by Joe Steiff
Milla’s cute, but can she survive the filmy scum that is Resident Evil?
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Just call it “redundant evil.” The director of Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon, Paul Anderson III (AKA Paul W. S. Anderson) has taken the screenwriting reins as well in this latest video game movie. Just in the way that the characters end up cannibalizing each other in this film, Anderson cannibalizes a number of other films to make the ultimate cut-and-paste action/adventure movie. The fact that he does a pretty good job of it only makes it more depressing.
As with Event Horizon, Resident Evil has an excellent premise, initial set up, an amazing setting and interesting characters. But just like the previous film, the longer the evil resides on the screen, the more Anderson seems to run out of ideas or the less capable he seems of actually developing the initial premises into a sustainable action line.
Likewise, there seems to be some timely social commentary (ala Enron and Andersen) that is rapidly pushed aside so that there’s more time to laugh at the staggering zombies and to battle a final monster that is slumming from some other video game. That final monster is only the capper on numerous leaps in logic. What could have been an intelligent appropriation of some of the smartest sci-fi and horror movies out there quickly becomes one more example of the dumbing down of American movie audiences.
A lethal virus has been released in an underground research facility called the Hive. Never mind that we’ve evidently forgotten everything about research facility design that we once knew. Look, if the screenwriter wasn’t at least going to consult with scientists who are responsible for building secure viral research facilities, he could have at least watched the film he clearly thinks none of us have seen, The Andromeda Strain. This Hive’s labs have no isolated ventilation system, so once the virus is released in one lab it quickly travels throughout the facility. Where’s Michael Crichton when you need him? Or you know what, better yet, where’s common sense?
One of the creepier and more interesting characters in the story is the Red Queen, a Hal 9000-like computer that oversees the Hive and ultimately follows its safety protocols by sealing the facility and containing the virus, albeit at the expense of the researchers trapped in the labs. She gets all of 5 minutes of screen time. More time for the zombies, I guess.
And as a final stupid precaution, the facility’s safety mechanisms include making the military guards - who pose as a couple living in the mansion atop one of the underground entrances - amnesiac if something goes wrong. Just to be sure they’re as ineffectual as possible in a crisis.
Moral ambiguities abound. Little is actually made of the irony that the Red Queen is actually protecting humans by her actions, and in fact, all the people we’re rooting for will ultimately be responsible for wiping out the human race. You’ll read numerous plot summaries describing the main characters as trying to contain the situation, but if you’re paying attention to the movie, you’ll realize that the situation is contained until an industrial-military Team breaks into the Hive.
The Team sweeps into the mansion in order to access the Hive with the help of our amnesiac guards, including Fifth Element Milla Jovovich. While in the mansion, they encounter an apparent civilian (Eric Mabius) who refuses to explain his presence. In keeping with all the other smart decisions of the film, the Team decides it would be easiest to bring a handcuffed prisoner along with them into the top secret Hive.
Throw in the train from Ghosts Of Mars, zombies from The Night Of The Living Dead (hey, I’m being generous here, I could have said “from Thriller”), a little Omega Man and Michelle Rodriguez (in an expanded Aliens-type role), and you’ve got yourself a movie.
I think what disappoints me the most is that this could have been a great film. And what’s becoming apparent to me is that we may no longer be interested in great films. Is this post-modernism run amuck? Or the ultimate garage band syndrome (hey, anyone could do better so none of us have to feel threatened by quality)? Or the ultimate glorification of B-movies? Or just the John Carpenterization of all movie making?
The danger with making films based on video games (and old TV shows) is that while they seem to require less thinking on the part of the filmmakers (hey, we’ve got a built-in audience, let’s go make a movie), in fact they require more thinking to make them good.
What Resident Evil does do well is hit the ground running. Here’s a film that truly starts “in the middle” - with everything already off balance and rapidly going down hill. The film orients us quickly to the main issues of the story and allows us to navigate a relatively complex setting with ease.
It also proves that simple camera techniques and sound design can build tension and elicit jumps from the audience even when we have no idea of what’s going on or before we really get to care about the characters. There’s no doubt that Anderson has talent. I’m just hoping that someday he’ll make a film that’s last half is as well done as its first half. Event Horizon and Resident Evil are like jokes told by someone who does a great job with the set up only to bungle the punch line.
Joe Steiff is a grumpy moviegoer who occasionally writes reviews for Film Monthly.
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