The zombie genre has been done to death. However, like with the zombies we love for various characters to keep killing, the genre has never truly stayed dead. Just when you think there’s nothing left to do, be it original or just a repeat in some way, another film comes along. Now, over the past several years, zombies have even swept TV. There’s truly no end in sight for the hordes of undead that want to terrorize the living in some way.
While the Screen Gems film “Resident Evil”, based on the Capcom series of games, may be getting up there in age and about ready to come to a close (if it really does, which in this day and age is never certain or a given), that doesn’t stop it from being a great first film in a long running franchise. Yes, it’s usually a given that the first film is the best, but occasionally you get a first film that just does what it needs to. It sets up the world audiences have been investing countless years in or no doubt will. After that it’s anyone’s guess, and you could very well come to hate the rollercoaster ride that is the many sequels that follow.
What’s not to like about this film?! It takes place in a confined space, with very few means of escape. That type of confinement is scary enough. Throw in a homicidal A.I. and you’ve got a mystery well worth following. Of course, once you realize there’s a horde of undead, all with one thought in mind, it’s too late to back out. In some ways, but probably not at all like with the video games, of which I’ve never played the originals or recent iterations and haven’t finished “Resident Evil 4” for Wii, it feels kind of like you’re involved in one. There’s a certain drive that pushes you forward. You have to figure it all out and escape. Granted, that’s also the hallmark of a good or decent mystery.
Nothing comes too quickly. Unfolding the mystery and trying to develop suspense, but not too successfully it seems, which could be a byproduct of time, is the first order of business. With this you’ll slowly learn some things about the characters who’ll take on this perilous mission, but not too deeply as that’s not this type of film. Because of this, you’re free to look around the underground facility known as the Hive. There’s a lot to fear and be curious about, and the way this film was shot, you come as close to being another character as any video game adaptation has probably ever allowed.
This is where the fun begins. While the mission may be well intentioned, the consequences come swiftly and are deadly. Even with execution, writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson manages to make the deaths fun and carry some actual weight. They’re severe enough. Take the laser grid sequence. Colin Salmon tries his best to survive, and moves that should’ve worked well don’t. The A.I. program called the Red Queen is too smart. So it’s not just that they die, it’s that they’re killed in a rather methodical fashion. The Red Queen is nothing if not persistent in her quest to contain the T-virus outbreak.
This brings you to the main event. While not suspenseful or scary in the least, thus really lacking in anything to make it a horror film, which I’m seriously beginning to think it never was, the slow reveal that Anderson set up still works in its favor. After much story and mystery building, the reanimated corpses of those who worked for the Umbrella Corporation, begin to attack. It’s one barrage after another. Virtually no slowing down. While it’s difficult to explain what exactly makes it so entertaining to watch Michelle Rodriguez, Milla Jovovoich, Eric Mabius or Martin Crewes fight back against all the undead, just knowing that it is should be enough. I couldn’t look away. I shouldn’t still be that interested and yet I was. It’s really just got to be the zombies. The looks for each and every infected person encountered is good, scary and original enough. With so many and in quick succession, it’s tough to pick which one was my favorite.
Gone To The Dogs
While I may love seeing the undead attack and appear out of nowhere, I can’t say they were the standouts in this film. The sequences never stopped entertaining me, but they also didn’t wow me. Not like in the later films. Sure Jovovich could show off some impressive ass kicking skills in the maintenance tunnels, which also made her character so much cooler than before, but it was still somewhat limiting. Even when getting out of the tunnels, you could only get so excited. If it weren’t for the reanimated dogs, I’m not sure this film would’ve achieved the level of popularity it did. It’s one of the more memorable scenes, and with good reason. The dogs are kind of terrifying! There’s a lot them and they’re maimed and hungry. Jovovich gets to run across walls, kick zombie dogs, and shoot! If that’s not the coolest thing in this film, I don’t know what is.
However, upon further reflection, like another fun creature in this film, the dog sequence does seem to have its drawbacks. It’s confined to one area. I get that’s where the dogs were located, but after the doors opened throughout the facility, shouldn’t the dogs have ventured out? It just seems to be the instinctive thing, even for zombie dogs. I ask this because it’s making me wonder what this film would’ve been like with more attacks from these dogs and more people going up against them. With this being the first film and the cast being quite small, I can’t really say Jovovich was the focus. Yes she’s billed first and the film sort of starts with her, but there’s no prime focus on her. That comes in later films. All I can do now is imagine.
Undead workers and dogs aren’t the only fun to be had in this film. Mutated creatures, but one specifically. He’s called a Licker. While he doesn’t have many lengthy appearances or cause too much mayhem for the characters, he still manages to showcase how deadly he is. He’s also gross to look at and appropriately named. While the best sequence the Licker is featured in is the finale, it’s still quite limited in scope, which is really keeping with the film’s overall theme, even if it is unintentional.
However, like with all good things, there are some downsides. While the Licker looks great in its design, even after all these years, it doesn’t look too good when up against live action characters. Actually it looks downright awful. Great creature design but shitty effects bring it to life. It’s not too uncommon with films from the early-2000s, but I didn’t realize how bad it really was. It’s about a few notches above that of what you’d see in a SyFy Original Movie featuring CGI creatures of any sort. Perhaps it’s not simply that it’s featured in a film from 2002, but that since that time, 15 years have passed and technology has so drastically been improved. That being said, while it was a bit surprising, it didn’t prevent me from loving Alice taking it on and showing it whose boss. In some ways, I feel that the lack of Licker sequences, or certainly lengthier ones, is also a downside. It would’ve really given the team something to consistently be afraid of, on top of all of the infected.
This is a first film, and many people have and can continue to debate the franchises overall success, but for all of the fun it offers, it pales in comparison to some of its sequels. There’s a beauty in not watching every film you own 30 times in the span of a couple of years, or even decades. You can go in with some pretty fresh eyes and rediscover it. You might not drastically change your mind on how you feel about the film, but it could definitely show you something you didn’t know of before or hadn’t thought about previously. For me, that would be this. That this film is a great first film, with decent action and zombies, but not much else is achieved. It could only aim so high as its own narrative confines ultimately get in the way of its execution.
Original Release Date: March 15, 2002
Written and Directed: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, James Purefoy, Martin Crewes and Colin Salmon