Luke Owen looks back at the Resident Evil franchise…
NOTE: Comments from Paul W.S. Anderson are taken from Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made, which is available for pre-order now.
Regular listeners to the Flickering Myth Podcast will know that my movie tastes aren’t the norm when it comes to being a paid ‘film critic’. I have little interest in The Godfather or Citizen Kane, but will happily talk ad nauseam about the Child’s Play series or Friday the 13th. When it comes to Spielberg I’m more Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark than Jaws and Schindler’s List, and I loathe the works of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. I’ve not seen any of the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Not one. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any of last year’s either. Perhaps that’s why I find myself in the minority when it comes to praising Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series, the final chapter of which was recently released.
Friends of mine and those I follow on Twitter certainly aren’t fans. They all seem to think they’re garbage, a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Flickering Myth’s Rob Kojder called Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, “Unprecedented levels of stupidity”, while another friend noted it was, “absolute trash of the highest order”. However one review caught my eye and it sums up my feelings about the franchise.
“I actually quite enjoyed it”, renowned film critic Mark Kermode told Simon Mayo on their Radio 5 Live review show. “It’s rubbish and it doesn’t make much sense, and I sat there thinking it was going to be head-bangingly boring but it was perfectly fine. And Kim Newman was there and Alan Jones was there, and as we all came out Alan Jones and I looked at each other and said ‘that was alright actually, wasn’t it?’ It was rubbish, but as rubbish goes, it was alright rubbish.”
While it’s great to see someone of Kermode’s calibre and stature give (albeit backhanded) praise to the series, it pleases me further that Kim Newman – who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the horror genre – agrees as does Alan Jones, one of the co-founders of FrightFest, the largest horror film festival in Europe.
The first Resident Evil film was released in 2002, which was at the height of my own personal love with the video game series. I was late to the party in getting a PlayStation as I kept a firm grip my Mega Drive Dreams, but I eventually got one along with a copy of Resident Evil 2. Being that my gaming history prior to that was ‘run to the right and complete a level’ or ‘click here and put item a against item b’, the survival horror aspect of Resident Evil 2 threw me for a loop. This wasn’t like Castle of Illusion, this wasn’t like Blade Runner, this wasn’t like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It took me a few go arounds before I realised the smart play was to run around the zombies at the start of the game, as well as the first encounter with the Licker. The more I played it, the more I got hooked. A few months later I did get to play the original Resident Evil, but it didn’t grab me quite as much. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, however, certainly did. I loved being able to explore Raccoon City, I loved the tense atmosphere it created, and I loved the terror that came with Nemesis. I also adored The Mercenaries, and spent hours unlocking all of the little beauties that came along with it.
With such a love of a franchise, the first Resident Evil film should have pissed me off. After all, it was nothing like that games that so beloved to me. There was no Chris, there was no Jill, there was no Wesker, Barry or mansion. What Paul W.S. Anderson had done instead was create a movie about zombies that just so happened to be called Resident Evil. In conversations I’ve had with the writer/director, he has argued that his film was designed to be a prequel to the franchise, a way to explain how the T-Virus escaped Umbrella’s underground facilities. But I could never see it that way. What I wanted was the first game put up on screen. As a fan, the only gleaming light I could take from the experience is they mention Nemesis right at the end to set up a sequel, something I would have loved to have seen on the big screen.
That was back in 2002 when I was an idiot and cynical teenager who was about to finish school. Of course I knew better than Paul W.S. Anderson; I’d completed The Mercenaries on Resident Evil 3 so much I could now play the main game with a rocket launcher while dressed as Regina from Dino Crisis. However as I have grown older (and wiser) and the series has expanded further than it’s ‘prequel to the game’ origins, I’ve learned to appreciate what the Resident Evil film franchise is.
It’s damn good fun. To echo Mark Kermode, it’s actually alright isn’t it?
What Anderson has done with his series is create a film franchise that builds on a world created by the games; he expands upon the mythos and characters and takes them in a new direction. While many may complain about him ‘taking liberties’, it’s no different to what Marvel Studios do with their Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: Civil War took the basic plot of Mark Millar’s comic (Tony Stark and Steve Rogers argue over superhero registration) and adapted it to work within the MCU structure. It totally worked for their universe. You could argue that Iron Man 2 is a loose adaptation of Demon in a Bottle and Edgar Wright always said his original Ant-Man script (which was used as the basis for the final movie) was based on the Marvel Premiere #47 story To Steal an Ant-Man. By basing his Resident Evil movies on his own stories rather than the ones from the games, he had more of a licence to play with. Things like this are important when crafting a universe.
Capcom, quite rightly, wouldn’t have allowed for Anderson to kill off important characters from the game series. But if he has characters of his own creation, he can kill, maim, bludgeon, impale and have them eaten by the living dead. He can also take classic villains like Nemesis and Tyrant and put them in different situations to the games they came from. Albert Wesker doesn’t need to be a S.T.AR.S. double agent that is revealed in a not-so-surprising twist, he can just be the puppet master for Umbrella. “I always felt, the last thing anyone wants to see is a straight adaptation,” Anderson told me. “That way you know all the twists and turns. You know that Wesker is the bad guy, you know which characters are going to die. I’ve always likened it to the first Alien. If somebody had told you the order in which all the characters are going to die and that Sigourney Weaver is going to be the only survivor, it would ruin the movie for you. And I remember watching that movie for the first time and being on tenterhooks the whole time and being shocked that Sigourney Weaver survived as I was worried she would die too. And I think, for video game fans, if you just do a straight adaptation, you know every twist and turn of the narrative. And where’s the fun and enjoyment in that?” He jokingly added: “Of course, my nuts were put on the roasting fire for deviating too much, but I feel that what I liked about the video game franchise is that every single time a new installment came out they used different characters. And often they were in different locations. When they did the second one, they didn’t stay in the mansion, and they didn’t have Jill Valentine. They moved to Raccoon City and you met new characters. And everyone loved it. So I thought the movie should be another installment of the video game. It’s set within the world of Resident Evil, but we’re telling a fresh new story with new people.”
Anderson has also successfully given each film its own unique style. The first is a haunted house movie, the second has elements of Escape From New York, while the third is a Mad Max-esque road trip apocalypse film. At its core, the fourth film is a siege movie and the fifth film is like a living video game. Likewise they all have their own colour palette and look. Even when he’s not directing (which he didn’t do for Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Resident Evil: Extinction due to commitments on AVP: Alien vs. Predator and Death Race respectively), you can see his influence in terms of visuals and aesthetics. It makes each new installment all the more exciting as you’re not just going to get the same film you did previously. Furthermore, Anderson cleverly drops hints and set-ups that entice you to see the next entry in the series. The first film ends with the tease of Nemesis, the second with Alice under Umbrella’s control, the third with a clone army taking Umbrella down, so on and so on.