While horror sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) was poorly received, it was financially successful. No surprise, then, that Sony subsiduary Screen Gems distributed a third Resident Evil in 2007. Written once again by Paul W.S. Anderson and boasting a fresh director in the shape of Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow), it marked both a significant improvement in quality compared to Apocalypse and a slightly strange change of course for the expanding franchise.
Five years after the Raccoon City outbreak, the USA has been transformed to a dying wasteland where little vegetation grows and the walking dead outnumber the living. While a convoy of survivors, led by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), slowly make their way towards rumoured safety in Alaska, Umbrella Corporation scientist Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen) leads the hunt for an escaped Alice (Milla Jovovich) – whose blood may be the cure for the virus.
Apocalypse differed from the first Resident Evil by hewing much more closely to Capcom’s videogames, including multiple characters and monsters, as well as settings and plot elements. Extinction weaves back in the other direction, and – a few new character names aside – does not closely resembles the game narrative at all. This is a post-apocalyptic pastiche at heart, effectively delivering Mad Max with Zombies to its audience, and dutifully following and referencing the elements original to the films much more than anything from the games. Mulcahy brings his effective sense of action photography and pace to the proceedings, and does a wonderful job of delivering visual callbacks to Anderson’s original film. It helps tie elements together and make Resident Evil a more cohesive franchise than it looked during Apocalypse.
That said, it also makes Extinction a difficult film with which to engage unless you are already on the Resident Evil train. Back story is not well expressed, but callbacks to earlier events are rife. For anyone trying the film as their first Resident Evil adventure will come away rather confused and very lost. Even if one watched Apocalypse, the five-year narrative jump leaves an awful lot of unanswered questions about the earlier film’s open cliffhanger and the latter’s incomplete resolution of it. Relatively important questions like “Is Alice still alive, or are we watching a clone?” or “Whatever happened to half of the survivors of the last film?” are not addressed. There are some excellent action set pieces – notably an attack by infected crows and a catastrophic shoot-out in Las Vegas – that keep the momentum going, and the entire film runs at a brisk 94 minutes.
The franchise’s genre shifts here. While the earlier films were very much an even blend of action and horror, it must be said that there is not too much overt horror to be found in Extinction. It feels rather less bloody than usual, and focuses more on the science fiction elements of mutation and cloning than the fear of being physically ravaged by zombies. It seems a smart move – familiarity with the walking dead can breed contempt if not varied sufficiently from movie to movie.
It is worth dwelling briefly on Milla Jovovich’s performance. She is such an effective presence in these kinds of pulp science fiction-horror crosses, and has a strong presence and affinity for action. She seems less actively sexualised here, which also feels an improvement. To an extent I feel audiences take Jovovich for granted, when she is such a regularly competent elements of these films. Ali Larter is a solid supporting actress as Claire Redfield; the character stems from the games, but there is little further resemblance than that. She essentially replaces Sienna Guillory’s Jill Valentine, who seems a less believable and less appealing character.
With measured expectations in mind, Resident Evil: Extinction is an enjoyable and decently inventive variation on a theme. It blends the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres in a reasonably interesting way, and benefits from Mulcahy’s well-rehearsed filmmaking style. These films work as uncomplicated popular entertainment. Sure there are better films out there, but everyone needs comfort food or unhealthy take-away meals every once in a while.