Nov 28 2012 11:00am

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

The first Resident Evil film, released in 2002, grossed over $100 million worldwide. 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse did even better than its predecessor, taking nearly $130 million. Columnist Roger Ebert proved equally critical of them both, calling Resident Evil a film in which, “large metallic objects make crashing noises just by being looked at,” (ChicagoSun-Times, March 15, 2002) and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, “an utterly meaningless waste of time. There was no reason to produce it, except to make money, and there is no reason to see it, except to spend money. It is a dead zone, a film without interest, wit, imagination or even entertaining violence and special effects.” (ChicagoSun-Times, September 10, 2004.)

All due respect to the honourable Mr. Ebert, but he’s rather too harsh on my favourite B-movie series. There’s a lot to be said for films that know they exist to be B-movie action/horror flicks, and then set out to be the best possible B-movies they can be. They know they have no real statement to make about the human condition, and they revel in it. Zombies! Monsters! Evil corporations and underground bases! Amnesia! Untrustworthy artificial intelligences! Plots!

...And that’s just the first film.

If you ask me to be serious and self-reflective when talking about Resident Evil, I’ll tell you the truth: there’s no point. If you’re here for logic, not for zombies and the monsters, this is the wrong franchise entirely. These are films—much as the first half-hour of Resident Evil tries to pretend otherwise—about improbably competent women kicking ass and taking names—and there aren’t a lot of living names left to take. Because if you hadn’t noticed? The Resident Evil films* pass the Bechdel test in an utterly off-hand fashion. And that’s what turns them from action films made of cheese into something I can love.

*I haven’t seen Retribution yet, so all my generalisations should be taken to exclude it.

There are only two characters that stand out with any compelling personality in Resident Evil, Alice (Milla Jovovich) and the female paramilitary, Rain (Michelle Rodriguez). The other characters come straight out of central casting, perhaps especially the undercover fake cop (Matt, played by Eric Mabius) who finagles his way onto the paramilitary team sent to investigate why the Umbrella Corporation’s underground genetics research facility, the Hive, has fallen out of touch with the rest of the world, and whose sister, a Hive employee, was supposed to pass him proof of Umbrella’s wrongdoing.

Alice is a cipher. From the moment we encounter her—after a cold open in which a NBC-suited hand steals vials of unknown substances from a lab, smashing one as it leaves, and what seems to be an ordinary workplace rapidly becomes a death-trap—naked, in a shower, suffering a possible head-injury, she’s as much a cipher to herself as she is to us. The lack of dialogue in the eerie, empty mansion until Matt comes through the door and the black-clad paramilitaries come through the windows reinforces the cipher-like nature of the main character: Alice is a woman upon whom we may inscribe whatever motives and history we wish, and her ridiculous red dress and obvious bewilderment urge us to make assumptions about a blond, reasonably well-muscled woman** whom we first see mostly naked.

**It’s a definite plus that Jovovich actually looks physically capable of, you know, holding her own in a fight. Whatever one might say about the ridiculous red dress.

Every cultural trope and cinema cliché tells us to see her as vulnerable. Without context, amnesiac, perhaps she even is—but this is where Resident Evil takes a few steps outside the B-movie clichés. Because of all the characters in this film, it’s Alice who—we discover as she does—is probably the toughest. Who, faced with dead scientists, can take a minute to silently make fun of the paramilitaries. Who goes after Matt when he splits from the group. Who, it’s gradually revealed, knew what Matt’s sister was after. Who isn’t sure, until quite late in the film, whether she caused the slaughter or tried to act to prevent it.

Who doesn’t give up, even when the paramilitaries start dropping like flies, first to the AI’s defences, and then, when the doors start opening, to the zombies. Even when the group of survivors is fleeing a madly mutated monster.

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

Even when, at the film’s close, she wakes alone in a laboratory, and walks outside to see a post-apocalyptic scene of abandoned vehicles and silence. The last image is of Alice, in her hospital gown, making ready a shotgun scavenged from an empty police car.

Laid against this arc of discovery, of rediscovery of agency, I personally don’t give much of a damn about the film’s flaws. Apart from Tomb Raider and Underworld, there are damn few action-adventure movies that put a female protagonist centre-stage—and Tomb Raider is far less smoothly done, while Underworld centres Selene’s emotional arcs around the men in her life.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse is less cleanly constructed: it’s a film with much less interiority, both emotional and literal. It’s all about running and fighting... and occasionally gallows-humour quipping.

Thanks to the Umbrella Corporation’s incompetence/greed, Raccoon City suffers an outbreak of the zombie plague. Sealed off from the outside world, doomed, a rag-tag band comes together to rescue an Umbrella scientist’s daughter in return for his help in their escape. This group includes Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, whom the costume dept. did not exactly dress well for zombie-fighting), a hard-as-nails and possibly crazy disgraced cop, non-disgraced cop Peyton (Razaaq Adoti), LJ Wayne, first met under arrest (Mike Epps), a TV reporter (Sandrine Holt), and Umbrella Corp paramilitary Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr), as well as Alice—back, and ever more ready to kick ass, since Umbrella mucked about with her insides.

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

Alice: There won’t be any help. According to Ashford, Umbrella know they can’t contain the infection. So at sunrise this morning, Raccoon City will be completely sanitized.
Terri Morales: What do you mean by “sanitized”?
Alice: A precision tactical nuclear device.
Jill Valentine: What yield?
Alice: Five kilotons.
Valentine: Fuck me.

There’s a cheerful absence of logic in how Alice first meets up with Jill Valentine while mowing down a couple of zombie-monsters. But it’s important to enjoy the explosions and just roll with it: we’re here for the BOOM, and the fact that in all of this zombie-killing, monster-fighting mayhem, none of our heroes are white guys.

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

No, really. That gives me so much of a thrill.

The most badass people here are Alice and Jill Valentine. Alice powers through on strength of will, especially when it comes to facing the super-monster—Nemesis—Umbrella have decided to unleash on the doomed city. And it’s Alice who’s ultimately left behind when the survivors escape from the wreckage of the helicopter they use to flee the city—left for dead, to fall vulnerable into the hands of the Umbrella Corp.

Why the Resident Evil Films are Great Entertainment, Part I

But once again her vulnerability is a misdirection. And the Umbrella Corp scientist who fails to realise this pays for his misapprehension.

Her name is Alice. And she remembers everything.

Liz Bourke can be relied upon to cheer for badass women shooting monsters. What can she say? It’s a thing. Find her @hawkwing_lb, where she’s been known to complain about their absence.

I thoroughly enjoyed these movies. I agree with everything here except

. . . and the fact that in all of this zombie-killing, monster-fighting mayhem, none of our heroes are white guys.

No, really. That gives me so much of a thrill.Can't we celebrate a strong protagonist and fun manic monster fighting without resenting the man? If you're thrilled by any group's exclusion that's a problem. If you're thrilled that the movie featured strong women and minorities, I can get behind that.
2. Dean B.
"Apart from Tomb Raider and Underworld, there are damn few action-adventure movies that put a female protagonist centre-stage..."

All women's action-adventure movie roles flow from Sigourney Weaver's seminal Ripley.
Iain Cupples
3. NumberNone
I do love these films. Though the plot and setting fall to bits under even a casual glance. (The entire world is a post-apocalyptic devastation, civilisation has collapsed under the zombie plague, but the Umbrella Corporation have a seemingly unending supply of high-tech hardware, well-trained goons and underground bases. How?)

But the films have an unpretentious charm that comes from their focus on just providing an endless sequence of kickass and not worrying about the rest. RE does bad film right.

ps That quoted dialogue is easily the most hilarious thing in the films. Naturally the first thing that you want to know when told you're going to be nuked is the bomb's yield, right? Because you'd totally have a chance of surviving a puny one-kiloton.
Gerd K
4. Kah-thurak
**It’s a definite plus that Jovovich actually looks physically capable of, you know, holding her own in a fight.
Really? Milla Jovovich? To me she looks like a model, not a fighter. Her arms and shoulders show nothing of the muscles you usually see on women who do martial arts (in a serious way). Michelle Rodriguez comes a little closer, but Jovovich? No way.
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
I really enjoyed the first two. What can I say, James Purefoy's bad guys just do it for me(the good guys are alright, but not as HAWT!) and I love a good ASP fight(plus Oded Fehr).

Extinction was too excited about "Zombie Film! Desert!" for me to really enjoy and Alice's powers were growing too much with an army of Alices at her back, for me to really feel that there was risk in any movie going forward.

Which is why the best thing Apocolypse did was slaughter the clones and depower Alice at the very beginning. But it was inconsistent with the concern over resource scarcity from Extinction, because all I could think of was where did they get all that fuel for ALL of those torches???
6. fragrant elephant
Loved the first Resident Evil! Now you've inspired me to watch the others!

Apropos of nothing: I also really liked the first game. I freaked out whenever I heard a zombie moaning nearby, unseen.
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
Milla Jovovich is my favorite action star.

Also, Extinction is my favorite of the batch.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai

In a world where "white straight male" is the default media portrayal, I think you're being disingenuous to pluck that line out of context.
David Thomson
9. ZetaStriker
I love B-movies, so these films have always tickled my fancy in all the wrong ways. My favorite part of the films is still the mass of in-jokes that developed amongst my friends after all the zombie animals started showing up, especially after the crows in the third film. Every time there's a quiet moment, we always make a big deal about zombie whales slowly flopping their way across the desert, and how they'll descend upon the cast at any moment.
Jack Flynn
10. JackofMidworld
I love this whole series (even told my kids once that if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, look for the woman in the red dress & the black boots and she'll keep them safe). Every time people like to complain about the plot I'm like, really? Plot? Go to see Milla killing zombies. Anything resembling a plot is a bonus (but I did see Afterlife at the theater and, when they went into the prison, I turned to my wife and said, "Who the hell lit all those torches?!?")
Chris Nelly
11. Aeryl
1. Plus what about Matt? Did he get to survive? No, but he went out heroically. And the Russian guy from Apocolypse.

7. I like Extinction more on rewatch. I was just so disappointed to learn she was all alone, and that the story wasn't moving consecutively, like the transition from the first to second.

But I'm still really tired of all those drive through the desert shots.
Iain Cupples
12. NumberNone
5. and 10.: I didn't have a problem with the torches. Heck, the prison group have allegedly been in there since the outbreak began - which by the time of 'Afterlife', must be years. They had to have been doing something to amuse themselves all that time. ;)
Liz Bourke
13. hawkwing-lb
TBGH @1:

White guys are, as a percentage of the western Anglophone population, incredibly over-represented in visual media produced in the UK and North America. So am I thrilled when I find media that doesn't put the white guy as the heroic/romantic centre of everything? Why yes, I am.

(White guys are hardly excluded, mate.)

Dean B @2:

Alien is now 33 years old. (Also, horror, which is a slightly different genre.) It remains rather groundbreaking in its treatment of Ripley-as-protagonist, since even now female action heroes are not normative.

Not that this irritates me, or anything.

NumberNone @3:

Maybe if you're a mutant zombie-killer you'd survive it!

mordicai @7:

Personally, I have to call Maggie Q as my favourite. But Jovovich is pretty damn good.

ZetaStriker @9:

Zombie elephants! Zombie crocodiles!
14. tigeraid
As far as I'm concerned, the only "bad" RE movie is #2. The first one is great, and all the others are very watchable, fun, goofy popcorn flicks. I love the series. And I love Milla.
Brandon Lammers
15. wickedkinetic
I never played the games, but I did enjoy the movies. Never re-watched or really analyzed them I guess. Milla does a good job and is clearly athletic but does not have the size that comes with great strength. The sci-fi explanation of her being 'modified' is a good enough explanation to cover her superhero-ish acts for the most part... besides, its an action movie....

I also love the Alien movies, but any comparison between her character and Weaver's Ripley is a bit misguided. the movies have many of the same elements - survival horror, evil corporations, artificial intelligence..... - but Alien and Aliens are definitive classis of their genre, full of respectable award-winning actors. ResEvil is on the short-list of incredibly successful movie franchises based on a video game.... and I do enjoy them, but they can't compare to the Alien movies for depth and diversity of characters and plot... although, the theme of both series seems to be that everyone but the protagonist is probably doomed (up to and including the AVP movies, and the not-prequel)....

Now i'm going to have to re-watch this series - there is definitely a lot more substance in these movies - in subtle ways - that anyone would expect from a video-game based flick. Part of what makes them compelling and successful is Milla's commitment to the franchise, this is her definitive role, and she is a global star based solely on these movies....

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