My name is Alice. —Milla Jovovich, since 2002.
Like a hole-in-the-wall restaurant you’ve been eating at since you were five, like the Congressman who was first sworn in during the Boxer Rebellion and still represents your grandfather’s old neighborhood, like the upcoming 57th season of The Simpsons, some things are remarkable solely due to their longevity. The Resident Evil series—film, not videogame—is one such cultural curio.
Seeing another trailer for the upcoming Resident Evil: The Final Chapter—the sixth (?!) installment in the series that first adapted Capcom’s zombie survival horror game back in 2002 and which follows up on 2012’s Resident Evil: Retribution—actually shocked me to my core. I felt the strange, unsettled feelings that only come with being reminded of high school, of part-time jobs I’ve worked that have since been made obsolete by technology, of theaters that have closed, of my own inevitable mortality. In short, I found myself wondering how I could have grown older, weaker, fatter and grayer, even as star Milla Jovovich’s ice-blue gaze and ability to fall impossible distances while shooting in Bullet Time have remained frozen in time.
Because make no mistake: This has become essentially the same movie with only a few half-hearted changes to plot and setting, all of it anchored by Jovovich agelessly performing the same sorts of stunts, wearing the same sorts of costumes, and generally going through the same exact character beats each time. It depicts what must be the most drawn-out end of days ever put to film. Will The Final Chapter have a scene in a pristine white room, possibly with Alice waking up 85 percent naked? A fight in which Alice uses gun fu and slow motion to conquer some zombie dogs? A hulking brute zombie with a bag over its head? A cadre of commandos wearing tactical paintball masks and who, we can only assume, have waited patiently in some underground bunker as the world collapsed around them, only to be massacred by the boot heel of Kiev’s favorite daughter?
I wondered, briefly, if Resident Evil will outlive me. As you’ve noted, this upcoming chapter—scheduled for North American release Jan. 27—is supposedly the final one. I’ll believe it when I’m cold and dead in the ground. With its impending release after five years in some kind of cold storage (Maybe in an underground facility? With a malicious AI as caretaker? And lots of zombies?), I decided to make some modest attempt at explaining this series to those who, like me, wonder just how it can keep chugging forward despite every reason it shouldn’t.
The bizarre taxonomy of a bizarrely invincible series
The Resident Evil videogame series debuted on the PlayStation back in 1996. We are not talking about it at all here. It only warrants mention because in 2002, Capcom teamed with the Nintendo GameCube to release a glossy new remake of the original game on new hardware with the most realistic Standard Definition graphics 2002 had to offer. That same year, Screen Gems churned out Resident Evil, the film. Fans of the original game had an exciting year. There was the feeling that this franchise would become something mainstream.
GameCube players got one of the best experiences they’d ever had on a system that seemed allergic to the sort of games that was making the PlayStation 2 king of the consoles. Moviegoers who went to the film saw a critically reviled action movie still addled by the insistence on shoehorning Matrix-like slow motion action into everything. The film stands at 34 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and by that metric remains the best-reviewed film in the series.
The film introduced Alice (Jovovich), an amnesiac who wakes up in a mansion reminiscent of the one that provides the first game with its setting. The mansion serves as the entrance to a secret underground facility called the Hive, where the malicious artificial intelligence known as the Red Queen has, for specious reasons, taken over and become murderous in the wake of a viral outbreak which has turned the staff of the facility into zombies. Alice, it is revealed, was an agent of the Umbrella Corporation, the pharmaceutical/pointlessly evil company responsible for the zombie virus.
This is the most we have learned about her in five movies.
Alice is snatched up by a commando team as they dive into the facility, only for the majority of them to get the shit killed out of them by a laser hallway a few minutes into the ordeal. This is a good time to mention that if you have any problems with movies that completely undo the hard work of the protagonists mere moments after they accomplish their goals, the Resident Evil films will make you long for the first five minutes of Alien 3. Alice goes to the trouble of saving Michelle Rodriguez’s tough-talking commando, only to have the woman go zombie minutes later. Alice’s escape is thwarted by goons who kidnap her and the sympathetic male character, and she awakens in a disrobed state for the second time in the film to find herself surrounded by a city in the grip of the walking dead as the credits roll.
Every other film in the series can be summarized in one or two sentences. To wit:
Apocalypse (2004): Immediately following the events of the first film, Alice and two major characters from the videogames fight their way through Raccoon City as her love interest from the first film (now a zombie super mutant) hunts her. Raccoon City gets nuked, Alice barely escapes in a helicopter but is rendered unconscious and captured by Umbrella again, and her comrades’ attempts to tell the world about Umbrella’s treachery are immediately undone by a media conspiracy. (This film is notable because after her capture by Umbrella, she awakens with brain-melting powers.)
Extinction (2007), which could have been named Apocalypse: Alice roams a desiccated wasteland following the total fall of human civilization, and locates a super secret underground facility (with a malicious computer AI) where villain Wesker (Jason O’Mara) keeps cloning Alice for sadistic tests. She flattens the place and ends the film at the head of a vengeful army of Milla Jovovich clones out for Wesker’s blood.
Afterlife (2010), which really could have been named Retribution: Alice invades Umbrella’s underground facility in Tokyo as promised in the last installment. Her clones are mowed down, her psionic superpowers stolen, and she helps an abandoned prison full of dreamboat actor Wentworth Miller and some other boring people escape to a nearby tanker that is in fact another starch-white laboratory with zombie dogs and a fistfight with Wesker. The film ends just before Alice gets rendered unconscious and captured by Umbrella again.
Retribution (2012), which really could have been named Afterlife: Another Alice clone gets killed (as in Extinction), this time with the interesting wrinkle that she’s been brainwashed to be some suburban mother married to deceased series regular Carlos. The real Alice wakes up naked in a massive underground facility filled with murderous zombies and ruled by a murderous AI. Is the fact that it is populated with the clones of dead series regulars and set up to perfectly simulate massive city environments going to introduce any new wrinkles instead of serving as just another boring backdrop for the exact same mindless action? I don’t want to spoil it.
They make money despite everything.
If that all sounded exactly the same, that’s because it was. The simplest explanation for why the exact same movie keeps getting made? It always makes money.
Though Box Office Mojo has no budget figures available for the third installment, every other Resident Evil has made at least double if not nearly triple its production budget back once you include international box office.
The last installment took $240 million worldwide on a $65 million budget. Even if you assume it spent its production budget again on marketing—not uncommon—it made money hand over fist. $65 million, for an action franchise film in the days of The Avengers and infinite Star Wars, is relatively inexpensive.
And, evidently, no amount of bad reviews will chase away the people who keep paying to see this stuff. I realized, with horror, that while I was suckered into the theater at age 18 to see Resident Evil in 2002, I was actually dragged by less discerning friends for the next two installments. And while I missed the latter two, consider this: Those two movies took about 80 percent of their box office from overseas, according to Box Office Mojo.
They have bafflingly good internal consistency.
Those who watch enough bad movies learn to expect very little in the way of continuity between installments of long-running series. This is why it is something of a marvel that the plots of each of the films line up, and that characters who leave the series often return later to be portrayed by the same actors. Fehr, Rodriguez, Ali Larter, and of course, Jovovich, have all portrayed their characters faithfully in every installment in which those characters appear.
It’s good to reward the loyal fans who have apparently been bouncing in their seats for an ending since 2002, but is there also a limit to it? Alice’s summarizing exposition at the beginning of each film is nearly beat-for-beat identical—you can almost hear Jovovich shoving back a yawn during her voiceover session for Retribution. Dog kicking, underground facilities, laser hallways, evil AIs—all of it blends into a soup of sameness that makes recalling each individual movie impossible without the Cliffs Notes.
And none of it is in service to any emotional depth, either. Characters who have returned from previous films frequently bite it with hardly a moment of pathos afterward. There’s no knowing wink or sly nod in any one of these scripts.
They have recognizable characters and concepts from the games.
Watch Resident Evil films and you will see zombie dogs, the licker zombie, the Tyrant bioweapon, subterranean trains, spooky mansions, and characters like Carlos, Chris, Claire, Leon, Barry and Jill. You will see Wesker getting into a super-fast fistfight with the Redfields. You will see bag-headed zombies with chainsaws, Las Plagas zombies, and a whole host of other things that those who haven’t played the games won’t get at all.
And yet, none of these characters have any of the character of their videogame counterparts. The series, not known for its complicated lore, at least gave its characters some defining quirks and then heaped adversity upon them. Yes, that beefy gentleman is dressed like Leon S. Kennedy from Resident Evil 4 the videogame. But it isn’t the Leon that gamers guided through hours of witty zombie-slaying action. That Leon would not get his ass handed to him by Michelle Rodriguez.
They have the evident dedication of a husband-and-wife team.
If I were director Paul W.S. Anderson and married to a star like Milla Jovovich, I suppose I would want to keep making action films that pay me money and let me spend time with my family, too. The two met during filming of the first film and have since married and had two children. In keeping with the family business, the part of the murderous AI in The Final Chapter—because every entry needs one—will be played by the duo’s elder daughter.
When you’ve got not just support from but important collaboration with your spouse, you can surely overcome obstacles that might sideline a project. So why is all of this in service of utter mediocrity?
There’s no spark of inspiration or novelty anywhere in a Resident Evil film. There are no knowing winks, no George-and-Gracie chuckles, no Nick-and-Nora wiseacre patter. There’s no artistry to the carnage, no commentary on the violence, no larger artistic statement to be made, none of the joy that’s supposed to accompany a soapy, long-running plot.
That utter lack of fun is the most damning failing of Resident Evil, and the latest movie could not have given me a stronger example. Retribution brings in a helpless young girl—a clone who exists to be murdered repeatedly for twisted experiments—and establishes that she is an innocent kid who needs to speak in sign because she’s deaf. And, we discover, Alice can do so. Hours into these drab films, I perked up.
“Kindness?” I thought. “A recognizable human trait?” I wondered if this would add an imaginative dynamic, inform Alice’s character, serve as the basis for an inventive action set piece.
Maybe Alice would sign to the girl to close her eyes and walk forward through a dark room, giving her the perfect assurance everything would be fine, and the trusting little girl would do so while Jovovich would go the fuck to town on a ravenous horde of zombies, all while this innocent little kid would walk nervously through the room, worried but completely oblivious to the violence and danger around her. Maybe she would emerge on the other side and open her eyes to see a beaming and nonchalant Alice there waiting for her. Maybe, as they would walk off, we would get a shot of the total devastation left in Alice’s wake, carnage that the girl has been spared. Maybe, just for once, wrecking the zombies would be about a higher goal instead of just about wrecking the zombies.
Nothing so memorable comes remotely close to occurring. Mere hours after watching the film, I can’t even remember what her fate was. The original Resident Evil videogames weren’t works of high art, and it’s an unfortunate truth that much of the emotion I felt playing them amounted to fear and confusion and frustration.
But at least I felt something.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.