Disclaimer. I don’t play video games. This hasn’t always been the case; I used to play occasionally, but only “classics” like Centipede, Donkey Kong and Pac Man. To be honest, I don’t understand most video games these days. The concept of video games having “stories” is foreign to me. Stories have a beginning, middle and end; aren’t video games more fluid than that, depending on what actions the players take? And if you can “beat” a game in a few hours, what’s the point; don’t you want to be able play them over and over with different outcomes? I share these primitive beliefs only to let you know that any opinions I have about the Resident Evil movies are based simply on the movies themselves. I don’t have a clue how they compare to the games or if fans of the games would appreciate the movies. End of disclaimer.

I’m a continuity junkie. I love movie sequels that begin immediately after the previous ones end, feature the same characters in evolving roles or otherwise acknowledge and respect what has happened before. I loathe movie sequels that either ignore the previous movies or are low-budget remakes with a number slapped onto a familiar title. For these reasons, I enjoy the Resident Evil movies as a franchise. Individually, however, there have been some ups and downs along the way.

In 2002, Resident Evil introduced audiences to the recurring character of Alice, played by Milla Jovovich. (It is at this point that writers usually put in parentheses a couple of other movies in which an actor has starred. If you’re reading this, you probably know Milla, so I’m going to ignore the obvious and remind you that she was in 1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon. Doing so allows me the perfect opportunity to give an example of a particularly loathsome sequel such as I described above.) Alice wakes up in the shower with no memory. Over the course of the first 100 minutes, she learns (as well as we do) that she was employed by the Umbrella Corporation in a secret facility beneath Raccoon City called the “Hive”. A deadly T-Virus was released into the facility and its security system, personified by the Red Queen (a computer hologram which appears as a little girl), sealed the Hive, killing everyone inside. That is, everyone inside who had not already been transformed by the T-Virus into a bloodthirsty zombie.

This first movie is fast-paced and, at times, quite thrilling. Even with all the monsters and gore, it’s driven by the mystery and the story. I’d credit writer-producer-director Paul W.S. Anderson for the vision, mostly because he did not direct the sequels and they seem to suffer for it (although he continued to write and produce). Before Resident Evil, Anderson directed Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon, both of which I kind of liked. After Resident Evil, he directed Death Race and Pandorum, both of which I kind of hated. (He returns for the latest sequel, Resident Evil: Afterlife, so we’ll soon see if his recent stumbles were flukes or a sign of diminishing returns.) There are two sequences in Resident Evil that are almost as good as anything else in the genre: the “laser hall” and the final train escape. While I’ve spoiled the overall story, I’m not going to spoil these treats; just watch them yourself.

Although I liked Resident Evil a lot, some great individual elements do not add up to one great movie. It’s uneven and budget limitations make themselves too apparent, a problem that increasingly haunts the franchise. In fact, the cheap look and feel ruins the second movie, Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The story by Paul W.S. Anderson meets all my criteria for a good sequel, but the execution by director Alexander Witt is poor. (That might explain why this is the only feature film he’s directed; he has subsequently been active only as a second unit director.)

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) begins immediately where its predecessor ends. Alice awakes (a recurring theme) in the Hive to learn that the T-Virus has escaped its walls and devastated Raccoon City. I like how the movie takes a familiar character and puts her in a familiar, yet new, situation. (Hey, that’s what the best sequel ever, The Empire Strikes Back, did!) The problem here, though, is that when the action goes outside, we lose the darkness and intimacy of the underground setting.

In the cold light of day, the movie’s seams begin to show. And nowhere worse do they show than with “Nemesis”. You see, at the end of part one, an infected Matt Addison (Eric Mabius, recently of Ugly Betty fame) is captured by Umbrella and used for experimentation, resulting in a hulking, badly-costumed monster. All of those who complain about CGI should take a good look at Nemesis; he’ll leave them begging for a little digitization! When the bad guy forces Alice and Nemesis to fight, the movie completely falls apart. The scene sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s “love conquers all” resolution is a yawn that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) begins a few years after the event of its predecessors. Although it also takes place in the outside world, it does a nice job of incorporating elements from the first movie. When Alice awakes this time, she is actually a clone who, after navigating the puzzles and mazes of the Hive (including the laser hall) is killed and thrown on a pile of other dead Alice clones. You see, when Umbrella captured her at the end of Resident Evil, they kept some of her blood, convinced that it holds the key to an antidote for the T-Virus. Much of this third movie involves Umbrella bad guys trying to capture Alice, even while she and her “crew” try to find sanctuary.

Over the course of three movies, Alice has discovered that Umbrella experimentation has given her powers; the extent is unrevealed, although they seem to be getting stronger. Ninja-like fight moves are the least of them, and they do account for some sweet action scenes. Helmed by someone who knows his action scenes, director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow), Resident Evil: Extinction is a lot better than the last movie, but not as good as the first one. A perfect example of my frustration lies in the scene of a crow attack. As cheap as it looks (some of the birds look drawn or actually scratched into the film), it is expertly directed. I’m torn between the urge to criticize and the urge to just sit back and enjoy it.

In three movies, Alice has battled (amongst other things) zombies, monsters called “lickers” and mutated Dobermans. None of these seem to be as deadly as the corporate bigwigs from Umbrella. When we last saw Alice, she promised to seek out and destroy them, likely with an army of gestating clones helping her do it. As the Resident Evil franchise has evolved, it has definitely changed in scope. The expansion of the original concept has been drastic, but I don’t necessarily like the shift from horror to a more epic action/sci-fi story. I do, however, respect it because it’s a natural progression that is not totally ridiculous. I’ll be there opening weekend to see Resident Evil: Afterlife, and if enough people across the country are there with me, I’m sure there’ll be another one in a couple of years.

Resident Evil: Evolution
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Resident Evil
Resident Evil: Apocalypse
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