Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

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For Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Paul W.S. Anderson runs audiences through a gauntlet of successive phases rather than a three-act narrative, pushed on by a ticking clock. Given 48 hours to save humanity from annihilation, Alice (Milla Jovovich) must fight her way back to Umbrella’s Hive facility–where the series and its myriad zombies, mutants, clones, deathtraps, and global corporate conspiracies began–for an airborne cure. The opening stretch is a sprint straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, Alice contending with Umbrella security and a newly-revived Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who’s fashioned himself a fundamentalist Christian prophet, riding in a moving fortress leading thousands of zombies on a genocide march. The film slows down a tad in Raccoon City, where Alice meets with a group of survivors, led once again by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), in time for a siege. Then, there’s a mad, final dash through the Hive’s winding corridors of doom for requisite plot twists and mind-screwing, with Isaacs and Wesker (Shawn Roberts) waiting in the wings. As always, the only constant is Jovovich, determining her way through annihilation.

Though it mines plot details from all its predecessors, The Final Chapter most closely hews to series high-point Extinction. It’s not just the white line nightmares and rusted DIY contraptions, but an overriding sense of futility. We’re introduced to the aftermath of Retribution‘s teased final stand, utterly devastated, with Alice stumbling through the ruins looking for water. Presumably, all the survivors of that film have been snuffed, Alien 3-style. A faint glimmer of salvation, offered by previously homicidal A.I. the Red Queen (Ever Anderson), is met with skepticism and hostility. Even the film’s biggest stake, the fate of humanity’s remaining settlement, is left off-screen, a question mark hanging over its very existence. Five movies’ worth of fakeouts and impenetrable machinations haven’t inspired confidence; Alice and gang only go along because their only other choice is waiting around to die. Even a sub-thread which returns us to the question of Alice’s origins is summed in a single line from Jovovich: “Sometimes I feel I spent my whole life running, killing.”

Anderson never hangs on this misery, palpable as it is. It lurks around the edges of The Final Chapter, grist for Alice to pulverize enemies in jittery fight sequences–overloaded with cuts, thanks to to Neveldine-Taylor editor Doobie White. The longest we’re ever held on to a moment is an agonizing wind tunnel setpiece, Alice straining to hold onto a comrade she rescued moments ago (from the same spinning blade trap). The music swells. Jovovich grits her teeth and tightens her grip. There’s a slip. Just a little longer. Her charge loses hold, is sucked in and diced. The power dies, the fans stop too late. Alice screams, continued frustration boiling over at last. Another life she couldn’t save.

In a movie series built out of trap-laden corridors, platformer-logic architecture, and recycled candy-colored carnage, guilt is a curious recurring device. Alice in Resident Evil attempted to hold a group together through sheer force of will, and failed. It set the tone for the sequels’ war of attrition, some losses stinging more than others. It’s an obvious fascination for Anderson and Jovovich, often paired with themes of exploitation and abuse of power crushing individuals (it’s revealed Umbrella deliberately started the zombie outbreak to save the world for the rich and powerful, an endgame built around “reboot[ing] it in our image”–an unsubtle nod to the movies’ fates). Their creation, Alice, relives torment over and over as she fends off cannibals both undead and executive. She fights and endures to keep in the same place. Like all the previous entries, The Final Chapter wants us hurrying along to the next trap, the next monster fight, the next labyrinthine plot twist rather than wrestling with anything like subtext. It’s only in the volume of them do the Resident Evils approach anything resembling a thesis, which is its own kind of brilliance.

Resident Evil: Retribution

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The Resident Evil series’ biggest strength has been succinctness. They tend towards the 90-100 minute range, long enough to not overstay their welcome. Each successive installment uses familiarity to race over exposition, recycling themes and incidents from predecessors (as well as the video games) to contrast Alice’s past with her present. Retribution is no different, in this regard, but it is the first in which its short length feels like a hindrance.

Alice, once again captured by Umbrella after the closing moments of Afterlife, awakens in the belly of an Arctic facility designed to stage trauma over and over. Previous outbreak hotspots are recreated to test out viral mutations, inflicting death and torture on a conveyor belt of duplicated franchise players. The Red Queen is brought back to micro-manage this memory lane deathtrap. Dual Michelle Rodriguezes lurk at the plot’s edge. Paul W.S. Anderson even takes another crack at Apocalypse‘s failed attempt at intertextuality with an anti-Umbrella strike team made up of Leon Kennedy, Ada Wong, and Barry Burton–winking references to the former pair’s spotty relationship and propensity towards death fakeouts.

Duplication and iteration are a prominent fascination with Anderson’s Resident Evil scripts. Up through Extinction, the films were bookended by the awakening of a nude Alice (or clone of Alice) to some fresh horror. Afterlife bucked the trend, teasing an escape from this vicious cycle, only to cruelly pull its heroine back into the fray. For all her superhuman (occasionally godlike) skill, Alice is very much a victim, locked into a struggle with something monolithic and automated. She’s able to weather, but her friends–even the planet–are dying off despite her efforts. Retribution confronts this with a squad of cloned fallen comrades, led by a brainwashed Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, allowed a more interesting space than before). Most notable in this crew are former love interest Carlos and Alice’s first bestie Rain (Rodriguez)–whose alternate is a civvie implanted with pro-gun control memories. The move reads as deliberate, an attempt to throw Alice’s own guilt back in her face, but the miscalculation is obvious: Alice has gone through this all before, and has hardened in response to it. The simple confrontation with known doubles is shrugged off.

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Instead, it’s the deaf child, Becky (Aryana Engineer), of yet another of her clones which troubles Alice. Introduced in one of Umbrella’s zombie test sequences, she later appears clinging to her dead mother’s lookalike. Unsure of how to deal with this child, Alice is adamant about protecting her, but quick to leave her in another’s care. Her pause following an “I love you” (spoken and signed) is Milla Jovovich’s best acting in the film, a brief, cutting moment of tangled emotions processing something innocent. While it’s an Aliens rip, the idea is good: the alternate possibility of life ruled by something better than violence and death being more alien to Jovovich’s badass superwoman than any of the monstrosities she fights.

Retribution teeters on moments like these, overstuffed with meta-ideas about its subjects while racing through sets alternating lavishly detailed city/suburbia with stark, glossy white hallways and dank industrial sectors. Lost in the shuffle are the twin Rains. Anderson almost toys with making Rodriguez a figure similar to Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a haunted shell sussing out her confused half-existence. When told about her “sister,” Good Rain stares, as if a bomb exploded in her mind. A confrontation is teased here, Rodriguez given a prime position to throw the narrative off-piste. With Evil Rain’s spotlight in the finale–beating down two allies before moving to put the hurt on Alice–and talk of many scenes cut from the assembly, this might even have been Anderson’s intention. It never happens in the theatrical cut, though: Good Rain is casually disposed by a CG mutant; Evil Rain is a minor texture to an obedient goon. She’s given no response to her mechanization, losing any power her return could have provided. This becomes a first in the Resident Evil franchise, in that it would have been better if it were longer, slower, and emphasized its ellipses.

Resident Evil: Afterlife

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Paul Anderson’s directorial return to the Resident Evil franchise is pure, delirious momentum. Afterlife opens with a dreamy, slow-mo sequence of Tokyo’s patient zero in their corner of the T-virus outbreak, capped with a zoom-out depicting fleeing civilians and their candy-colored umbrellas as individual cells in the death of the planetary body. Then, we’re racing through the promise of Extinction‘s finale, as Alice and her clone army assault the Umbrella Corporation’s headquarters, looking to kill (the now posh-voiced) Albert Wesker. She loses her duplicates and her powers in the process, but Alice destroys her enemies, then sets out to find the survivors she parted with.

This go-go-go mentality comes with cheaper production values. Resident Evil: Extinction brought a polished sheen to the franchise: crane and tracking shots, scale models and crisp cinematography were used to pore over surface details. Afterlife, however, has grainy, digital, green-screen backdrops, atop which CG objects are flung at the screen in 3D. The middle stretch of the film is a muddy brown wash, ugly save the occasional color saturation from a light source. Anderson seems to be stacking up all the worst tendencies of contemporary blockbusters as a challenge, and it works. The disconnect between backdrops and actors, combined with Tomandandy’s electronic score and a relentless stream of zombie variants (specifically importing Resident Evil 4 and 5‘s Las Plagas out of nowhere), stress unreality. Alice, despite lacking her God Mode abilities, still tackles the impossible with ease, swinging off rooftops guns a-blazing or obliterating skulls with shotgun blasts using quarters as ammo. Action often comes dosed with bullet-time. Spatial dimensions seem impossible, even before we get to the pearly bowels of a nightmare barge offering false salvation. Anderson has traded off the Pyun aesthetic, but he’s still operating in (and ramping up) the direct-to-video milieu which propelled his first Resident Evil.

With that, there’s also a (welcome) renewed emphasis on a bond between strong women in her reunion with Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), whose sudden amnesia mirrors Alice’s previous affliction (Wentworth Miller’s butch, growly Chris Redfield toys with being a foil to James Purefoy’s Spence, Alice’s duplicitous work-husband from the earlier film. Both are question marks that hang over the middle section of their respective films). The darker hues in Milla Jovovich’s hair and the throaty tones in her voice evoke Michelle Rodriguez as Rain. Alice is portrayed as instinctively taking a role to help Claire through her trauma. The relationship’s mutual, though: when Alice is KO’d by a big motherfucker with an axe, Claire wastes no time unloading her pistol on him, then going in for a kill.

Resident Evil: Extinction

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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.

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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.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

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First noticeable thing in movie Resident Evil 2 is the budget boost. No longer confined to impersonal corridors, the series opens up to a city under siege. A breathless montage gives a snapshot of pre-outbreak Raccoon City (including a suburb eerily similar to the one used for another contemporary zombie flick: Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake) before seguing to a throng of civvies attempting to leave through a walled-off checkpoint. Alexander Witt subs for Paul W.S. Anderson in the director’s chair, and while he lacks Anderson’s visual panache–Witt’s framing is more traditional, while action’s left to an editor who jumbles it all about–he manages to maintain the same interest in lighting and surface (particularly, Witt is fond of actors in silhouette).

Anderson, meanwhile, provides a script which plays like fan fiction. He threads his sequel into the broad outline of Capcom’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, an emphasis on  original creation Alice (Milla Jovovich). Now superpowered, courtesy Umbrella Corporation’s insistence on tinkering with viral bio-weaponry, she unbalances the zombie narrative with God Mode combat skills. Hordes get their skulls kicked in or ventilated. Lickers, the previous film’s Final Boss, are dispatched with some shotgun blasts and a motorcycle to the face. Her only physical threat is Nemesis, a brutish, leather-clad rubber monster who thuds around in heavy boots and lugs a minigun and a rocket launcher. She’s backed by a couple normals and game imports Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr). Aside from some whiz bang introduction–Jill casually strolling into a police precinct wearing a tube top and skirt, headshotting the undead before telling cops what’s what; Carlos attempting a rooftop rescue of a civilian, firing his gun as he jumps out of a helicopter–the pair exist to marvel at Alice.

This becomes the film’s biggest setback. Structurally, Apocalypse redoes its predecessor on a bigger scale. As before, it’s bookended with scenes of Alice waking up, nude, unsure of what’s going on, suggesting some ongoing cycle of victimization and retribution. Her red dress-black shorts combo is replaced with a cropped top, black jeans, and olive string vest, outfitted with various holsters. Later, the pants get ripped on one leg, giving a punk-like asymmetry to her design. The choice seems deliberate, Alice responding to her violation with defiant sexuality. She even flirts with Carlos (“Don’t worry, I’m not contagious”). Anderson very obviously wants to make this a vehicle for future wife Jovovich, while the game characters come across like a mandate.

Not that there isn’t a modicum of effort: early, obtuse references suggest the first film may have happened parallel to the source material, but it’s an intertextual detail robbed of meaning (for instance: Nemesis sent after members of STARS, Jill’s former unit, makes sense in the game’s storyline, but has nothing to do with his purpose in Apocalypse). Jill, herself, has little agency, an odd choice given Resident Evil 1’s wonderful depiction of the relationship between strong women. Guillory is no substitute for Michelle Rodriguez (she never characterizes Jill beyond a bratty pout), but it is strange to watch her passively go along with Jovovich’s prowling, mad science-powered superwoman. A more considered take could have developed tension between a veteran Jill and the suspicious outsider knocking her down the pecking order. Perhaps some distrust sown by Alice’s Umbrella connection. A misunderstanding here or there when Carlos and his partners arrive. Even a double cross? Nah, can’t allow anything like intra-group conflict in a zombie movie.

Resident Evil

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The first Resident Evil flick comes with a look that suggests a direct to video actioner. Paul W.S. Anderson shoots his game adaptation in a lot of tight close-ups, mostly staged in empty corridors, impersonal sewers, and a train car. The bigger set pieces seem like loans: a bio-mechanical pod room loaded with monstrosities may as well come from an aborted Alien installment; a sequence involving a sterile, booby-trapped room has clear influences from Vincenzo Natali’s Cube; the nu metal/EDM soundtrack even cannibalizes Anderson’s own stab at Mortal Kombat. Obviously, the zombies saunter in from Romero. These disparate threads of influence, along with a text/VO prologue introducing series’ bads the Umbrella Corporation, create a ramshackle aesthetic, as if multiple, cancelled film projects were melded into a misshapen hybrid. Perhaps this is Anderson’s ode to the work of Albert Pyun?

Whatever the case, the film is largely a misfire, elevated by its director’s formal playfulness. Anderson glides and pans along, his camera poring over reflective surfaces, color-saturated faces, and CCTV footage. His script, however, substitutes the escalating, Gothic dread of Shinji Mikami’s franchise starter with repetitive action beats lifted from Cameron. Any sense of mystery–about Umbrella, their corpse-reanimating T-virus, the commandos they’ve hired, even the infected facility they investigate–is dispensed early on, leaving amnesiac kung-fu lead Alice (Milla Jovovich) to learn reiterated information through dialogue or flashbacks. The only looming questions are who caused the infection (a dull whodunnit) and the motivations of a prowling A.I. voiced by a little girl (better, but unexplored). Anderson is more invested in photographing badass women: Jovovich’s Alice in her red dress/black boots and shorts attire, is an arresting visual next to the blue-brown-whites of her surroundings, set immediately apart from her leather-clad comrades even before she ninja kicks a mutant hound. Her foil is the more butch Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), a doomed trooper who talks like one of the boys about “getting laid.” Both are steely and resolved when the situation turns south, while the men around them fluster and panic. Alice yells everyone through the crucible, while Rain responds to multiple bites by unloading her pistol on zombies. No bullshit, no cowering. One could imagine, if they both made it out alive, they’d become a lot closer.