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The Resident Evil movie template is enduring, brainless, and sneakily brilliant

The Final Chapter provides an intriguing new lens through which to view the reliably braindead series.

Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil
Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil
Sony

No one would ever mistake a Resident Evil movie for high art.

The franchise, based on the popular video games from Capcom, traffics in crude characterizations, hackneyed storytelling, and pulpy sci-fi and horror clichés. The movies, which have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide since 2002, clearly have their fans, but they are not especially loved by critics. With a 39 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, the sixth and most recent entry, The Final Chapter, is the best-reviewed of the bunch.

While it’s not that unusual for poorly reviewed action movies to have surprisingly long franchise lives — see also: the Underworld seriesResident Evil’s endurance is unique among movies based on video games, which are rarely successful enough to warrant one sequel, let alone five.

The Resident Evil movies, which individually come across as little more than extended excuses to stage elaborate action sequences, together add up to one of the most reliably successful brainless action franchises in the Hollywood landscape, and a lone success story in the vast wasteland of failed video game movie adaptations. To understand why, it helps to understand what these movies are trying to do — and what they aren’t.

The Resident Evil franchise is brainless but effective action filmmaking

Believe it or not, the Resident Evil films do offer more than dumb fun. Throughout the franchise, which tracks the spread of a virus that turns most of humanity into rabid undead, there are a slew of crisply directed action sequences and some fascinatingly odd characters and performances.

The series also serves as a consistent vehicle for strong female action performances from the likes of Michelle Rodriguez and Ali Larter. It’s also an excellent showcase for series star Milla Jovovich, whose determined physicality holds the entire series to together.

Indeed, as one of the first modern action series to feature a powerful female action star, Resident Evil’s overall arc offers some surprising insights into the essential nature of female action stardom — and tries, in its own pulpy way, to subvert those expectations even as it meets them.

So it is brainless, yes, but also rather effective, and perhaps even sneakily brilliant in its own way: The revelations in The Final Chapter provide a whole new lens through which to view the series. To appreciate the sneaky brilliance of that revelation, though, we have to go back to the beginning.

Resident Evil (2002): A titillating beginning

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The first Resident Evil is an action/sci-fi/horror hybrid about a woman named Alice (Jovovich) who wakes up with no memories and eventually finds herself jump-kicking bioengineered zombie dogs in the face. Directed by franchise mastermind Paul W.S. Anderson, it’s a modestly budgeted film with similarly modest ambitions. Although it’s not exactly a good movie, it is reasonably successful at what it tries to do: distract, thrill, and titillate.

When Alice awakens — nude except for a carefully placed shower curtain — she’s quickly accosted by a strike team. As it turns out, the mansion in which she’s found herself is actually the entrance to the Hive, a secret underground research facility run by the Umbrella Corporation, the shadowy but powerful organization that serves as the franchise’s primary source of villainy.

Alice and the strike team, as well as two other bystanders who get dragged along, move through the buried facility where they encounter, among other things: a horde of undead employees infected by an Umbrella bioweapon known as the T-virus; killer zombie dogs; a villainous artificial intelligence that takes the form of a British child; and a freakish tentacle-spewing bio-monster rendered using early-’00s computer graphics that look very, very… affordable. In the movie’s most memorable sequence, which would become a hallmark of the series, members of the strike team are caught in a deadly hall of defensive lasers that slice and dice them into gory chunks.

The first Resident Evil sets the template for all that would follow: Alice, the virus, the monsters, the gurgling undead, the AI child, the killer laser hallway, the all-powerful corporation — these are among the elements that define the franchise, and they reappear, in some form or another, in some or all of the follow-ups. (Some of the supporting cast members, including Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon, return later as well.)

In particular, it introduces the Umbrella Corporation, which, as the movie’s opening crawl explains, is the nation’s largest and most influential company. Although it specializes in health care products and computers, its massive profits are actually generated by military technology, genetic experimentation, and viral weaponry, although even its employees do not know this.

This raises a number of questions: How is the Umbrella Corporation so successful at ventures its own employees don’t know about? How is it that a company that dominates the computer and medical industries does not make most of its profits in those sectors? Why do viewers even need to know about Umbrella’s public front as a maker of laptops and MRI scanners when this never affects anything in the franchise?

But these are not the sorts of questions you should be asking when watching a Resident Evil film. Indeed, if you are the sort of person inclined to inquire about the logistical details of the movies you watch, the Resident Evil series is probably not for you. These movies are not designed to deliver answers but rather to suspend any desire you may have to ask questions. They fill the void in your brain where questions might reside with drooling zombies, mutated monsters, and scantily clad women shooting guns.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004): Meet Alice the action hero

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In its second entry, the series moves out of the claustrophobic underground setting of the first film, and the survival horror aspects of the original give way to more conventional sci-fi action. Anderson returned as writer and producer for Apocalypse, but handed the directing reins over to Alexander Witt, who spent most of his career as a second unit director. So it’s unsurprising that the movie often feels like a B-roll compilation extended to feature length.

The plot follows Alice and another strike team (there are a lot of muscled dudes in tactical gear in the Resident Evil films), led by the grizzled Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr), as they track down the young daughter of an Umbrella Corporation scientist. But mostly it’s an excuse for a string of over-the-top action scenes, including a couple of bouts with a one-eyed bioengineered brute who carries a rocket launcher and a minigun.

This is the movie that establishes Alice as a formidable action hero. The first film’s memory-wiped blank of a human here becomes a gun-toting badass who sprints down the sides of buildings and shoots out inconvenient walls before power sliding through bullet-ridden plaster.

Granted, Alice isn’t the most complex of characters, and Jovovich isn’t the most emotionally expressive of actresses: She plays Alice with a minimum of facial and vocal variation, as if saving her energy for the jump kicks and power slides. But she also imbues the role with an intense and consistently thrilling physicality, bringing a kind of balletic grace to her over-the-top, elaborately choreographed fight sequences.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): A state of permanent post-apocalyptic emptiness

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Extinction was directed by Russell Mulcahy, a journeyman filmmaker who helmed the delightfully eccentric immortals-in-combat Highlander series in the 1980s. Thus, it makes sense that it mostly works as a guns-blazing, zombie-ridden riff on the Mad Max films.

Following up the urban violence of Apocalypse, Extinction moves the action to the barren sands of a planet that has been totally decimated by the T-virus that broke out of the Hive. Alice teams up with a group of hardened survivors, including Oliviera and convoy leader Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), in a caravan of vehicles modified to survive the zombie hordes.

This motley band ends up fighting Umbrella Corporation zombies in a post-apocalyptic version of the Las Vegas strip that’s been swallowed nearly whole by a sandstorm. Once again, Alice’s powers grow immensely: She conveniently develops telekinetic abilities while sleeping one night, which comes in handy when fighting off the zombie hordes. Eventually, she ends up in a throwdown with a mutated monster version of Umbrella corporation scientist Dr. Alexander Isaacs (played with deliciously icy gravity by Iain Glen of Game of Thrones fame), who spews killer biotentacles from his fingers. (It’s never entirely clear why the Umbrella Corporation spends so much time engineering fleshy tentacle monsters; you’d think other sorts of bioweapons might be more effective. But for whatever reason, it seems to be Umbrella’s signature.)

As is the case throughout the Resident Evil franchise, there is almost no character development to speak of in Extinction, no emotional arcs or fateful journeys. For example, one of the new cast additions is a young woman named Kmart, after the place where she was found by the other survivors. She chose not to keep her previous name because “everyone I knew was dead, so it seemed like time for a change.” That is the entire extent of her backstory, and this information never drives a decision or becomes useful in any way.

That’s how it is for practically all of the characters in this series: They seem to exist in a state of permanent post-apocalyptic emptiness, defined by a feature or two at most. They’re useful only as backup guns for Alice or as fodder for the hungry undead (or both).

In one way, this is just bad writing. But it also comes across as a (perhaps unintended) commentary on the meaninglessness of existence in an apocalyptic survival scenario. Personality traits just don’t matter much when the only task is to survive the next undead attack.

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010): Wesker rises

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Anderson returns to the director’s chair for a sequel that travels around the world — to Japan, Alaska, and eventually a Los Angeles prison that a new group of boring, two-dimensional survivors are using as a fortress, as Alice attempts to track down a distress signal that promises a safe zone free of T-virus zombies.

The middle section of the movie that’s set in the prison is unusually slow for the series, but Afterlife picks up at the end, especially once Alice finally encounters the big baddie: Umbrella Corporation chief Albert Wesker. Actor Shawn Roberts (who took over the role from Jason O’Mara starting with Afterlife) plays the character with a weird intensity, like he’s not playing a person but rather, well, a character from a video game — which may be because the character was borrowed from the video games.

Wesker wears sunglasses inside, his hair is always slicked back, and his outfits look like something the Blade films would have rejected as too over the top. He speaks with a lilting affect, but moves with a robotic determination, as if following some hidden video game programming. It’s a truly bizarre performance of a truly bizarre character, but it’s also one of the most effective and reassuring elements in the series, simply because of how committed it is to its own strange idea. Wesker’s prominence, and a handful of slick action set pieces, makes Afterlife one of the series’ better entries.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012): Competence in action

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Anderson returned again to direct Retribution and, as in Afterlife, tried to inject some visual style into the proceedings.

Much of the director’s work is hopelessly derivative, especially in his reliance on acrobatic slow-mo action sequences, which borrow heavily from The Matrix. But the opening to Retribution — a slow-motion shootout between Alice and a tactical squad leaping out of sci-fi helicopters that is played backward and then forward again in real time — is among the most arresting sequences in the series.

Indeed, although Anderson’s action scenes are not always original, they offer a clarity and coherence that most of his competitors in the world of low-budget action cinema cannot match. He’s not exactly a master of elegant long-take classicism, but he slows down important moments, picks shots that establish clear physical relationships between characters, and edits in a way that provides the viewer plenty of information about what is physically happening onscreen. He wants viewers to think about the action, to understand the chains of cause and effect, rather than experience it as a noisy blur of movement and impact.

That’s important, since you don’t watch these movies for the in-depth characterization or the skillful storytelling and world building. You watch them for the nonstop, over-the-top action, the relentlessness with which the series resolves everything in chases and gunfire and gravity-defying roundhouse kicks.

Indeed, the Resident Evil movies are paced in a way that suggests an anxiety about anything that isn’t action, as if the filmmakers are constantly worried that the audience will become bored. Character moments and exposition are never allowed to continue for very long without being interrupted by a zombie attack or some other event designed to kick-start a new action sequence.

Retribution brings back a number of familiar faces, including Michelle Rodriguez, playing multiple versions of her character from the original. The convoluted plot takes Alice through another Umbrella Corporation facility built to replicate various urban and suburban environments, and the movie has a bit of fun with the idea of Alice as a generic sitcom mom. It also boasts the series’ best kicker, in which Alice confronts Wesker from his new home in a White House barricaded to resist the undead hordes amassing outside.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017): Alice revealed

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This (likely) series closer plays like a greatest-hits album: Wesker returns, and so does Dr. Isaacs. There are more monsters, another pack of zombie dogs, and Alice and her crew, a mix of old and new faces, return to the Hive in a last-ditch effort to stop the Umbrella Corporation once and for all. Even a dilapidated but still deadly version of the original laser defense room makes an appearance.

Fittingly, Anderson is in the director’s chair once again to bookend the franchise he kicked off, but his action scenes here are quicker and choppier, lacking the grace and clarity of previous installments.

The Final Chapter fills in much of the backstory the rest of the franchise has glossed over, as we find out how and why the Umbrella Corporation intentionally planned and orchestrated the T-virus apocalypse themselves. In other words, it’s a movie designed to provide closure.

The biggest revelations in The Final Chapter, though, are about Alice herself. Throughout the series, she is presented largely as a blank — first as a bystander whose memory is lost, and then as a sort of zombie-planet superhero who lives only to survive and fight. The Final Chapter is, in a way, an extended meditation on the essential blankness of Alice’s character. As she heads into yet another perilous undead battle, she tells a fellow survivor, “Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life. Running. Killing.” It’s as apt a description of her character as you’ll ever find, and it tells us something about her trajectory as a franchise star.

Alice’s fate in The Final Chapter turns the franchise into a series about self-discovery

Spoilers for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ahead

In the end it’s revealed that Alice is a clone of a now-elderly Umbrella Corporation board member, and that she was created as a security mechanism to guard the Hive. “You have no memory because you have no life,” Dr. Isaacs tells her. “Nothing before the mansion, when we created you.”

It’s a pulpy, sci-fi twist that also packs in an unexpected level of series self-awareness, revealing that Alice is not and has never been a fully realized character with an inner life and interests outside the confines of the films. You never really learn anything about her except what she does. She’s a toy, an action figure, a creation of the franchise who is never allowed her own feelings or desires. Instead, she is tasked with entertaining us by running and by killing, over and over again. That really has been her whole life. Facing off against Dr. Isaacs and blowing up the Hive, as she inevitably does, is Alice’s way of confronting that trapped reality, of both owning it and overcoming it.

Ultimately, then, the Resident Evil series is a story about a woman who wakes up to the disturbing reality around her, takes charge of her own life and the world she lives in, becomes a powerful leader and warrior figure who spends her life helping other survivors, and finally confronts those who made her to be a slave in order to regain control of her own destiny. It’s a story about a woman’s empowerment and self-awakening, told in the form of six pulse-pounding video game action movies about zombies, monsters, evil scientists, tough dudes, and powerful women with guns.

The series’ success and longevity likely owes quite a bit to that seamless combination, to the fact that you cannot separate the two. Resident Evil’s brainlessness and its brilliance are one in the same.