Resident Evil

Every now and then you need to gather a couple of wise-assed friends, head down to the local googleplex, sit in the dark and play Mystery Science Theater. Sure, it annoys other patrons, so you have to choose your movie carefully. Thankfully, Paul W.S. Anderson keeps making movies, so you will always have the opportunity. His latest, Resident Evil, tries hard to be entertaining on its own, but never quite reaches the mark.

Not just an adaptation of the popular videogame series but supposedly a "prequel," Resident Evil plays out more like a series of your favorite moments from the games. Isolated Mansion? Got it. The Hive? Got it. Mutant Dogs? Oh, yeah, baby, got it (and admittedly, they are a nifty, creepy effect, utilizing real Dobermans with as little CGI as possible).

But instead of the game's heroine Jill Valentine, Anderson gives us Milla Jovovich as Alice, a character so one-dimensional as to not have a last name. But she does make a terrific entrance, naked on the floor of a beautiful marble shower.

Why Alice? Because Anderson has a personal obsession with the works of Lewis Carroll, which played out better in last year's FX Network movie The Sight. Here it may be subtler, but it forces a motif into the movie that even Anderson eventually realizes just doesn't fit. Wonderland just wasn't known for its walking dead, though it might explain a lot about the Cheshire Cat.

The movie starts out promisingly enough, flitting around a typical day in The Hive, the research lab for The Umbrella Corporation. Of course, the research here is the highly illegal kind, and the day becomes atypical when someone purposely releases the T-virus into the lab. As that mysterious someone rushes to get out, he bumps past a lot of characters actually allowed brief flashes of personality.

It's short-lived, because The Red Queen, the computer running The Hive, determines that the best way to prevent a viral outbreak is to kill everybody. This opening sequence proves terrifically unsettling, as of course we know that these workers are minutes away from being the walking dead. As they realize what's happening, their struggles to escape take on a dread poignancy. And the movie never gets this deep again.

Instead it cuts over to that naked Alice, waking up in a bathroom with chessboard tile (get it?). She has no idea who she is, where she is, or how she got there, but she does know that she has a few scars. (We're made to think they have some plot significance, but really, it's just an awkward way of saying this chick isn't afraid to get dirty in a fight.)

Wandering her looking-glass mansion, Alice encounters ravens calling her outside, thrown in just because ravens are cool portents of death. The reverie gets loudly interrupted by armored soldiers, sent in by The Umbrella Corporation to find out why The Red Queen shut down The Hive.

Taking along Matt (Eric Mabius), who claims to be a cop, they all go down the rabbit hole to the underground lair of The Red Queen. Matt's credentials are specious, by the way, and meant to be so as proof of how corrupt and lazy The Umbrella Corporation is. Never mind that even though the soldiers don't believe Matt they still take him with them into a highly classified and dangerous situation.

And from there, appropriately, the movie is just a videogame. Oh, occasionally Alice has memory flashbacks that try to add suspense. Really, though, all that matters is that she is a highly trained security agent for the Corporation, and though she may not remember the details, she can still instinctively pull off amazing fight moves. So amazing they'll make your thumbs ache for a control pad.

In Jovovich, Anderson has a perfect videogame heroine. No one will confuse her with a great actress (probably not even she would), but she has a strong presence, and is surprisingly effective as an action heroine. If she doesn't show much range here, it's because the film doesn't require it. All she has to do is look alternately confused, slightly scared, and very, very determined.

Michelle Rodriguez backs her up, too, as Agent Rain. Though again all she's called upon to do is glower, she does it well. This woman takes no crap.

The men don't fare so well. Mabius just seems gawky and slightly detached from the proceedings, even when cornered by zombies. As the other half of the amnesiac security team, James Purefoy struggles to sound American, and the effort takes all of his energy. In fact, that proves a problem for a lot of the cast; shot in Berlin, the film has a multi-national talent pool. That may increase its chances of doing well internationally, but it makes for sloppy continuity. Mabius' character's sister has a very refined English accent, for example, while Mabius is very New York.

Fans of gore will also likely be disappointed. Though the crew has given the zombies a look distinctive from the usual George A. Romero rip-offs, they swarm more than actually eat. Too much is given over to CGI effects, which seems cold. We get to see the aftermath of attacks a couple of times, but mostly Anderson opts to make this zombie movie claustrophobic instead of bloody.

He also just makes it loud. Anytime something dangerous might be about to happen, the Marilyn Manson soundtrack cranks up to 11. If they can't make your pulse pound with real suspense, they'll just startle you with heavy metal. (This includes a sequence in which Jovovich stands stock still, the guitars thrash for ten seconds, and then fade out. Nothing actually happens at all.)

In some places, at least, Anderson shows a little humor. But not enough. And that's what's frustrating about Resident Evil (and almost everything Anderson has ever done). There's not enough of anything. Not enough gore, not enough horror, not enough suspense, and not enough real humor on its own.

Fans of the game may still be pleased just to see everything brought to life. Or maybe they'll just play the imminent new game adapting it. But for the rest of you, bring those buddies to help you laugh at the film. If only you could have laughed with it, instead.


Derek McCaw

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