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Our review of Resident Evil: Afterlife (Blu-Ray), published December 22nd, 2010, is also available.
Experience a new dimension of evil.
I have a long standing love/hate relationship with the Resident Evil film franchise. I'm a big fan the video game series, which I fell in love with after receiving Resident Evil 3: Nemesis for Playstation one Christmas from my father. Never mind the fact my old man hasn't played a video game since Super Mario Brothers—put an interactive George Romero movie in front of the man and he's instantly absorbed. Such is the seductive power of these games, which I've followed casually in the subsequent decade since Nemesis. Resident Evil's unique combination of zombie action, body horror, corporate espionage, and cheesy dialogue makes for video game comfort food that's kept the survival horror series going.
I can't say the same about Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil film franchise. The first film, which he directed, stands out as one of the few decent video-game-to-film adaptations: a dumbly written techno thriller disguised as a horror movie that manages to not step on the mythology of the video games too much.
The follow-up, Resident Evil: Apocalypse doesn't fare quite as well as its predecessor. If the game series is an interactive riff on George Romero, Resident Evil is a George Romero film rewritten by Michael Bay (racist stereotypes included), as produced by Charles Band (Puppet Master). Not only is the film dumbly written and acted, but it lacks the visual style Paul W.S. Anderson displayed in his original, probably because directorial duties were handed off to first time director Alexander Witt.
Resident Evil: Extinction is a marginally better film than Apocalypse. It moves away from the "contain the zombie/parasitic monster virus" tropes of the series and instead leads viewers into a Mad Max-style wasteland of super zombies, zombie birds, and, um, super-super zombies. Aussie filmmaker Russell Mulcahey (Highlander) directed it in a swooping, tightly edited style (a rarity for the series we'll discuss further in the Rebuttal Witness).
The third film's biggest flaw is that it has NOTHING to do with the Resident Evil games. Cherry picking a handful of characters and monsters from the series does not make an adaptation, an issue many fans have had with Anderson's vision of the franchise. Extinction took the series in a totally different direction, ditching the games' storylines for writer/producer Paul W.S. Anderson's own post-apocalyptic vision—one that continues to stray from its source material in Resident Evil: Afterlife (which Anderson has also returned to direct).
In this vision, I am a fan torn asunder. One part of me wants to rant about how these films cease to have anything to do with the games, using this review as an excuse to tear Anderson a new one. The other part of me wants to celebrate the fact that these films make me feel like a twelve-year-old again. The same twelve-year-old who thought Independence Day was the best movie ever made upon its release.
I stand at a cross road, and only Resident Evil: Afterlife will decide the fate of my fandom.
Facts of the Case
An assault on the Japanese branch of the Umbrella Corporation ends in disaster for Alice (Milla Jovovich) and her army of clones (see Resident Evil: Extinction for the back story there). Umbrella head honcho Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, Skin Walkers) manages to neutralize her powers before the two succumb to a nasty helicopter crash. Months later, a now human Alice flies to the supposedly zombie free Arcadia, Alaska in search of survivors. There, she is attacked by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter, Final Destination, reprising her role from Extinction), who is under the power of one of Umbrella's mind control devices. Alice removes it and the two head to L.A., where they crash land on the roof of an abandoned prison. Here, they learn that Arcadia isn't a town, but a traveling naval ship. As zombie forces mount, Alice and Claire must lead the survivors out of the isolated prison with the help of Claire's long lost brother, Chris (Wentworth Miller, Prison Break).
The best compliment one can give Resident Evil: Afterlife is that it is easily the best film in the series. Understand that its predecessors aren't exactly stiff competition—the Resident Evil trilogy is built on non-existent scripts, sub par acting, and paper thin characters. They are movies in the loosest sense of the term, and are best enjoyed in the same way one enjoys cheap beer or a gas station bought hair metal compilation—disposable, utterly brain dead, probably-bad-for-you fun.
Screenplay wise, the film has a leg up on the rest of the series. Afterlife's story is barely there, but at least it's there: Alice is forced to cope with being human while trying to find survivors and evade Umbrella. While the narrative isn't particularly deep or complex, it exists! I can't tell you what an improvement this is on the screenplay.
Sure, the film doesn't always make a whole lot of sense. The zombies (this time inspired by Resident Evil 5's rogues gallery) are mutating into tentacle mouthed uber-zombies who also can burrow underneath the cement floors of the prison. How and why this is possible remains unexplained. The film also ports over The Executioner, a looming, brick house of a monster (whether it's a zombie remains unclear) that carries a gi-normous axe and wants our heroes heads. The character is never once explained. We assume Umbrella sent him to the prison, a la Nemesis in Resident Evil Apocalypse, but he doesn't really do all that much and is dispatched by Claire and Alice pretty easily. Ultimately, the vagueness behind these monsters makes them feel like little more than fan service, condescending to the die hard fans of the games.
Thankfully, they look super neat and blow up real good. This time around, Anderson has stepped up his visual game to soaring new heights. His directing duties on the original film do not hold up, succumbing to a dull metallic color palette and a detached style that felt augmented by studio executive futzing. Afterlife, while far from his best film, stands as his most visually awe-inspiring. The opening title sequence fixated the viewer on the slow motion movement of umbrella toting Japanese citizens down busy, rain soaked streets. Through a combination of fetishistic aerial shots, brightly juxtaposed colors and a pulsating Tomandandy score; Anderson sets the mood beautifully, punctuating it with an amazingly gruesome twist.
The rest of the film never quite maintains the level of artistry displayed in the first five minutes, but carries an incredibly impressive visual stride nonetheless. Alice and her clone army's assault on Umbrella is a ton of Matrix style fun, while the film's zombie rooftop siege stands as my favorite action sequence of the series. Anderson's meticulous attention to the detail and art design of his Resident Evil world enriches these action set pieces, which capture the panicky gunplay and frantic hand-to-hand combat that make the game series so much fun.
Yet the film doesn't stand on directing merits alone. Milla Jovovich has the star power that continues to drive the series. She still plays Alice as a gravelly voiced G.I. Joe, making her performance stand on sheer persona alone. She has a presence and physicality that's all her own, showing more emotion with a twitch of her face or a swing in her step than Anderson's cheesy dialogue can muster. Also, despite appearing to weigh as much as my eight-year-old, Jovovich continues to believably pull off the badass action heroine thing really well. If there's any other reason to watch the film besides action and visuals, it's for her.
If I haven't said it by now, let's get it out there: I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, it has even less to do with the video games than Extinction, but gets closer to capturing the spirit of the video game franchise than the rest of the series. It is the least shallow film of the franchise through sheer directing moxie, a film that's all empty viewing calories, but I can't say it doesn't taste as good as it looks.
The DVD's anamorphic transfer looks nothing less than flawless—a razor sharp image with wonderful color balance both in brightly lit "Apple Store" looking environments and in the grungy depths of dark, zombie riddled prison corridors. The 5.1 surround mix throws viewers into the heat of battle, boasting not just brilliant explosion and gunshot effects, but punctuates them with details like the sound of coins falling scattershot around your living room (Alice loads them into her shotgun for no other reason than it sounds cool). Couple these details with a perfectly mixed Tomandandy rock score (as well as a recurring track by A Perfect Circle) and you have sound that more than keeps up with picture.
Yet the grandeur of image and sound comes with a price: Sony has once again given the shaft to standard DVD consumers in favor of Blu-ray. For years, fans of the series have been spoiled by lavish two-disc sets packed with commentaries, featurettes, music videos, and other nifty special feature gifties. Here, we're given a square meal, but not the lavish feast we're used to: a decent commentary track by the director and producers, two self-congratulatory puff featurettes ("Fighting Back: The Action of Afterlife" and "Band of Survivors: Casting Afterlife"), and some trailers are all that's included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let it be reiterated that the supporting cast is sufficiently blah. Ali Larter fares horribly, giving an awkward "deer in headlights" performance that feels like a byproduct of miscasting or bad direction. She looks great, though. Shawn Roberts does his best Albert Wesker impression from the games with enough Terminator inspired stiffness to please fans of the game and bewilder newcomers. Wentworth Miller is cardboard as Chris Redfield, left with little to do besides shoot zombies and yell a lot.
Afterlife also continues the series' tradition of choppy editing. Anderson continues to cut his films in a rushed sort of way that often detracts from his action sequences. For example, when Alice crash lands her plane on the rooftop, Anderson never once allows us a glimpse of the plane crashing down. In the case of zombie attacks, he does the same—we rarely see anyone bitten or torn apart by the monsters, but instead get grabbed and dragged off. This allows him to bring them back at the end of the movie despite whatever logic might claim. While I suppose one could see this style of editing as an innovative way to continue writing the film as you make it…no, sorry. It's just bad editing.
While it may seem like I'm showering praise on Resident Evil: Afterlife, keep in mind it is only good within the context of the series. On its own, it doesn't have a leg to stand on, and can be chalked up to mediocrity of the highest order. If you're a fan of the series, you'll get a lot of mileage out of this one. If not, you won't be converted anytime soon.
These movies are wonderfully incorrigible. Not guilty and keep 'em coming.
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