Milla Jovovich: Paul is the only director in history who, it was his dream to make Resident Evil, the movie. Usually you have directors wanting to make their twisted life stories, or these really artistic films about what happened to them as a child that was dysfunctional.
Paul W.S. Anderson: This happened to me as a child!
— Commentary track, Resident Evil DVD
Resident Evil is full of surprises. On its face, it’s just one more movie based on a video game, one more movie about killing zombies, one more movie featuring a fabulous chick hero with a short skirt and a big gun. But look again, and it opens up into a morass of narrative fractures.
Granted, the plot is essentially incoherent, 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, doesn’t get enough screen time to exercise its repeatedly mutating threat to the fullest extent possible. And granted again, this has to do with time and money expenses — according to Paul W.S. Anderson on the DVD commentary track, the digitalization process took forever, some 48 hours to render one frame for the Licker, keeping in mind that each second of film requires 24 frames.
But for all that, Resident Evil, a German-British co-production, is not just another video-game-based movie. It is, rather, a remarkably self-aware and tricky movie, acknowledging upfront that its lack of linear sense is the precisely point of emotional and moral departure for protagonist Alice (Milla Jovovich). This intricacy comes courtesy of 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 (here, in particular, 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 propensity for delusion since then.)
These predilections serve Resident Evil extremely 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 and/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 directions such as, “No!”
During this 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 is designed to “reanimate” cells. The problem is, it not only heals disease (apparently the initial intent), but also brings the dead 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 (as homage, not rip-off). 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 the exquisite 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, one broken-up instant at a time, under bits of dire circumstances. The effect is terrific.
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.
The Red Queen eventually becomes visible as a holographic image, an adorable, British-accented girl (Michaela Dicker), ominously “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). Her appearance in the “heart” of the Hive, a magnificently vast chamber housing rows and rows of old-fashioned-seeming computer “banks,” dark and menacing as if they’ve been puked up out of the time-warped environment of Brazil. As a representation of “evil,” this chamber does its job.
Running counter to the zombies’ havoc, is the film’s primary coherent relationship, between Alice and Rain. Once Rain is bitten by one of those Undeads, she turns increasingly grumpy, such that her skin tone turns paler and more ghoulish and her eyes start rolling back in her head. Yet, Alice grows 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 should kiss you, bitch!” Just then, she’s distracted by some monster-action (in particular, monster-tongue action, as the Licker reappears), 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.
Columbia TriStar’s DVD includes some standard extras, and most of the “featurettes” are interesting in an HBO First Look sort of way (“The Making of Resident Evil,” “The Zombie Makeup Test”). That said, the fact that the set designer is also the costume designer — it is compelling to consider the set designer and costume designer are one and the same, Richard Bridgland, and how this affects the film’s extraordinary look and mood. And it’s certainly good to hear Marilyn Manson’s description of his process with the soundtrack (on which he collaborated with composer Marco Beltram). Using childhood melodies, metal, and horror cues, all synthesized, the soundtrack is a complex nightmare in itself. Manson observes that the music sounds like a combination of source (songs taken from albums) material and scored material, and that they took to calling it “scource.”
Moreover, the DVD commentary track is entertaining and informative. It’s a group effort, by Anderson, Jovovich, Rodriguez, and producer Jeremy Bolt, who also played several zombies and a trooper in the film (the track includes comic discussions of his brief appearances, as he is kicked by Milla or bites Michelle’s arm). The speakers are plainly enjoying themselves, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Rodriguez notes, over a scene where Rain hauls out some large device, “I love power tools!” Or Jovovich notes of her own performance: “I think I’m built for movies like this. I think I’m believable in movies like this. And my little brother thinks I’m supercool now.” And so do we.