Resident Evil: Death Island Fails To Reanimate the Series’ Action-Horror Thrills

Movies Reviews Resident Evil
Resident Evil: Death Island Fails To Reanimate the Series’ Action-Horror Thrills

In the years since Resident Evil (1996) introduced its brand of pixelated grotesqueries to the original PlayStation, the series has refused to die. We’ve seen many good videogames (and a few bad ones), multiple film universes, television shows, and just about everything else that typically comes with this flavor of multimedia franchise. However, despite always being centered on infections that morph their hosts into monsters, the tone and setting of these myriad takes have mutated wildly over time. What began as intimately portrayed epidemics set in remote communities eventually ballooned into political thrillers set in a world where viruses are utilized as terrifying weapons of mass destruction. 

Among these numerous releases, Capcom has been steadily producing 3D-animated feature films which directly tie into the canon of the games, a rarity among adaptations of the property. Resident Evil: Death Island is the fourth (fifth if you include the straight-to-Netflix two-hour mini-series Infinite Darkness) and latest installment and, similarly to the rest, its appeal is relatively limited to die-hard fans who are eager to know what the stalwart protagonists of the franchise are up to in between their bigger missions. Death Island falls into the same pitfalls as these prior movies, as its heavy heapings of fan service can’t make up for its undercooked characters and anemic climax. While it has a few action sequences that hint at the gloriously overblown operatics that define the middle era in the series, Resident Evil: Death Island doesn’t work as either camp or as something more self-serious, making for an underwhelming scuffle with the undead.

Taking place between the events of the much-maligned Resident Evil 6 and the comeback title Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, we follow nearly every protagonist from the games as they’re drawn to Alcatraz Island, the origin point of a new infectious outbreak. Jill Valentine (Nicole Tompkins) has recently rejoined her former bioterrorism task force team alongside Chris Redfield (Kevin Dorman); Leon S. Kennedy (Matthew Mercer) is on a mission to track down a rogue robotics engineer; Rebecca Chambers (Erin Cahill) is trying to develop a vaccine for a new virus; and, as part of her NGO work, Claire Redfield (Stephanie Panisello) receives a call after a beached orca is found with strange bite marks. Before long, the crew’s separate missions intersect as they confront a plot that could threaten the world.

If you’re unfamiliar with the long list of previously mentioned names, Death Island does little to bring you up to speed. Aside from Jill, who is finally back on the job after getting brainwashed by the bad guys in Resident Evil 5, there is vanishingly little background information provided regarding its sizeable group of central survivors, and there is an expectation that you already have an emotional attachment to these monster-killing badasses from playing as them. Although Jill has at least the semblance of a character arc as she grapples with the after-effects of being turned against her comrades, the rest are simply here to do what they do best: Shoot zombies in the head as they quip.

Admittedly, in some ways, this is a step up from the previous installments in the film series, where the women leads from the games, such as Claire and Rebecca, were repeatedly and needlessly turned into damsels in distress. Still, aside from avoiding sidelining these characters, Death Island does little with its fan favorites. While the previous animated movies have not been exemplary in this regard, they at least tried to explore the toll taken on the “heroes” expected to constantly save the day amidst an endless barrage of viral outbreaks. And it also doesn’t help that there is an almost inescapable lack of consequence to these productions; by their very nature, they are side adventures that can’t alter the trajectory of the videogames too severely, a fact that feels apparent in the lack of broader developments.

Still, there are a few original characters whose futures aren’t written, like the new big bad Dylan Blake (Daman Mills). He’s a man radicalized by a world where corporations profit off the creation of bioweapons while nation-states such as the U.S. attempt to cover up their involvement in their development. Broadly speaking, this vision of a capitalism-fueled horrorshow continues to have quite a bit of bite, and this remains the series’ most unique element compared to other stories about the walking dead. Unfortunately, in this case, these considerations are brushed aside due to this villain’s ridiculous response to the state of things. Although Dylan has a good reason to feel disgusted by the status quo, he reacts in the kind of over-the-top fashion that always seems to accompany this variety of change-seeking antagonist, trivializing the sentiments behind his numerous monologues in the process.

Truth be told, many of these issues wouldn’t be a big deal if Resident Evil: Death Island was more effective at delivering the pulpy action-horror that dominated a specific era of the property. While its first half has tense exchanges with the undead interspersed with occasional slow-mo shenanigans that are some goofy fun, it never fully commits to overchoreographed nonsense like the deliciously dumb fights in Resident Evil: Vendetta, a movie with exchanges so absurd they are now burned into my brain. Although I’ve long abandoned hope for any adaptation to emulate the creeping dread, helplessness and desperation provoked by exploring Spencer Mansion in the series’ debut, I just wish Death Island was better at realizing this more outrageous incarnation of the brand. Instead, its last stretch is littered with uninteresting trolley problems and an overlong ultimate battle that comes across like a cut boss fight, the jerky animation and placid shot compositions doing little to add energy to these scraps. 

Resident Evil: Death Island is laser-targeted at a particular demographic: Those who have played nearly all of the games, have seen the previous 3D-animated movies, and enjoyed the bombast of the middle entries in the franchise. However, even as someone who largely checks these boxes, Death Island’s rough back half and inability to render a compelling antagonist overshadows its occasionally solid fisticuffs and fan-appeasing details. Over the years, Resident Evil has cultivated many distinct strains of action-horror. Unfortunately, Death Island makes for one of its least-potent variants.

Director: Eiichirō Hasumi
Writer: Makoto Fukami
Starring: Nicole Tompkins, Kevin Dorman, Matthew Mercer, Stephanie Panisello, Erin Cahill, Salli Saffioti
Release Date: July 25, 2023

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest anime and “prestige” programming, he also loves videogames, movies, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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