In the middle of a Resident Evil film marathon, Extinction is a shock to the system. The T-virus has spread, despite all attempts to contain it, and the world is plunged into a Mad Max future. Alice roams the wasteland, avoiding still-operational Umbrella satellites and getting into scrapes with zombies and rockabilly rapists. Occasionally, she exhibits telekinesis. Some familiar faces–Oded Fehr as Carlos and Mike Epps as L.J.–have banded together with new import Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), leading survivors from ruin to ruin, scrounging up canned food and gasoline. Another of Umbrella’s mad scientists (Iain Glen) passes time in a bunker, murdering cloned Alices with a deathtrap course built out of moments from the first film.. Lurking around the edges is video game baddie/shades enthusiast Wesker, low-key threatening Glen’s ambitions. The density of incidents, combined with the slightness of the feature’s actual narrative (the collision between Alice and Umbrella and the survivors is built out of multiple coincidences), gives the impression of having been dropped into some random episode of a TV show five seasons deep. We’re no longer at the outbreak, but in the midst of a long slog towards oblivion. In another franchise, this would be a sign of stagnation, but Extinction marks the Resident Evil films as embracing different modes of storytelling. It’s a considerable step-up.
The improvement is two-fold: Russell Mulcahy, directing as a one-off, is a better fit for the series than Resident Evil: Apocalypse‘s Alexander Witt. His fast cut, tracking and crane shot signatures are well-suited to the rapid clip of Paul W.S. Anderson’s action-fantasy take on zombie horror. Here, he uses the camera to soak in sand-covered Vegas model sets and desert landscapes traversed by rusted transports with slapdash fortifications. Computer grid building layouts (a recurring motif in the series) are zoomed in, around, and through as scene transition. The constant cross-cutting between sun-blasted decay on the surface and sterility of Umbrella’s underground laboratory complex gives the impression of Extinction‘s protagonists fighting an all-consuming rot. Action still occurs in frenetic bursts, but shots and edits hang on just long enough to register the needed information. While the Resident Evil series is still assembling itself from other movies (besides references to Day of the Dead and The Road Warrior, there’s an infected crow attack with an introduction straight out of The Birds), Mulcahy brings a polish and atmosphere lacking in previous installments.
On the same wavelength is Anderson, whose script here is much sharper. Freed from the video game timeline, Anderson pitches Alice less as a Mary Sue and more an adjunct goddess, offering salvation from the undead with dual-wielded Kukri knives. Apocalypse leaned heavily on subordinating recognized characters to a superhero lead, interchangeable save for brand recognition. Extinction, then, is a corrective, portraying individuals with a common good but conflicting motivations: Claire, straining under the responsibility of many lives, doesn’t immediately defer to Milla Jovovich’s raspy-voiced alpha female. When Alice brings news of a sanctuary, Claire contests the intelligence, hashes out the details and the necessities, and chooses to present the case to the collective for a vote. Carlos, infatuated with Alice, questions her choice to go solo. L.J. hides being bitten by a zombie so he can make time with the group’s medic. An early moment involving the group’s cigarette supply pays off later, when it’s revealed one of the characters had one stashed away for their own personal use. They’re light touches, Anderson showing a knack for downtime and payoff, but in a lean, 94-minute actioner, they mean everything.