Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) was clearly produced with sequels in mind, given its deliberately open ending, and the first of those sequels emerged two years later in 2004. With Anderson busy working on Alien vs Predator, directing duties fell to noted second-unit director Alexander Witt. It is an interesting film to watch immediately after the original, since both films share Anderson as writer but only the first benefits from his direction. Witt’s lacklustre treatment of the material showcases what a difference that makes. Resident Evil: Apocalypse is by far the inferior film.
In the aftermath of the Hive’s destruction, the T-virus infects the population of nearby Raccoon City. The Umbrella Corporation locks off all exits, leaving the people to die en masse in the zombie outbreak. When a key scientist (Jared Harris) discovers his daughter is trapped inside the city, he assembles a group of survivors – including soldier Carlos Oliviera (Oded Fehr), police detective Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), and Hive survivor Alice (Milla Jovovich) – to get her out alive.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse hews a little closer to the videogames than its predecessor, particularly with the introduction of specific videogame characters like Jill Valentine and Carlos Oliviera as well as its zombie-ridden city setting and the monstrous Nemesis creature that stalks the lead characters. To an extent it proves that blind fidelity to the source is not always the best approach for an adaptation to take. For one thing, Valentine’s ridiculous costume of miniskirt and bright blue boob tube might go unnoticed in a stylised videogame but looks patently absurd in live-action cinema. Beyond the nods to the videogames – both Resident Evil 2 and 3 get referenced – much of Apocalypse‘s inspiration stems from John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape from New York (1981). Like that film’s protagonist Snake Plissken, Alice heads into a sealed-off ruined city to rescue a human asset for a deeply untrustworthy master.
Here’s the thing: accept the derivative references to other texts and the generic nature of the characters, and on paper Apocalypse seems all right. In execution, however, the film demonstrates how much of the appeal of B-grade cinema lies in how the film is staged, as opposed to what is staged in the first place. Where Anderson aggressively drove the pace in Resident Evil, Alexander Witt simply does not push any momentum. The results feel a little awkward, and very undercooked. It lacks the energy to keep its audience engaged in the same way. Its photography is uninspired and generic. It regularly resorts to jerky, low-rate slow motion, which feels cheap and amateurish. Actors that demonstrate remarkable skill in other roles – Oded Fehr (The Mummy), Jared Harris (Mad Men), Thomas Kretschmann (Downfall), and others – appear blandly mediocre when under Witt’s direction.
The film sporadically brings the goods, including an elementary school full of child zombies and a particularly bleak encounter with a priest in the church, but these are exceptions rather than any constant guarantee of entertainment value. Events end on a loose cliffhanger, with the promise of a second sequel in the offing, only this time the possibility of more Resident Evil action does not seem half as exciting as it did two years earlier. Apocalypse commits the worst crime that pulp entertainment can undertake. It is not that the film is stereotypical, or derivative, or often difficult to swallow. The greatest offence here is that the film is boring.