After fifteen years and six films, the RESIDENT EVIL film franchise has reached its FINAL CHAPTER…if you want to believe that. I mean, let’s face it, we’ve seen FINAL titles before in series that blasted past them soon enough. And with soft reboots and complete relaunches, who’s to say there won’t be another RESIDENT EVIL in a few years’ time? In fact, it’s probably a certainty.
Where was I? Oh yes…after fifteen years and six films, the RESIDENT EVIL film franchise is wrapping things up (yeah, yeah). So to celebrate the big finale (now in theaters as I post this), I thought it was time to provide my take on the entire series to date. I had already covered the first film in depth in ZOMBIEMANIA many years ago, but now it was time to watch all of it – every movie, every mid-air twirl, every bullet casing with the Umbrella logo lovingly shot in slo-mo as it fell to the floor. I was joined by Accidental Hellraiser Scholar Natalie Litofsky, and together we queued up one DVD after another.
The team is assembled, so let’s get to reopening the Hive! We want to know what went on down there…
(NOTE: I usually give a film a “brain” rating in my reviews, but in order not to break up the flow, I’ll hold those until the very end.)
RESIDENT EVIL (2002)
It’s too easy sometimes, but it’s as true here as it often is with other long-running series – the first film is still the best. A tightly-constructed, claustrophobic, atmospheric action horror romp, RESIDENT EVIL does what it needs to do and does it well. It sets up its characters nicely, including the memory mystery at the heart of Alice’s dilemma as our heroine – played as she ever will be by stalwart Milla Jovovich (in a performance of confidence and conviction throughout all the insanity the series will one day throw at her) – wakes up into a world that will soon turn upside down.
Joining her are notable cast mates like Colin Salmon, James Purefoy, Michelle Rodriguez (doing her usual badass routine), and Eric Mabius, among others. The movie also employs good old-fashioned shambling zombies – reanimated by the T-Virus rather than space radiation, which opens the door for some seriously problematic mutations later in the series – it has some fantastic action sequences including the razor-sharp laser corridor scene, and it has a propulsive score with a satisfyingly contained environment for zombie mayhem.
True, there are some clunky expository moments, but that’s more or less just a nice nod to the series’ video game origins – and the Hive map does provide a good way to orient the audience as to the location of our heroes during the story. The story rolls along relentlessly toward a stunning conclusion, and as I’ve often observed elsewhere, this has what may be not only one of my favorite final shots in zombie genre history but film in general. As the camera pulls up to reveal a ruined city, the foreboding setting for Alice’s next big challenge, the movie ends on a promise that the sequel will ultimately fail to fulfill in spectacular fashion. About that…
RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004)
Squandering the superb setup from the end of the first film, APOCALYPSE is not nearly as bad as I used to think…but that’s only because the series still has so far to fall. Eschewing the clear direction and stylish lighting from its predecessor, this movie adopts the awful “shaky cam” approach to action that prevents viewers from getting a bead on anything, adding some silly slow motion strobing for additional ill effect. Sienna Guillory makes her first appearance as Jill Valentine in a scene that immediately demonstrates how incapable she is of speaking or behaving like a human in any way (but for game fans, at least she’s wearing the right outfit).
There are some decent set pieces, including the relatively rare “corpses clawing out of cemetery graves” gambit that people only think the genre is all about, and a cute horde of zombie kids having a reporter for lunch. Alice is now officially bonded with the T-Virus and becomes a full-fledged superhero, even though she already had one hell of a midair zombie dog drop-kick in the first film.
What starts as a painful comedy stereotype with LJ (Mike Epps) results in one of the movie’s only likable characters, and Oded Fehr (of THE MUMMY fame) is pretty well wasted. As for Eric Mabius’ Matt, he’s mutated into the Nemesis creature (no longer played by Mabius), giving the movie a chance for a final boss fight with more shaky cam. The movie ends on a sinister note that will be addressed about midway through the next film with a couple lines of dialogue. And on we go…
RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007)
It’s a brave thing to drastically change the style and setting of a series in its third installment, but EXTINCTION benefits from the shift as well as the direction of HIGHLANDER helmer Russell Mulcahy, following series originator Paul W.S. Anderson and APOCALYPSE director Alexander Witt (whose IMDb page will clearly show how that worked out for him as far as other directing gigs). The desert setting and accompanying sandy color palette offer a stark contrast to the metallic blues of the first two films, and Alice’s now brown gear fits in nicely with her new surroundings (but really girl, stop cutting your own hair with a weed whacker). In fact, she’s now taken a step up from superhero to Messiah, with her blood a possible cure (they’re going to drop that entirely soon enough though). Ali Larter joins up as Claire Redfield but doesn’t add much presence, while two additions from APOCALYPSE get dramatic exits.
There’s a nice tribute to Bub from DAY OF THE DEAD in one scene, and that’s not all – this one seems to be very interested in paying homage to everything from THE OMEGA MAN to the PLANET OF THE APES movies to THE BIRDS…or is that ZOMBIE 5: KILLING BIRDS? And after almost entirely ignoring or obscuring them in APOCALYPSE, the zombies are back with a vengeance here, sporting some excellent textured makeup designs. Some of them are even capable of being trained as a sort of zombie strike force, but fortunately they don’t do anything as silly as arm them and give them motorcycles (just wait until RETRIBUTION).
Besides Alice’s magic blood, EXTINCTION also establishes a number of cold hard facts about the state of the world that the rest of the series will completely ignore, like the drying up of the oceans (which are miraculously just fine in a movie or two). The movie ends with the films’ second-best finale, setting up an army of Alices – or is that a Wonderland of Alices? – that will take the fight directly to Umbrella. Surely the series wouldn’t throw away this setup like it did the one from the first movie? I mean, surely the next installment is a feature-length war of Alices Vs. Umbrella, right? Right?
RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (2010)
Wrong. Eliminating the entire army of Alices in the opening sequence, AFTERLIFE is the beginning of a major downturn in quality for the franchise, topped (or bottomed if you like) in its ineptitude and embarrassingly bad 3D-reliant “special” effects only by its immediate successor. Although RETRIBUTION holds the record for letting go of any semblance of logic even in the relative unreality of the RESIDENT EVIL series, this movie begins to sever the series’ ties with sensibility in several ways.
As a primary villain, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) is actually laughable – his every exaggerated neck crack (please, can we retire this from all movies now?), his you-want-to-punch-his-smug-face smirk, and his painfully obvious Agent (“MATRIX“) Smith shtick made us laugh out loud. And when he gets half of his own head shot off and still comes back only to get blown up at the end (only to return again next time), it eliminates any tension whatsoever; the man is just a walking Looney Tune.
Speaking of cartoons, Alice loses her powers but continues to flip through the air and survive fiery crashes with no trouble; some of the composited shots of her and her clones swinging or plummeting generated more laughs. And who needs powers? One guy with no bonded cells manages to stop a plane from going over the side of a building with his bare hands, while Claire does a run up a wall and twirls over an opponent easily enough.
As for her opponent, what the hell was that giant FINAL FANTASY Axe Monster? He shows up with no explanation whatsoever – one simple line of dialogue referring to him as another product of the Nemesis program could have covered it. As for the now flower-mouthed THING-like zombies, apart from the bad CGI, they’re just a very stupid concept (source game faithfulness notwithstanding).
BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “I didn’t know this was a comedy!”
As you can surely tell, this is the movie that really started to lose me. Now for some – especially game fans – the later installments may be more satisfying because they begin to utilize some of the weirder creatures and elements from those games, reality be damned. But for me, the film series narrative starts to go off the rails as everything transforms into much more of a heightened live-action animé than a zombie movie. This one ends with the shocking return of a previous character who is so unrecognizable here compared to her last appearance, you’d have to know that’s how she looked in later games; that shows no respect for those that only watch the movies, but hold on – it’s about to get much worse…
RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012)
Starting with a backwards-running sequence that rips off the concept from the DEAD ISLAND game trailer released one year earlier, and following that with an extended copy of the 2004 DAWN OF THE DEAD opening, here is without a doubt the worst film in the series…at least as far as I know as of this writing. There are tons of visual callbacks and a number of familiar faces from as far back as the first film returning in roles that give them nothing good to do but only serve to pander to an audience that will merely look at the faces and say, “Hey it’s him/her again!” or “I recognize that!”
BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “Is this entire movie about them getting out of the facility?” (ANSWER: Yes, pretty much.)
In particular, the introduction of Ada Wong suffers from the worst kind of disregard for moviegoers – she’s never given any proper backstory or character, relying entirely on game fans that will simply see her in her distinctive outfit and be happy she’s flesh and blood. As a non-game viewer, I still require characters to have personality and purpose; she has neither.
If the humans are zombie-like in their development, the zombies are by contrast bizarrely developed to comedic levels. The undead in this series long ago started running rather than shambling, as well as sprouting flower-mouth appendages and other assorted lunacy, but now we have the “Las Plagas” zombies with uniforms, guns, chainsaws, and motorcycles. As for their creators, Umbrella’s motivations have grown so convoluted and insane, one wonders what their end game is if they intend to still function as a corporate entity at all (more on this below).
Moving on from homages in previous films to flat-out thievery, this movie also grafts a random sudden surge of motherhood onto Alice in a duplicate – right down to the alien cocoons – of the Ripley/Newt ALIENS relationship, while the Red Queen has gone full Skynet (from TERMINATOR, of course), waging war on Mankind. The endless city simulation sequences are just an excuse to shoehorn some disaster porn into the series, snow and ice don’t appear to make anyone cold anymore, and if you enjoyed the unexplained Axe Monster in the last one, here are two! Sigh.
ANOTHER BONUS NATALIE QUOTE: “So the entire world ended because one dude thought he could make some money on some stuff.”
RETRIBUTION is definitely one of the worst big-budget films it’s ever been my misfortune to see, a tidal wave of nonsensical visuals with no underlying plot, no sense of character, and little to no consideration for the reality established by the previous movies, to say nothing of its contempt for moviegoers’ intelligence. With this as the last installment before the FINAL CHAPTER, one would be forgiven for contemplating whether or not to give the sixth movie a miss, but when you’ve gone this far, and the winged Hell demons are already dive-bombing the White House…
RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2016)
As I write this, the final installment (yeah, right) of the series is out in theaters. What do we have to look forward to? If I were to guess based on the most recent film, nothing good, but hope springs eternal – even in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by a massive malevolent conglomerate. I’ll share my thoughts on THE FINAL CHAPTER when I can, but for now we leave Alice and her many friends and enemies on the precipice of Hell itself. For anyone else brave enough to attempt to binge-watch these films in a weekend as Natalie and I did, you may well find yourself feeling much like Alice, staring blankly out at a nonsenical, hellish landscape of fire and destruction, wondering how everything went so wrong…
Before we get to the ratings, a few last general comments about the Umbrella Corporation:
• They sure do love their branding. Forgot where you work? Just look at the floor or the wall or literally any piece of technology and there the logo will be to remind you.
• Where do they get all that space? Umbrella sure does love enormous architecture, but the underground facilities in particular just get crazier and crazier, from the ship that’s clearly bigger on the inside (calling the Doctor from DOCTOR WHO), to the primary base under Tokyo that looks bigger than the city above it? How did they build that thing? And at this point, shouldn’t the Earth just be imploding after Umbrella has managed to dig out everything under the crust to build their endless array of secret bases?
• The cybercrab controller that debuts in AFTERLIFE also brings up a question: Why bother doing that when you can simply kill an uncooperative individual and clone them endlessly into mindless minions, like they do with, oh, everyone else they have working for them? And why did it take virtually an entire movie for Alice to come up with ripping one of those things off Jill, and why does Jill remember herself and everything after removal, but Claire was afflicted with almost total amnesia post-crab?
• Let’s talk about clones. Forgetting how insanely complex and amazing that one technological breakthrough is in comparison to everything else, by the end of the series we know that just about everyone working for Umbrella is a clone trooper (sounds familiar) or a copy of a known person. So if they’re struggling with what the T-Virus has done to destroy humanity, how about deploying thousands of clones to repopulate the world instead of leaving them all hanging on racks under the Kamchatka ice? And why would Umbrella run clone-populated simulations using clones imprinted with incredibly detailed internal lives that include political activism?
• Finally…what the hell is their end game anyway? We find out by the fifth film that Umbrella sold the T-Virus around the world to everyone and had run countless outbreak scenarios for all the world’s major cities, so even if the initial Hive outbreak was an accident, it couldn’t have been entirely unplanned or unforeseen that one day the virus would get out and about (Natalie’s addition: How did they sell it to everyone without having the antidote developed and sold as part of the package? Who would buy the first part without the second part?). And although earlier, the Red Queen seemed to want to assist in containing and even curing the situation in the first film and EXTINCTION, by RETRIBUTION she’s waging war on all living humans. Meanwhile, Umbrella keeps maintaining armies of clones, taking over people with cybercrabs, running simulations for a virus that already destroyed the world, and letting a guy in sunglasses monologue incessantly until most of the people working for him probably wish he would shoot them in the head. And when the world is over and all are dead…how will Umbrella make money exactly?
And now, without further ado, the ratings round-up!