A sinister conglomerate is secretly conducting experiments in a huge laboratory called The Hive, located beneath Racoon City. An artificially intelligent supercomputer may or may not have gone berzerk. An elite task force investigating the scene is getting sliced and diced by laser beams in an elaborate booby trap. And zombie dogs are on the loose. This must be Resident Evil.
If you wouldn’t come to that conclusion your own, then you’re not much of a videogamer. You’re also, therefore, way outside the target market for Resident Evil, un film de Paul W. S. Anderson that tries to build on the dubious success he enjoyed with his fighting-game-based Mortal Kombat. On the evidence, Anderson seems better at attaching himself to nifty concepts than he is at actually directing movies. Mortal Kombat, for instance, was an early harbinger of the enduring renaissance in martial-arts pictures, and his Event Horizon came up with the idea of remaking Solaris years before Steven Soderbergh got around to it. Even the expensive, ill-fated Soldier benefited from an interesting screenplay by Blade Runner scribe David Webb Peoples.
This time around, Anderson himself wrote the screenplay, his first since his 1994 debut, Shopping. Somebody should have told him to pick up a collaborator. Though the bulk of the film consists ideas stolen from Alien used as a framework for propping up ideas stolen from Dawn of the Dead, Anderson has a strong enough visual style that Resident Evil is more watchable than it should be. (Cinematographer David Johnson gets some of the same richness of color that he displayed in the exceptionally good-looking An Ideal Husband.) What it’s missing is character — a sense that any of the people trapped in The Hive deserve to get out alive.
The storyline, oh yeah, is your typical hoo-hah about a shadowy multinational corporation’s germ research gone bad, resulting in a deadly-virus-on-the-loose setting with lots of biohazard signs littering the walls. The implicit criticism of the military-industrial complex is muted not only by the fact that Alien did it first and did it better but also because Anderson chooses to make the ultimate villain of the piece not the aptly named Umbrella Corp., but an overzealous anti-corporate terrorist. The subtext doesn’t matter so much; longtime readers of this site probably suspect that I will sit through just about anything involving zombies and/or Milla Jovovich, but Resident Evil proves that it’s awfully hard to make a decent zombie movie and still score an R rating. The zombies in Dawn of the Dead felt menacing because when they got close enough to you, boy howdy, they would disembowel you and feast on your guts. The zombies in Resident Evil get close to you and then just kind of gnaw feebly at you as though they’re trying to gum you to death. One thing’s for sure: If George Romero had directed this movie, it wouldn’t have taken the protagonists a full hour to determine that in order to kill a zombie you must shoot it in the head.
But Anderson is clearly not a moron. Resident Evil may be the first videogame-based film to give much thought to the nature of videogames themselves. Protagonist Alice (Jovovich) wakes up naked, collapsed in a bathtub, with no memory of who she is or why she find herself in a capacious old house. (Given our expectations for this film, we’re not sure why she’s there, either.) As Alice investigates her surroundings, she gets hints about the nature of her life — we see the glint of fear and maybe excitement in her eyes as she discovers a weapon, for instance, and we’re encouraged to discover her backstory along with her, as quick flashbacks roar across the screen when she’s introduced to people that stir memories within her. She is the player character, and such piecemeal discoveries about an environment are hallmarks of a videogame narrative.
So your ability to enjoy Resident Evil will be determined to some degree by your satisfaction with Alice herself. Michelle Rodriguez is a striking presence but a mumbler, and the two men whose loyalties Alice is trying to sort out are so bland that I had a hard time remembering which was which. Jovovich is clearly the star attraction. Here, as in The Fifth Element, she is a woman of few words. She barely speaks, instead spending most of the film with her eyes wide open, trying to figure out what the hell is happening. She wears a tiny red dress that shows her off to good advantage throughout, and when she cuts loose, her foot connecting with the chin of a zombie Doberman, for example, the lithe acrobatics are breathtaking. Plus, I’m a sucker for the whole beautiful-woman-surrounded-by-death schtick that Anderson indulges in here.
What’s most interesting about Anderson’s movies is that they are at least partly successful on a level that has nothing to do with their pedestrian stories. The first couple of reels of Resident Evil, beginning with the sequence in which somebody unleashes a lethal virus into the circulation system of The Hive and then continuing through the weird segue to Alice’s insomniac awakening, is dark and compelling. The movie doesn’t become so effective again until the very ending, an apocalyptic coda that’s more upsetting than any of the film’s more conventionally plotted zombie shenanigans. Resident Evil is not a very good film, but it shares with other Anderson pictures a sensibility that can veer sharply in unexpected directions. When this guy leaves narrative behind and works on instinct, he can really leave an impression.
Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Edited by Alexander Berner
Cinematography by David Johnson
Starring Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY