen is behind the murderous rampage is made plain in the appeal that all the victims beseech the surveillance cameras, their red “record” lights ominously on, before the shots cut to point of view images, so you’re looking on the desperate victims shouting at you/the camera/the computer, as they scream useful things like, “No!”
Later, when the Red Queen becomes visible as a holographic image (this is the image you’re seeing in the ads for the film and its metalish soundtrack cd), she’s a cute British-accented girl (Michaela Dicker), reportedly “modeled after the designer’s daughter.” Her major responsibility is to tell the human protagonists, “You’re all going to die down here,” which is not a little distressing, coming from this small, red-effected, see-through child, and not a little reminiscent of Event Horizon.
Okay, that was digression. During all the initial devastation and murder, some unknown someone has let loose a bright blue liquid, which you later learn is the T-virus. Alert! Alert! Biohazard alert! This virus, you learn much later in the film, courtesy of the Red Queen, in fact, is designed to “reanimate” cells. And so, the dead bodies all come back to life, with only one idea on their non-existent minds — to “feed.” Hence, the Living Dead imagery, much of it lifted directly from Romero. The ghouls throw themselves on appalled living humans’ necks, mouths agape, and they’re most definitively killable by one very familiar means — “Shoot ’em in the head.” The shooters, that is, the characters based on the video game subject positions, are primarily a SWAT-looking team of government soldiers: One (a.k.a. Team Leader, played by Colin Salmon), Rain (Rodriguez), computer-guy Kaplan (Martin Crewes), got-your-back-guy JD (Pasquale Aleardi), and assorted expendables, designated as Commando 1, Commando 2, etc.
The team arrives in gas masks, black uniforms, outfitted with large weapons and loads of attitude. And their first apparent mission is to rescue Alice, who doesn’t know who she is yet. Alice’s amnesia (brought on by the computer’s “defense mechanism,” some nerve gassy business) is Resident Evil‘s best trick. For, as Alice flashes back in brief blitzy moments, figuring out who she is and how she came to be in this mess, you find out (sort of) where you are too (and frankly, the longer this revelation is put off, the better, for the plot can’t seem to help but be simplistic and uninteresting — not knowing is much better).
Alice first wakes just after the attack on the Hive, and here you see that she lives in a huge mansion. (Her eye pops open in extreme close-up, marking a next chapter, and at the end of the film, the same image implies a sequel, or maybe just the next game in the series.) Come to find out that this mansion hides an entrance to the Hive, by way of underground tunnels, when the SWAT-ish team shows up to get access to the Hive. Also come to find out that Alice is a totally exquisite operative: she kicks and runs up and down walls, and shoots with deadly perfect aim. Her memory returns, sort of like Geena Davis’s in The Long Goodnight, one broken-up instant at a time, under bits of dire circumstances.
Okay, another digression. (But really, the movie invites them — at its best, it’s all about splintered identities and dislocated sensibilities.) The basic idea here is that the team must journey to the center of the Hive, where it confronts the Red Queen, then has to get back out. They encounter various problems, for instance, the Laser Hallway, where a beam slices through human bodies to produce fall-away parts; it’s more conceptual than visual… though the concept is pretty darn nasty. Or, Alice, temporarily separated from the SWAT-ish team, meets up with a herd of Zombie Dogs (the aforementioned Dobermans, transformed into flesh-out creepy-crawlers by the T-virus). They’re unarguably nasty bits of work, and she dispatches them efficiently, with great panache. Cue audience cheers.
When Alice is not beating down dogs or confronting the Red Queen, she’s bonding with Rain. This is, as the movie’s promoters know, its best potential for drama, action, spectacle, or romance. But the film itself can’t quite put its money where that mouth is: the girls don’t get to spend enough quality time together. Once Rain is bitten by one of those Undeads, she turns increasingly grumpy, which showcases Rodriguez’s patented look-down-look-up glare (where the whites of her eyes take over for the irises). Perhaps worse, her skin tone turns undeader and undeader.
It’s obviously gross, yet Alice just seems to grow fonder of her new compatriot. And when Rain comes back from what looks to be a for sure goner-snooze, Alice delivers the film’s most precious one-liner: “I’m gonna kiss you, bitch!” Just then, she’s distracted by some monster-action, and the moment is lost. Such is the general rhythm of Resident Evil, a series of good ideas — the screwed-up narrative, the amnesiac hero — with too little room to move.