9.23.2010

LIST: Resident Evil So Far...


Lately I haven't been able to get enough of Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil movies. They're sleek, intense and - most importantly - fun. They earn these adjectives through methods which, by comparison, embarrass most other films attempting the same. I've always liked the series, but over the past week and a half I've watched each installment twice as part of a pseudo-marathon brought on by my enthusiasm for the now-playing, glowingly reviewed Afterlife (which I'm trying - ineffectively - to resist dropping money on a third time). I figured I'd indulge my obsession with semi-formulated gush-reviews for each film, ranked in order of preference (preference determined by the re-watches and confirmed by the re-re-watches).


Apocalypse
Alexander Witt, 2004

Had I been asked just two weeks ago, I would have proudly declared Apocalypse, the only existing member of this list I missed in theaters, as my favorite Resident Evil and, furthermore, one of my favorite action movies in general. I do still love it, but viewings in such close proximity to its fellows have pegged it as the apparent weaker link.

Basically, this sophomore chapter is a series of delicious moments with passable, often energetic filler (and some painfully choppy zombie slow-motion) in between. These moments, heralds for more action-focused content to come, are dynamic stunt pieces. Alice's (Milla Jovovich) hurdle from an exploding police car, her camera-spinning flip dismount from a motorcycle she just wheelied through a wall of stained glass and several others make for a more than worthy experience in the face of everything else being at a "B" level (in the contemporary sense of the term, not the proper, financially referential sense, which I prefer).

Jovovich herself is probably at her series-best here as recurring protagonist Alice. She looks better than ever in perhaps the coolest costume she's yet boasted while enjoying a great deal of signature breathless moments. She also gets to come out of the shell created by the first film's amnesiac, featherweight Alice. She's now been experimented on by the sinister Umbrella corporation as a potential bionic weapon, making for the first time we see her as she exists in current public consciousness - a badass daredevil out for revenge and the salvation of humanity, or at least of her surviving friends.

Now, it might be mentioned before I get too far that I'm not really familiar with the video game source material. When I was 13 I played Resident Evil 2 on my N64 and loved it, but I've hardly peeked at another of the franchise's titles since. For the most part, I don't stand to pick up on the movies' winks to the games, but I feel this is a benefit to my reaction as subsequently I don't stand to be disappointed when one of the winks doesn't live up to some kind of expectation. Anderson has said from the beginning he was trying to create a new experience for fans as opposed to translating something previously traversed into a new medium (as he did, successfully, with Mortal Kombat), and through this mentality the films have become their own entity, separate from their source.

All that said, though, I can absolutely appreciate a decently accomplished cross-media wink when I do catch it. In this case, Apocalypse's version of the Nemesis monster from Resident Evil 2 is executed with appropriate menace and apt craftsmanship. Though zombies remain a consistent threat, each film highlights a mutated result of an Umbrella experiment, but where the first film's Licker was primarily computer-generated, here Nemesis is entirely practical and all the more impressive for it (though, admittedly, the franchise's use of CG overall is perfectly acceptable and, more importantly, scarcely distracting).

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the new supporting cast members. Resident Evil movies are merciless, never hesitating to pick off their darlings, so companion slots get re-stocked each outing. This time we get the highly likable Carlos Olivera (Mummy actor Oded Fehr), L.J. (stand-up comedian Mike Epps) and Jill Valentine (former model Sienna Guillory). These people, like their counterparts in the other movies are development-lite, their characteristics readily comprehensible. As with a spritely anime series, any attachment we feel is likely due to Alice's own relations. Though it may sound it, this is far from a complaint - Resident Evil's goals are certainly not to create compelling, dialogue-driven narratives, and I'd hazard its use of characters is on par with other action-oriented successes like Aliens.


Extinction
Russell Mulcahy, 2007

Again, had I been asked two weeks ago, this one's placement would be a different story. As referenced in my Afterlife review, I did not care for Extinction when I saw it in in theaters. In fact, I cared for it so little I didn't return to it until just this past weekend. I think I've determined why I had a negative reaction upon that initial viewing, and it actually has little to do with the awful scene in the radio station toward the beginning (very easily the series' lowest low point) or how fast and easy it plays with the dispatching of even more central protagonists, or how it pulls a Return of the Jedi Death Star reconstruction with little holographic computer girls and deadly laser rooms (I actually like that it did that).

See, where Apocalypse attains awesomeness through its series of moments, Extinction is more evenly spread. It has moments - Alice vs. the crows, Alice hunts down Dr. Isaacs' tent - but they're less exclamation points and more full sentences. I believe I had been feverishly anticipating an extension of the Apocalypse as opposed to a whole new tone, and only within the past year or so (to my embarrassment) have I gotten better at setting expectations aside in favor of film purity. More than obviously, there's nothing wrong with full sentences... I simply wasn't prepared for them at first.

Revisiting Extinction has proven it to me as the most ambitiously narrative of the series. Where events thus far have been restricted to the fictional Raccoon City (which is supposed to be in... the mountains of Pennsylvania?), this third film brings the events to a world we can relate to through product placement and location recognition. When Alice enters an abandoned convenience store, we see Jeff Gordon's "24" plastered on the door, presumably advertising his short-lived (but delicious) energy drink. She also passes a large Pepsi banner (come to think of it, Pepsi actually produced that "24" beverage - clearly a promotional tie-in, but a respectable one as it is only used realistically and non-exploitatively and doesn't extend past this one scene). Later, a convoy led by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter in a welcome return to the big screen) plows into frame blasting Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida - the only non-score music in a Resident Evil movie so far - before referencing American states and cities and even venturing into a desert-devoured Las Vegas. For the first time, Umbrella's cell re-animating T-Virus infection threatens the world we know and love.

The world being almost entirely ravaged by the T-Virus brings another first - the exploration of survival tactics. One of the more interesting scenes involves the handing out of single cans of food to convoy members as part of a break on their quest from gas stations to grocery stores to motels in search of supplies and other survivors. It's somewhat reminiscent of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. What's more, it flips RE into ER, as in Easy Rider. Alice on a motorcycle, cruising through the desert, getting by on what precious little she can? Now there's a fresh - and highly pleasing - aesthetic. All we need is some Holy Modal Rounders.

Perhaps the boldest distinction though, is the antagonist, Dr. Isaacs. Thus far we've known of Umbrella as a somewhat ambiguous corporation and even met some of its personnel in Apocalypse, but Isaacs is a renegade with his own agenda. He rebels against the newly introduced Chairman Albert Wesker, abusing a position of power and conducting selfish experiments. He may lack an entirely compelling nature due to Anderson's fun-first, plot-later writing but he's uniquely sympathetic in Resident Evil's villain universe.


Resident Evil
Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002

You know, usually I don't write my lists in order, but this time I started with Apocalypse and I'm moving directly forward... and already I feel bad for ranking my beloved Resident Evil sequel lowest as it really does bring some of the series' purest fun. It just doesn't pack the creativity of Extinction or the non-stop, heart-pounding intensity of this premiere entry.

Yeah, I said "heart-pounding". I may be guilty of cliché more often than I'd like to admit, but in the case of most Paul W.S. Anderson movies and particularly in the case of this franchise's installments he actually directed (as opposed to wrote/produced as he did for Apocalypse and Extinction), review clichés like "heart-pounding" and "thrill ride" fit like a [insert remainder of cliché here (and try not to be dirty)]. Anderson coins these popular phrases. The potency of Resident Evil permeates from opening minutes to cliffhanger finale. I would even go as far as to declare this film an iconic - yep, iconic - demonstration of what it means to be a solid thriller in the 2000s. Even if you dislike what you see here, I defy you to forget it.

Apart from constant thrills (which are aided by Marilyn Manson's hard electro-rock score), it is marvelous to see Anderson's passion for his craft translate so well into finished product. His penchant for low-angle establishing shots is put to likely its most beautiful use (the main hall of the mansion in particular, with its lovely ceiling, stands out) while he adds zesty punctuation with close-ups on objects completing brief motion (a la the shard of reinforced glass from the opening sequence in the Hive or the empty shell from Alice's pistol... or even, in a slightly different sense, the close-up on Alice as she delivers a killing blow with a hatchet). The underground laboratory setting's claustrophobic nature never once lets up as our characters prowl its depths. There broils an effervescent fervor in every frame.

One of my favorite things about Anderson is a knack for inspiring sick chuckles from his audience. Even when bad things happen to good people (and especially when they happen to bad ones), he rarely fails to coax a cruel grin across my captivated mug. Showing yet again he's right at home in a world of monstrous genetic mutations and the sub-machines that dimple their hides, Anderson elicits the twisted chuckles most effectively here in Resident Evil-ville. Sometimes his characters share the pleasure.

And how about all the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland references? Well, I don't really know why they're there apart from the "Oh, hey, we have a story that takes place in a mysterious underground world" factor, but they work! Most obviously our curious and lost main character's name is "Alice". Toss in a white rabbit-inspired realization and a homicidal (with noble intention) computer system in command of the Hive named the Red Queen and--wait... homicidal computer system in charge? That sounds familiar. Okay, yes, it's very HAL-9000... but in my opinion the Red Queen is distinct and overt (overtly creepy, that is) enough that comparisons to HAL only stick from an objective, backseat perspective.

Did I just gush about Resident Evil without once mentioning the infamous laser room? Well, I'd like to think I mentioned it... indirectly. It's the film's pinnacle of relentless ferocity.


Afterlife
Paul W.S. Anderson, 2010

No-brainer here (bonus points for catching all three meanings)! Any recurring readers of mine (all two and a half of them) already know my unwavering adoration for this film, perhaps to the point they're pleading "Enough already!" Well, since I did already review this mother proper, I'll make sure not to retread too much ground (more bonus points if you didn't mind all three shameless review links).

Resident Evil has always been about girl power, what with its recurring main character, the first film's reconnaissance operative Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), Jill Valentine and even K-Mart (Spencer Locke), but Afterlife's combination of Alice and a now convoy-less Claire Redfield brings that power to new grounds of formidability. Both of these women are staying strong in spite of emotional wounds. Claire has lost everyone she was trying to save, Alice is constantly having potential post-apocalyptic romances gruesomely torn away and neither of them can be sure who to trust. I cheer for Larter and Jovovich more as a pair than I think I have for any of their respective solo efforts (I.E. Larter's Sara from one of my favorite horrors, William Malone's House on Haunted Hill, or Jovovich's title character in Kurt Wimmer's intriguing experiment, Ultraviolet). Claire even gets to break out of the sidekick role with a one-on-one showdown against the Axeman - easily a highlight.

One of the main reasons I love that Axeman showdown actually has little to do with Claire finally taking center stage - it's the use of water. As he does with rain and super slow-motion so powerfully in the opening scene my adrenaline is pumping just thinking of it, Anderson uses spraying water from broken shower pipes to flood the 3D depth of field. With James Cameron's three-camera PACE system at his disposal, the falling drops of water make you distinctly aware of the set's every possible plane. It's like peering into a shoebox diorama... just one-hundred times cooler.

For being only the second director to use PACE for a wide release feature, Anderson doesn't seem afraid to test the system's limits or try daring new things with it. Almost every shot is composed with PACE's capabilities in mind. If 2D cinematography does well to obey the rule of thirds, Anderson here is playing by a rule of twenty-sevenths while keeping his sick chuckle well intact through expert tempo and Jovovich's own genuine expressions.

All said, Afterlife is a revelation in action filmmaking, and a true spectacle to behold. It takes full advantage of its young format and proves 3D's new wave can indeed be worth a hot damn.


Rebirth (?)
Paul W.S. Anderson (hopefully), 2012 (hopefully)

Alright, being extra-optimistic here. We have no idea yet what a fifth installment would encompass apart from what was hinted in the fourth's final moments. Anderson has gone on record stating he only works one film at a time, never wanting to assume he'll get a whack at a sequel thereby pulling punches and not allowing his passion to create what it wants in the moment. He always tacks on exciting cliffhangers, though, so much like with the '80s' Friday the 13th sequels, there's always room for more should the audience demand it.

If Anderson does direct (barring previous engagements like Alien Vs. Predator and Death Race, the projects that kept him out of the cheese chair on Apocalypse and Extinction), he'll be coming to the table with PACE experience from Afterlife and Three Musketeers. Presumably, he'll be able to execute even newer, more creative ideas due to familiarity with the system.

Returning to the aforementioned idea that these movies have always been for the fans... once Afterlife hit the United States with a runaway opening weekend and became the number one taker worldwide, Jovovich spoke with New York Magazine about reaching out via Twitter to see what fans want for the next chapter.

So, what would I want in a fifth? Well, I wouldn't want too many more survivors biting the dust. Unless martyrs are to be made of certain players, I'd like to think characters like K-Mart and Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) have been through enough that they are no longer expendable. Hopefully they'll even steal a couple more spotlights as with Luther's rooftop "slam dunk" in Afterlife. I'd also like to see Jill Valentine brought back from her brainwash (after a showdown with Alice and a flashback explaining her good-to-evil transition, naturally), possibly through a scene detailing the extraction of Umbrella's new toy - those mechanical spiders.

Speaking of Umbrella... how do they now function without a chairman and dwindling resources? What are the corporation's post-apocalyptic values sans leader? Perhaps those spiders could be emblematic of Umbrella's new goals... and perhaps during an exploration of the arachnoid brainwash project we could see an easter egg suggesting the Axeman's origin?

And would it be too much to try and incorporate Apocalypse's Angie Ashford (Sophie Vavasseur)? As with Jill, there are loose ends involving that character's vanishing in the transition from second movie to third (and it is never confirmed that she is, as it would seem anyway, the girl the Red Queen was based on... daughter of the Queen's inventor, daughter of the T-Virus inventor... same person?). Perhaps her and Jill formed a mother/daughter bond and took off, pre-Extinction... and maybe - just maybe - there would be an opening in there to bring popular video game character Leon Kennedy (to be played by Jared Padalecki?) back from the presumed dead? Could indeed be too much... but that really depends on what direction the overall piece takes. Here's what I'm thinking: in flashback, Jill and Angie reunite with Leon. Their surrogate family carries on until Umbrella apprehends and brainwashes Jill, a skirmish from which Leon and Angie manage to escape. Then, once Jill is de-spidered and her memory returns (and all the Umbrella soldiers are done away with... not sure how in the world they're getting out of that one...), she and the rest of the good guy gang go on a reconnaissance mission to find Leon and Angie.

More than anything, I just want to marvel at more killer 3D involving the exploits of treacherous trio Alice, Claire and Jill. The story, while perfectly serviceable and even, at times, worthy of further discussion, is secondary. Bring on the fireworks!!

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