Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Johannes Roberts
Say what you will about the Paul WS Anderson Resident Evil movies, they were popular, there were at least a few good entries in it, and Milla Jovovich carried them; an impressive feat as I believe she was the first woman to be the lead of a billion-dollar film franchise. It was kind of the MCU before the MCU was really a thing; a series that came out almost every year and made a boatload of cash based on a property that most in the mainstream had dismissed as juvenile and (cheap?). Now that Jovovich has finished her run as Alice and Anderson is stepping back to a producing role, it’s time to see if the franchise can be brought back to life so that Sony doesn’t have to rely on Spider-Man movies to stay profitable! Does this capture the essence of the games in a way the Anderson films never quite did, or will we be begging him to come back to the series by the time someone does a Jill Sandwich joke? Let’s find out!!
Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) left Raccoon City a long time ago and it’s the last place she ever wanted to return to, but she has some information from the INTER-WEB that is compelling her to return and see her brother. Of course, since this is a more faithful adaptation, the whole thing is set in the nineties which means she can’t just text him to get out of the city; instead he has to hitch a ride there and show him a VHS tape of someone who claims that the Umbrella Corporation has poisoned the city’s water supply and that something big is going to happen very soon! Her brother Chris (Robbie Amell) is not impressed and has to go to work on the dreariest and rainiest night imaginable which of course is also the night that all heck breaks loose in the city! There are officers at the nearby Spencer Mansion who haven’t reported in so Chris, Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), Albert Wesker (Tom Hooper), and a guy who ISN’T Barry (Chad Rook) head there to find out what’s going on, which leaves the new guy Leon Kennedy (Avan Jogia) alone to watch the police station with the crotchety captain (Donald Logue). It probably doesn’t come as a shock to you that both groups find zombies roaming around, and the city is put on lockdown by Umbrella soldiers who intend to keep this all a secret while one of their scientists (Neal McDonough) collects whatever research he can before extracting him and his family from this nightmare. Will the Redfields and all their buddies find a way to escape the city that is slowly rotting away around them? How does Umbrella plan to sweep this catastrophe under the rug, and is there someone among the survivors who knows more than they’re letting on? They set the movie in the nineties, but can they truly recreate the feeling of playing the original game for the first time all over again? Well not if they’re shooting this with HD cameras!
Out of all the original Resident Evil movies, Apocalypse is perhaps my favorite and is also what this film resembles the most, so when I say this is almost as good as that one, that’s actually a lot higher praise than you’d think. More so than the Paul WS Anderson movies, this one feels very much like a fan film with references and aesthetics taking a much higher precedent, and while that does ultimately stifle the narrative of the movie, I think that enthusiasm goes a long way to making this more than just another lousy video game adaptation. It certainly avoids a lot of the mistakes you see in recent adaptations like Assassin’s Creed and Mortal Kombat where half the movie is introducing a new character to set up a convoluted plot, and there’s some real ambition here in terms of cinematography. I never thought I’d compare a Resident Evil movie to Panos Cosmatos and Robert Eggers, but then I also never thought I’d see an on-screen Leon Kennedy without the dopey bow- cut, and it all works a lot better than you’d have any right to expect it to!
This movie has the unenviable task of pleasing hardcore fans of the franchise who were probably burnt out by the Paul WS Anderson movies while also trying to convince the fans of those movies to come back for something new. Whatever you may think of those movies, they made an absurd amount of money and I doubt that all of them were Resident Evil fans; especially since a lot of them weren’t happy with his interpretation of the characters and the series. It’s to the film’s credit that it manages to find the right balance between the two camps as it feels much more faithful to the original two games while also making significant departures to the source material. The broad strokes are definitely more in line with the original series with Raccoon City and the Spencer Mansion feeling very much like they do in the game, and for the most part we have the full cast of characters here. Where things start to differ is in the finer details and I think they made some interesting choices here; especially with the casting. Chris is pretty much the only character who is exactly as you’d imagine him to be on screen while everyone else is still recognizable given the roles they have but add their own unique spin. Jill and Wesker in particular play the roles in radically different ways, but it still works and stays familiar within the context of the story. It was also a good idea to age up Claire as it allows her to carry a lot more of the action and emotional weight of the movie, which somewhat fill the role that Jovovich did in the other films even if she never quite gets to that level. The only one that I’m going to be a bit of a fanboy about is Leon as the lack of a dopey bowl-cut is pretty distracting, but aside from that the actor does a good job with the character and I like that he ends up playing the put upon everyman stuck in a situation where people bigger and tougher than him are constantly telling him to get his act together. Sadly the dialogue is just not up to the task as the actors are struggling to get through scenes without sounding like… well, poorly written video game characters, but I’d definitely take this kind of liberal interpretation of existing characters over introducing a new guy just so he can ask everyone obvious questions over and over again.
What sets this movie apart though is its cinematography. I don’t know who this Johannes Roberts guy is in the director’s chair or the DP Maxime Alexandre, but they are going at this movie with the gusto of film students with full creative control, and every shot in this movie is painstakingly crafted for maximum moodiness. Don’t let the trailers fool you as they boosted the brightness and color up to a ludicrous degree; every shot is dark, wet, and full of empty spaces with danger lurking around every corner. The scenes that ARE meant to be lit have a sickly fluorescent glow to them; creating almost an unreal or dreamlike sense that frankly put me more in the mood of Silent Hill than Resident Evil. The soundtrack is no slouch either as the whole film has a strong ambient sound throughout that sounds just strange enough to keep you on edge, and sure, there are a few nineties hits including 4 Non Blondes, but for the most part the movie opts for mood and atmosphere over needle drops. They also lay on the terrifying rising-vocals which is one of the more prominent trends in modern horror films, but don’t knock it if it works I suppose, and it only adds to the intense tone of the movie. This richly layered filmmaking is to the point that you could say that it’s overdone and that a lot of the movie doesn’t need to be so relentlessly moody (Chris Redfield’s house has only one fifty-watt lamp in it), but the thing is that the Resident Evil movies have always been about excess; they’re just taking a different approach with it here. Paul WS Anderson built his movies around bombast and spectacle which were fine for the stories he was trying to tell, but we needed something different here and I think they landed on something that lets this stand tall and out of the shadow of its predecessors.
All of this sounds great and like a movie you should run out and see, but hold your horses! The other shoe is about to drop and that’s the fact that this is a horror movie… that isn’t scary. Oh sure, it’s atmospheric and they do a great job of mounting tension, but there’s never any payoff or jump scare that got to me in the least. Honestly, the zombies are by far the least interesting thing about the movie and I wonder how much more effective this movie would have been if all this creeping atmosphere was building in the first half without a single indication as to what they are dreading to find. Sadly, we DO know what’s out there and the stuff they add to the Umbrella side of the story is similarly underwhelming. I like Neal McDonough who’s done some fun work in other movies like this, but he feels like an after-thought and was left on his own to find the purpose of his character. It leads to a fun performance where he gets to ham it up, but there’s not much else to it and the resolution for his family is pretty laughable. There’s also a lot more of Chris and Claire’s backstory tied into the Umbrella Corporation which I don’t recall being a part of the games, but either way, it feels forced and unnecessary. Not everything has to circle back around to dark secrets in the past which is especially true in something like a zombie movie where the senselessness of the violence is kind of the point!
It’s unfortunate that the film can’t sustain its momentum throughout its runtime, but there’s only so much polishing you can do to a dud of a script and the lack of scares throughout. I still recommend checking this out if you are a fan of Resident Evil as it’s one of the more faithful versions of the series we’ve seen on film, but in narrowing its focus so much it ends up missing the forest for the trees. Not every one of the Paul WS Anderson Resident Evil movies were good, but they always had some degree of ambition and were held together by Milla Jovovich’s fantastic portrayal of Alice. Perhaps a sequel can iron out some of the flaws here and give us a character we can rally behind, but it’s a decent first effort with some SUPERB cinematography given the material they’re working with. It’s certainly a better use of a license than Ghostbusters Afterlife, though I guess both are evenly matched when it comes to lack of scares.