Resident Evil (2002)

When it’s on: Friday, 26 June (11.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Films adapted from video games are, on the whole, a ropy bunch. I’ve seen a few; it turns out in researching this piece there were many that passed me by, and I don’t imagine I’ll move mountains anytime soon to catch Hitman, House of the Dead or Max Payne. Of those that have crossed the threshold of these towers, I really wanted to like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider because I loved the games when I used to own a PlayStation, or PS1, or PSX even. It’s not a terrible effort and Angelina Jolie’s good value in it, but you would expect, rightly I feel, a movie that’s essentially an Indiana Jones adventure to be much more entertaining.

That leaves Resident Evil as perhaps the pick of the bunch, which isn’t saying much. I’ve never played any of the games, which I’m told were amazing but doubtless more for those who like racing around corridors shooting zombies. The film isn’t great, but it is loud. The score, by Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson, fills every available space with guitar-driven noise; that’s when the soundtrack isn’t blaring with the sound of bullets, screams, explosions and electronic doors clanging shut. But somehow, that’s okay. As a product that attempts to do nothing but entertain in the brashest way imaginable, it works.

Resident Evil started as a George Romero project. He supplied a script, based on the research provided by his secretary, who was made to complete the game in order to note all its elements, before the decision was made to replace the zombie king with Paul W.S. Anderson. A film director from the north-east of England, Anderson is a master of lowest common denomination entertainment. One of his films, Event Horizon, I think is a fine guilty pleasure, though it was a surprising bust commercially whilst his adaptation of another video game, Mortal Kombat, rang up the numbers. More recently, I can’t forgive him for turning The Three Musketeers into an almost unwatchable mess, but before that there was Resident Evil, a hit with audiences and spawning numerous sequels (of which I’ve seen only one, and if I’m honest the others could be a struggle).

The story – and at times, I grew too confused to really follow much more than the cycle of chase scenes and characters stopping in a room to spout exposition – focuses on the Hive, an underground research facility where something’s gone horribly wrong. A virus has been ‘accidentally’ released into the vents, which turns all the workers into mindless zombies, along with the research animals. Later, a naked woman (Milla Jovovich) wakes up inside a mansion. She can’t remember who she is, but she’s soon picked up by a squad of commandos who are infiltrating the Hive in order to shut down its controlling artificial intelligence. It turns out she’s called Alice, and before her amnesia she was part of the site’s security. Pretty soon, the team starts coming across zombified workers, corridors defended by deadly laser beams and discover that they have to get out of there within an hour or they’ll be sealed inside forever. The commandos are quickly whittled down, Alice takes ever greater degrees of control as her memory begins to return, and the horrors within the Hive increase.

The film contains some neat nods to video games generally, such as the number of instances when the team is facing intense moments of survival and need to fight their way out or come up with a clever solution. Nor is it without wit. I like how the artificial intelligence, called the Red Queen, has the voice of an English public schoolgirl. There’s tension in many of the scenes, as the peril escalates and the almost random ways that commandos are dispatched really suggests that no one’s life is sacred, even those of the main characters. And some of the ways of killing are memorable, in a grisly way that suggests imaginative writing over the obvious means of dispatch. The head of the commandos, One (Colin Salmon) is snuffed out when he and several others find themselves trapped in a chamber. Rows of lasers start moving across, at ankle height, then in line with their heads, which the characters need to negotiate, before One finds himself faced with a diamond array that dissects him into pieces, revealing the likely futility of their chances.

Before too long, the survivors are reduced to several, including Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez’s gung-ho commando and James Purefoy, who is robbed of his memory in the same way as Alice, but in the past the pair were married as part of a sham arrangement to maintain their security work. Rodriguez’s character, Rain, has been bitten by one of the infected and knows that, at some stage, she too will turn into a zombie unless they come across a vial of the antidote. She’s good. Whereas there’s a tendency to see Rodriguez as filling the proto-action woman role, the bastard daughter of Vasquez in Aliens, she always suggests nodes of vulnerability beneath the tough exterior, as she does here. Purefoy, one of those actors who strikes me as much better than most of his film choices, is at heart an oily villain with few redeeming features. And then there’s Jovovich. It’s easy to criticise her for limited acting abilities, but then this is no The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the sort of meaty drama that exposes her lack of depth and the conceit of its director, Luc Besson (then her husband) demonstrating Citizen Kane levels of hubris. Resident Evil is an action film with horror elements and liberal levels of violence, meaning all she really has to do is kick ass at the behest of the script. Asses are duly kicked.

Make no mistake. Resident Evil is largely daft, makes little sense at various intervals and I loathed the lazy way it worked to an action-talk-action-talk rhythm throughout. And yet many of the ideas are cleverly worked, there’s a great atmosphere of crisis with characters who always feel like they’re in real danger, and Anderson tries to keep the CGI effects to a reasonable minimum, which is good because they’re terrible. I enjoyed it. I felt a bit dirty afterward, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained.

Resident Evil: ***