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Resident Evil (2002)

by on 2011/01/13

I have an uneasy relationship with zombie movies . . . not the classy Val Lewton kind, but the gradual usurpers of the vampire throne. I’ve never decided whether they’re science fiction, horror, or some unholy union of both.

Despite its video game origins, I had no prejudice against Resident Evil when I began to watch it. I don’t believe games can be dismissed as artless, or that they can’t be transmediated with appropriate care. Just look at what’s happened with comic books.

What I failed to note, however, was its director, Paul W.S. Anderson, whom I also have nothing personal against, the creator of a particularly unpleasant piece I reviewed last year, Event HorizonResident Evil being a slight improvement over it could well be the very definition of faint praise.

Set in — or rather below — the fictional Raccoon City, U.S.A. at the start of the 21st century, the action begins in the Umbrella Corporation’s Hive, an underground research facility employing 500 people. In response to a lab accident, an artificial intelligence called the Red Queen seals the area and gasses the population to prevent a viral outbreak.

Hours later, a military squad is sent in to investigate. Along the way, they gather additional followers, including “Alice” (Milla Jovovich), who may be more than the scantily clad waif she appears to be but, her being amnesiac, nobody knows for sure.

More Day of the Dead (1985) than OutbreakResident Evil marks the traditional zombie checklist with its scientific jargon. The “infected” are the reanimated dead, unintelligent, relentlessly cannibalistic, vulnerable only to decapitation, and passing along their “T-Virus” through violence. In an unusual break with their cinematic evolution, these monsters move slowly. In fact, they are just about the slowest things here by any measure.

You see, this viewing experience is rarely deliberate; it shows far too much, far too soon. It’s less about dread than graphic excess. For some audiences, that kind of thing might suffice but, myself, I pine for the mystery of an Alien. Yes, we know where the story is going, but how we get there should be interesting.

By “interesting” I don’t mean “choppy” or “painful”. The narrative flow is guilty of the former, telling its tale in vignettes along the way, though far less romantically than the word “vignette” suggests. The plot jumps between events, locations, and characters as if reels have gone missing. In their absence, a CAD-style 3D map pans and zooms around, a “tech” styled assistance in getting our bearings.

Whether the script is to blame or the editing, post-production must surely take the rap for the “painful” latter. Sound and fury literalized, Resident Evil is a student of the style over substance school, assuming you share its definition of “style”. An offering for neither the heart nor the mind, it’s all purely visceral, with gimmicky visuals, desperate cacophonies, and sensory over sensical every time. If it’s not quite as awful as Crank, then it’s close.

At the risk of seeming a milquetoast, I don’t believe this product has a soul. Everyone in it is — or begins as — a young and attractive ideal. Their lives are shallow, even worthless, unmourned by their survivors. Show me a character to care about, not just lust after. Show me anything in their world worth preserving. Are we meant to empathize with the vague anti-corporate sentiment, or the knee-jerk cliche of genetic experimentation?

While there’s nothing wrong with exploring either idea, in theory, they’re just more unbaked decorations in a whole already overstuffed with them. To once more paraphrase The Incredibles, when everything is special, nothing is.

Studies have shown some people respond to harsh sounds the way most respond to light music. Joyless, unpleasant, and never fun, Resident Evil is a distraction intended for them. At its worst, it’s tense, at best, adrenalizing. In truth, the scariest moment of all was the spilling of a coffee. I can see that in my kitchen for free.

* *

Rated 18A for lanugage, nudity, and violence

100 minutes

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