Film adaptations of videogames always seem to endure a rough ride to the screen, whether Super Mario Bros, World of Warcraft, Street Fighter, Prince of Persia, or Mortal Kombat. It seems there are plenty of producers and directors who recognise the potential in drawing on videogame concepts and design work to generate popular cinema, but nowhere near as many that can tell the difference between suitable elements for adaptation or where to draw the line between slavishly copying the game and simply strip-mining its elements. Back near the start of his career, English director Paul W.S. Anderson scored an unexpected hit with his adaptation of fighting game Mortal Kombat (1996). Six years later he directed another commercial hit when he wrote and directed Resident Evil. It is a wonderfully trashy slice of pulp horror action, lined with science fiction detail, and successfully straddling the line between faithful adaptation of the Capcom horror franchise and gleefully bloody horror flick in its own right.
Here is the truth of it: film critics, generally speaking, are rather too hard on poor Paul W.S. Anderson. At his best, he is a marvellous purveyor of slickly engineered B-grade entertainment. His films are not intended to be taken seriously. They are charmingly superficial, and disarmingly adolescent. They do not win awards, and make no claims to sophistication. If one was to judge all narrative films by an identical metric, his works would all rightfully be considered artistic failures. It one judges each film individually, based on whether or not they achieve their own bespoke goal, Anderson knocks it out of the park damn-near every time. His Mortal Kombat is a simple chain of one-on-one martial arts fights. Event Horizon (1997) simply throws Alien and Hellraiser into a blender. His Alien vs Predator (2004) is a high-camp bundle of violent CGI. Resident Evil plays out like a shopping list of action and horror archetypes. Rogue A.I. Sci-fi deathtraps. Heavily armed soldiers. Zombies. People who despair over the film’s quality or lack of originality – it is, after all, a highly derivative confection – simply were never the intended audience.
This is the film that arguably made Milla Jovovich’s professional reputation. She had already appeared in numerous films, of course, and made showy lead roles out of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) and The Messenger (aka Joan of Arc) (1999). From Resident Evil she effectively became the most successful female action star in the world – not only in five Resident sequels between 2004 and 2016, but in Ultraviolet (2006), Stone (2010), The Three Musketeers (2011), Hellboy (2019), and Monster Hunter (2020). Much of that work has been with Anderson – they have been married since 2009.
Here Jovovich plays Alice, an amnesiac who wakes in a manor house located directly above a top secret bioweapons laboratory. An artificially intelligent security system has sealed off the facility and murdered everyone trapped inside. A militarised security team led by James Shade (Colin Salmon) break into the complex, Alice is tow, only to find a lethal virus has infected the dead and animated their corpses.
One of the strategies that Anderson regularly uses to up the quality of his films is casting. Here Jovovich is joined by Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Salmon, James Purefoy, and Eric Mabius. It is a clever move, automatically upping the prestige of the picture and leaning on the cast to provide additional depth and complexity that the screenplay does not necessarily provide. Eagle-eyed viewers might even notice Jason Isaacs in a blink-or-miss-it cameo in the film’s final moments.
Resident Evil ups the ante as it goes, starting off as a suspenseful horror film before evolving into an energetic action flick in its final act. It advances Alice’s role in the film at the same time, from frightened bystander to head-kicking bare-knuckle fighter. The horrors that she faces also rises: from mad computers slicing apart soldiers with laser beams to hordes of shambling zombies, to a rather impressively realised “licker” with an exposed brain and long, prehensile tongue. Only the film’s zombified dogs really let the technical execution down. Attempts to cover trained dogs with prosthetic make-up simply leads them to resemble Dobermanns coated in spaghetti. That said, bad physical effects always beat bad computer-generated ones, and the spaghetti dogs ultimately feel rather cute.
Resident Evil represents unapologetic pulp entertainment. The film’s ambitions are modest and achievable. When it does a scene well, it is properly entertaining stuff. If it ever falters, it is only a matter of moments before it tries something else. A lot of people like to divide features into “films” and “movies”. Resident Evil is a deeply mediocre film. It is a hell of an enjoyable movie.