This rewatch of 2002’s Resident Evil reminded me of the late Roger Ebert’s infamous viewpoint towards the idea that video games can never be art. I’ve never agreed with the stance, despite his thoughtfulness on the subject.
Unlike cultural arguments now, it became clear that despite the slightly condescending opinion, he seemed open to the idea of being wrong, if persuaded with the right information. I feel titles that could have helped turn his judgement have started to emerge now, after his passing. Games such as The Last of Us (2013) were released the same year we lost the critic. A part of me wished we could have seen his response – whichever side he landed on.
While on this subject, Ebert said about the medium: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” Taking the definition of art as ‘the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions’ this simple construction makes Ebert’s primary thoughts feel like the ‘angry man yelling at cloud’ meme. Placing some of these concerns aside, doesn’t the idea of a video game serve this basic function?
However, while so many art forms fold into each other quite harmoniously, video game adaptations are for the most part painful endeavours. The process of creating an appealing film which can emotionally stimulate the senses with the main source being a video game has had a low batting average. Ebert’s thoughts on video games as art may start to feel flimsier as the billion-dollar industry draws more eyeballs to it than movies nowadays. Creating beautiful worlds and developing strong emotional bonds during play. Yet the reimagining of many of these stories in cinematic form have been braindead. One of the questions that I often pose myself is why video game movies can often feel so artless.
Capcom’s impressively successful Zombie franchise had robust beginnings. Originally released in 1996 to the tune of $467 Million (adjusted for inflation), the game which truly brought the idea of ‘Survival Horror’ to the mainstream made an absolute killing upon its first release. So much so that German film company Constantin Films scooped up the film rights in 1997, before the second game made an even bigger splash in 1998. The idea of a film hopped between filmmakers, with the most notorious attempt coming from the late George Romero. His script was rejected by producer Berndt Eichinger, who was unwilling to finance a film that would, somewhat ironically, be banned in his home country due to its violence. However, it was the industrious Paul W.S. Anderson, whose love of the first two games inspired him to write – allegedly in his own words – “a rip-off spec script” from the game for the producers. In late 2000 Anderson was made director of Resident Evil. The director and the company never looked back.
A smattering of plot. Alice (Milla Jovovich) awakens naked in the bathroom of a deserted mansion with a strong case of amnesia. While trying to trace her steps, suddenly a group of military specialists burst through the mansion intending to enter the mansion’s underground hideout known as The Hive. Ordered to navigate this underground, booby-trapped fort with this tactical force, the group encounter yet another amnesiac, Spence (James Purefoy) along with The Hive’s security system: The Red Queen, who was doing quite a bit to contain… zombies.
In the twenty years since its release, Anderson’s zombie actioner has become a rather quaint affair. One that unintentionally highlights to its audience that it is a film of its time. From its colour palette to the industrial rock and EDM soundtrack, the whole film screams 2002. Yet the film lands months before 28 Days Later (2002) and years before Shaun of the Dead (2004), so can make a semi-decent claim that it was one of the first western films of the 00s to make zombies in vogue again.
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Along with this, the Resident Evil of 20 years ago has a video game-loving director at the helm, but the aggressive fandom and strict need for media “canon” of today are missing. With no social media to engage with, it was harder for a certain type of fan group to form. This possibly allowed Resident Evil to do a little more of its own thing. It sadly loses some of the profoundly intricate mythology of the original game, settling for similar easter eggs that were found in Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995). That said, there’s a feeling of less interference. Resident Evil is allowed to be its own thing.
When Silent Hill (2006) is released 4 years later, the demands of being “like the game” have already become more prevalent. That adaptation, while a better movie than the critical reaction, does suffer from sticking so rigidly to its source material. The Resident Evil video game holds the type of intricate narrative which could pose a concern to translate on-screen. Anderson’s fat trimming allows a freer experience. One that prophesies a rekindling of zombies as a go-to villain for years to come.
In a Grantland piece about Anderson, the filmmaker mentioned his desire to create movies which held an appeal to the youth culture of the time. That wish appeal to the young folk of the era falls keenly into place with “vulgar auteur” peer Michael Bay, a filmmaker who has been quoted as commenting about his juvenile features: “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.” Such an unpretentious attitude in talking about his movies is a clear influence on Resident Evil. He’s not crafting high drama. There is a clear desire to grasp the pulpy roots of the material. There’s a clear understanding of the assignment.
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What we get with Resident Evil is like what was delivered in Mortal Kombat: narrative coherence sacrificed for kinetic action. The how and why of the film: not important. The focus is on splattering headshots, depleted ammunition supply and Milla Jovovich in either a state of undress or impractical outfits. Resident Evil shifts away from the puzzle-based elements of its source. The “haunted mansion” is left behind swiftly too. Instead, Anderson ensures that Aliens (1986) is a strong influence.
Resident Evil nabs much from James Cameron’s action classic and seeps the elements in desaturated, clinical tones. Anderson may mimic compositions and sneak in easter eggs of the game for the hardcore faction, but his film is mostly inadequate in delivering the heart-in-the-throat survivalism from the source he borrows from. Resident Evil is a video game in which even one enemy in a room can become a moment of nerve-shredding tension. Far too often any amount of dread dissipates as characters have everything revealed to them through stilted expository dialogue.
But Resident Evil is also based on a video game which features infamous lines such as “You were almost a Jill-sandwich!” in response to a character almost succumbing to a boobytrap. And this is perhaps why Anderson has garnered so much success from the series. It caters for its target audience with nods to the nemesis project and ‘Lickers’ from the second game. What matters is not the ins and outs, but simply the references and the action. Much of Resident Evil’s criticisms could be rendered moot, depending on how a viewer feels about the film’s quite brilliant laser security set piece. Something that’s not in the original game but holds a similar spirit.
Having the ability to do a lot on a modest budget. Anderson packs his characters into tightly condensed spaces and composes action with a clarity that larger films would kill for. Resident Evil even now operates with the type of budget certain blockbusters use to pay an A-List star but moves more effectively than some may like to admit. Much of this comes from Milla Jovovich’s committed and tactile performance. Playing a character not originally in the game and becoming an audience surrogate through most of this film, Jovovich is immensely watchable throughout not just this entry but the series. And despite the blatant aspects of titillation, it’s clear by the end of the film that Alice is a formidable action heroine.
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But is the film version of Resident Evil’s arrangement of elements appealing to the senses or emotions? Sometimes. In a trashy B-movie way, Resident Evil has solid moments of knock-around fun. It’s difficult not to think of films with the same tropes, which outperform what’s seen here. And at the time of writing, I’m currently replaying the excellent Resident Evil remake, which is still far more involving than anything Anderson has here. Yet Anderson’s film came out at the right time for home video sales and the international market. Appealing to audiences who are not aware of the game.
The franchise went on to produce five more entries and grossed over $1.2 Billion. There’s an odd attraction to the stock elements of Resident Evil, despite being done better. It’s been executed far worse. The strange thing is, despite having some moments of trivial enjoyment, the detailed richness which lies within the pixelated polygons of Capcom’s original video game still comes closer to representing “good art” than Paul W.S. Anderson’s low-key Aliens homage. But are the teenagers still happy? Most likely.
Resident Evil was released in the UK on 12th July 2002.