DECEMBER 28, 2016
Even though I saw it when it came out, it's still hard to remember that when the first Resident Evil movie came out in 2002, it was the first zombie movie in multiplexes in nearly a decade (the last one was My Boyfriend's Back, which shouldn't even count since it was a Disney comedy). There were a few indie/foreign ones, of course, but the sub-genre - which had never really been a major box office success in the US - was deader than slashers are now. However, video game movies were chugging along at a fairly steady rate, with the previous year yielding Tomb Raider, which is and remains the biggest game-to-movie hit of all time. While nowadays the zombie aspect would be what got it in theaters, back then it was almost a red flag - it's kind of crazy how much things have changed in the past 15 years. Imagine a world with so few zombie movies that we would flock to this one out of sheer desperation!
Given how no other game to live-action movie series has lasted past a 2nd entry, it's also crazy that the series is still going, with the sixth and so-called Final Chapter* hitting theaters next month after a lengthy gap between it and the previous installment, 2012's Retribution. These things came out like clockwork every 2-3 years, but with Retribution's muted reception Stateside (it cleaned up overseas) and Milla Jovovich's pregnancy, we had to wait over four years, which might as well be an eternity for my increasingly forgetful mind. So I figured I'd revisit the series to refresh my memory (I'm gonna try to do the same for Underworld, a series of films I couldn't follow in the first place), and review this and Apocalypse since those came before HMAD (I might also give Retribution a proper review if I have the time, since the joke doesn't work as well now, as people probably forget it came out on the same day as The Master). I honestly don't know if I ever watched this one again since it first came to DVD, so my memory is dim enough to qualify it as a proper HMAD review (instead of a "non canon" one), so it was kind of fun to go back and watch it with fresh-ish eyes.
One thing I never really appreciated before is how the movie really does function as a prequel to the game series, as I forgot that it didn't have a single actual character (well, human character anyway) from the game(s). I recall being mildly annoyed with it at the time, but looking back, it makes sense. While the game series eventually did do their own prequel (later that year, if memory serves), at that point we never really got the whole story of how the outbreak occurred, where the hunters came from, etc. Not that the movie is canon with the game series in any way (it's probably contradictory, if anything), but it's a fine way to go about working within the parameters of that world without boring players with an exact retelling or pissing them off with changes. They throw in references to the hallmarks - the T-virus, Umbrella, Raccoon City, etc. - without screwing up the characters we may love. Indeed, one thing that always bugs me in the movie series as it's gone on is how certain characters are treated, i.e. Barry in the last one. As the franchise has gone on, Alice (Milla's character, an original) rarely meets other original characters, but finds herself allied by game heroes more and more often. It puts those films at a disadvantage that this first one didn't really have to deal with - it kind of has a blank slate here.
That's not to say it's particularly great or even better than the others (I have trouble ranking them since none are great and they kind of blur together, though I know Extinction is my LEAST favorite, at least in my memory - I'll do a ranking when I finish this refresh!), but it's nice to watch without rolling my eyes that a game character was awkwardly shoehorned in (like Claire in Extinction, an obvious replacement for Jill), or being confused at the narrative. They never really adapted any particular game, but they certainly retained the games' insistence on being convoluted. No one stays dead, people just disappear in between entries, clones are thrown into the mix... all I want is to see Milla Jovovich kicking monsters and zombies, why can't they just be satisfied with that? Why all of the gobbledygook? But this one's pretty straightforward - Alice wakes up with amnesia and within a few minutes a bunch of commando badasses take her under their protection (along with another guy played by Eric Mabius) and explain the situation to her as they work to contain the outbreak and make their way back out. I forgot that Wesker and his ilk aren't even in the movie - there's no real human villain until one guy turns on them late in the film. It's just the zombies, monsters, and lasers.
It's also got a lot of door opening, a fun little nod to the older games that used such actions as loading screens. Paul WS Anderson defends it on one of the bonus features, saying that you never knew if a door would lead to an empty hallway or a pack of monsters, and so he tried to incorporate that here - it's actually kind of successful in a "what will be next?" way, though it rarely offers that sort of creeping dread that the game did. One key difference is that the game had you alone and often severely underpowered, making even a single zombie a bit of a challenge in some instances - but these are hardasses with machine guns and three or four other people watching their back. So the film is never scary in the traditional sense, opting for a more action driven style that isn't necessarily a bad thing in theory, but makes Anderson's attempts to live up to the game in that sense very underwhelming. Silent Hill did a fine job of retaining the game's sense of atmosphere and terror, I think - if Anderson was even trying to scare the audience here, he kinda botched it.
But he keeps it moving, and unlike the game he doesn't backtrack - our characters are always moving from A to B to C, not going in circles like the game often had you doing back then (they've since moved past that, and, perhaps partly because of the films' success, also moved more toward action than horror). He's got a big hard-on for Aliens, and so he follows Cameron's lead by offing the badass types at an even clip while letting the "civilians" take charge as it goes, with Alice in the Ripley role. Most of the action revolves around turning this thing on or opening that door, with the backstory about the virus delivered mostly via flashback or expository dialogue from Mabius' character. He also keeps the enemies fresh - they first fight a bunch of zombies, then the dogs, then different zombies, then a hunter, in addition to the ticking clock scenario adding to the excitement. The CGI is a mixed bag, of course, and the film isn't as bloody as it could have been with an R rating (the film's most famous kill, of the laser grid slicing a guy up into little chunks, is almost entirely off-screen, though we get to see that cool oozing eye at least), but the sheer variety makes up for it, and it's of course fun to see two females as the leads in this kind of thing. The games always had a female and male combo, but since the two male characters of note don't do that much (one of them turns villain) and they're the ones on the poster, it does the games one better - you get Jill AND Claire, essentially, instead of one or the other. Even better, no one makes a big deal out of it - one guy questions Michelle Rodriguez's ability to open a heavy door early on, but otherwise it's not any battle of the sexes statement or anything - they're just competent fighters and the guys respect that, end of story. When filmmakers go overboard making their female heroines superior to the males and constantly showing off said superiority, you end up with angry trolls perceiving it as a threat or an insult on men, and all the fun gets taken out of it. Just let them simply BE and only the worst of the worst will be whining into their little void, while the rest of us can simply enjoy or dislike the movie on its own merits without it becoming a target for some ongoing political/social commentary.
Now, you can't bring up this movie without someone whining about how they fired George Romero and hired a guy whose name elicits the same sort of derision usually reserved for Michael Bay and Uwe Boll. Alas, as someone who was also sure that a serious crime had been committed, I read Romero's script back in the day, and it kind of sucked. It was more or less a retelling of the first game, albeit with some odd changes (Chris and Jill were lovers, blah), but it was just dull as dirt. Granted, I played the game so I knew the beats, and presumably a good chunk of the audience would not be as familiar, but I've also read books that got turned into movies and found them engaging, so there's more to it than that. And with that one change he'd already be annoying a good chunk of the gamers, so even though I don't think Anderson made a particularly great film, I DO think his is better than what Romero's would have been like (if that script was used) and that he made the right call to go into prequel/blank slate mode so people could judge it on its own accord. Granted, it'd be a better example if the movie was really good instead of OK, but we gotta take what we can get here.
What say you?
P.S. Since someone might be wondering - as far as the games go, I played 1-3 on the PS1, Code Veronica and 4 on PS2, and 5-6 on Xbox 360 (and RE1/Code Veronica were the primary draws when I bought my PS1/2, respectively). I never finished 2, 4, or 6, however; I got stuck on 2, had too much trouble with the controls on 4 (I've since bought the Xbox version but haven't played yet), and just plain didn't like 6 enough to finish it. I own Zero and the Revelations games but haven't played them yet. I also did the RE-themed "escape room" recently and we were told that we were the 2nd fastest group yet. Boom!
*No horror film with that (or similarly "final") subtitle has ever proven to be the last one.