What? You think you’re going to watch Resident Evil: Afterlife, the fourth movie in the massively popular film and game franchise, which has established characters over the last decade and a half, and taken you on a journey that sees the world devastated by viral infection at the instigation of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, without having seen any of the other movies? Well, you can’t be serious? More so than many films that I have come across, and arguably more so than any sequel that I have ever reviewed, Resident Evil: Afterlife can never be watched as a standalone entity. It simply wouldn’t make any sense. So, for those who haven’t at least seen all of the Resident Evil films, then that’s where you should begin (and yes, even if you don’t enjoy them as much, you have to see the 2nd and 3rd films as well). For those who have seen them all, for completeness, I’m going to go right back to the beginning, and hopefully put all of the pieces of the puzzle together for you, so your enjoyment of this, the fourth entry, can be based upon the entire weight of the franchise, rather than just the flashy CG visuals it offers and gimmicky 3D element it boasts. Some Resident Evil franchise spoilers lay ahead.
It all started nearly 15 years ago, with the inception of the franchise in the form of Resident Evil, a Sony PlayStation survival horror videogame which followed the elite STARS (Special Tactics And Rescue Services) team members Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine as they searched a seemingly abandoned mansion after a viral outbreak in Raccoon City. One of the most popular zombie videogames, it did not rely on firepower (you often ran out of bullets) but instead on escape and evasion, setting the player a series of elaborate tasks which need to be completed in order to progress. Along the way, you discover that the viral outbreak was as a result of the activities of a mysterious global consortium – the Umbrella Corporation – and also find out that one of the other STARS members, a certain Albert Wesker, is actually a double-agent working undercover for Umbrella.
The second game, Resident Evil 2, was set two months after the events in Resident Evil, following two other survivors, Claire Redfield (the brother of the first game’s Chris Redfield) and cop Leon Kennedy, as they explored the greater Raccoon City area. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis is commonly regarded as one of the best entries in the series, and takes us back to the original character of Jill Valentine, continuing just after the first game and exploring her attempts to escape Raccoon City. It introduced us to the new character of Carlos Riviera, a member of Umbrella’s Biohazard team, and sees him and Jill face off against a new weapon, the mutated Nemesis creation, one of the most distinctive and unstoppable of the Resident Evil opponents.
The fourth game, Code: Veronica, follows on from the events of Resident Evil 2 and sees Claire Redfield take on Umbrella in an attempt to recover her brother Chris. In the end, the two of them have to face off against the previous Umbrella villain, Albert Wesker. After a brief prequel effort, Resident Evil: Zero, we got Resident Evil 4, which is set years after the original outbreak, with Resident Evil 3 character Leon Kennedy returning, now working on behalf of the US Government to recover the President’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult. Resident Evil 5, released last year on the PS3, directly followed the fourth instalment’s events, seeing Chris Redfield journeying to Africa to investigate the outbreaks there. He is reunited with Jill Valentine, who he has to free from an Umbrella mind-control system, and he is once again forced to confront lead villain Wesker, who himself has been infected by a mutated version of the original virus.
The Resident Evil film franchise kick-started back in 2002, with the Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon) – directed first film, which borrowed elements from the first two videogames, but followed a new lead protagonist, the amnesiac Alice, as she explores the underground facility located beneath a seemingly abandoned mansion. With a tremendous, over-the-top rock soundtrack (Marilyn Manson’s work) and some decent action/horror setpieces, it was not the greatest zombie film ever made, nor was it quite what Resident Evil game fans expected from a Big Screen adaptation, but I found it thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. It remains the most stylish and superior entry in the series, in my opinion, and its success (albeit not critical) guaranteed a sequel.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse took viewers on a Resident Evil 3: Nemesis-style plot of fighting to escape the infected in a devastated Raccoon City, bringing back the central character of Alice, whilst also introducing game characters Jill Vallentine (here portrayed as a cop), Umbrella Special Forces Operative Carlos Oliviera, and noteworthy villain, the mutated Nemesis creation to the franchise. It progressed the character of Alice to the point where, at the end, she has developed superhuman abilities due to her blood combining with the original T-virus.
The last live action entry (although there was a terrible animated movie follow up, Degeneration), Resident Evil: Extinction, gave us more of Alice’s superhuman, often psionic abilities, and offered further insight into the clone research work done on her by the Umbrella Corporation. Taking the action to the desert wastelands that are now all that is left of the United States, we saw Alice team up with various Apocalypse survivors (including Carlos) as well as a few newcomers (including game character Claire Redfield). The movie also briefly established game villain Albert Wesker as the Chairman of the Umbrella Corporation, culminating with Wesker journeying to Tokyo to take control of the Japanese Umbrella division, whilst Alice resolves to bring the fight to Umbrella, now assisted by numerous clones of herself.
Phew. Can you see now why coming into Resident Evil: Afterlife without any idea of what has come before it would have been a bad decision? Even if you’d just seen the first Resident Evil film, you’d have little idea what was going on in this fourth instalment, particularly during the opening chapter, which follows straight on from the closing events of Extinction.
Afterlife kick-starts with Alice and her army taking on Wesker and the Japanese division of Umbrella. After a brutal confrontation with Wesker, Alice is left alone, no longer empowered by the superhuman abilities brought on by the T-Virus. She decides to journey to Alaska, to find a fabled safe haven called Arcadia, which has been broadcasting rescue messages to any remaining survivors. Along the way she encounters Claire Redfield, who she had previously teamed up with for her exploits in the Nevada Desert, and sets out to get to the safe haven, stopping off in Los Angeles, where they find a new group of survivors holed up in a maximum security prison, surrounded by legions of the undead.
Wow, well this fourth movie is a messy, anorexically-plotted actioner, a distant relative of the solid original entry, and a far cry from the substance and tension of the excellent games. The characters have little development, the plot meanders from location to location, introducing increasingly elaborate zombie permutations along the way, but rarely sparking up even the slightest hint of genuine originality. The LA survivors are the most clichéd generic bunch of losers ever, none of which you even remotely like, and the ‘twist’ character – supposedly a dangerous, hardened criminal locked up deep within the bowels of the prison – is more insipid than the rest of them put together.
Heroes’ Ali Larter resumes her role as Claire Redfield, but has little more to do than run around in a wet t-shirt in slow-motion, shooting enemies with a pistol. Even the vague character development offered up by the Umbrella mind control device is not capitalised upon, instead simply jettisoned to be only briefly mentioned later as a sequel-friendly plot twist. In addition, the character of K-Mart (Spencer Locke) returns from Resident Evil: Extinction, but it’s another pointless nod within the franchise. The newcomers are totally throwaway – a film producer, his intern, a budding film actress, a celebrity sports star and a random merc – and there’s absolutely no love lost when you see them being taken out one by one. Perhaps more to the point, you couldn’t care less.
There is also an annoying problem with the way the movie was shot – i.e. in 3D – with many scenes clearly designed for 3D (softer backgrounds and prominent forefront objects) and thus coming across, in 2D as just an example of blatant greenscreen effects work. Where this may have worked in 3D, it looks occasionally quite amateurish in 2D, as if they haven’t finished the backgrounds, and this is just a working cut of the movie. Throw in a slo-mo overload (again obviously angled for the 3D interface) and an almost complete lack of tension, and what reason could you have to watch this movie?
Well, strangely enough, defying all expectations, I quite enjoyed Resident Evil: Afterlife. I’ve spent several paragraphs criticising it because I wanted readers to understand that I fully admit to the flaws of the production – and like it nonetheless. I also provided a huge amount of background into the franchise because one of the biggest reasons why this movie works for me, is because I’m familiar with all things Resident Evil. This fourth entry is not only ineffective as a standalone entry – totally dependent on your having seen the prior efforts – but it is also packed full of videogame references which mean absolutely nothing to the casual Resident Evil viewer.
What’s that strange-looking futuristic scarab crawling around on a character’s chest? Who is this Agent Smith wannabe, Wesker, complete with sunglasses and superfast, superhuman abilities? What’s Prison Break’s dull lead Wentworth Miller doing playing a mysterious character called Chris? Should we know him? Why do those infected dogs – and men – suddenly sprout second mouths? And who or what on Earth is that 8 foot giant axe-wielding executioner-esque mutant?
The entire Wesker confrontation at the end, shot like a heavily stylised slo-mo rip-off of The Matrix, is actually taken straight from Resident Evil 5, and I personally loved these nods to the game, and anybody who has played it will get all of the key references. But without that background, they could come across as just fairly random.
I also love Milla Jovovich’s Alice. Jovovich, a beautiful waif of an ex-model-turned-actress, has really made a name for herself in meaty action/effects roles, and the Resident Evil ‘quadrilogy’ is definitely her baby. Considering she plays an entirely new character to the game franchise, Milla has done extremely well to make the movies her own, and it would seem unlikely that they could pull one off without her. Despite her skinny, athletic frame, she’s excelled as a leading heroine, and she hasn’t always needed those superhuman abilities to pull off that depiction – so it’s quite nice to see her robbed of her powers here (even though they never capitalise on the fact, instead giving her infinite bullets and numerous guns).
It was a good move having Paul W. S. Anderson return to the series, having directed the first movie but only written and produced the other two. He is far from a skilled Director, but he has given us a few great productions – most notably the underrated Event Horizon. He may not be able to string a decent story together, but he knows how to give you entertaining action set-pieces, and even if he is hampered by having to cater for 3D during most of the shots, his John Woo-styled slo-mo shootouts, played out to some much needed musical beats (it’s the best score in the series since Marilyn Manson’s efforts on the first movie) are pretty damn fun. He also knows how to make the most of his wife, Milla Jovovich, and has her up-front, looking stunning, and performing a whole bevy of totally improbable but often very cool moves, whether with guns, swords or (perhaps most preposterously) utilising hand-to-hand combat. There are, of course, still some niggling gripes that even I have – what happened to Alice’s blood being the cure to the virus (as was discovered at the end of the last film)? Why so many nods towards a sequel, giving the film an unfinished feel (the mind-control scarab, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parachute twist at the end, and the mid-end-credits cameo that sees a character from both the games and the films make a brief return appearance)? Perhaps a further entry will resolve some of these, and given this film’s massive success it would seem inevitable, but – no doubt – any subsequent sequel will merely perpetuate the neverending story rather than bring us closure.
As a fan of the games and a fan of the first movie (the sequels have been universally average at best) I would say that Resident Evil: Afterlife is nothing groundbreaking, and plays out more like a videogame (which you can’t play) than a return-to-form entry in the series, but still works well with all of the game references and cool action-set-to-rock moments featuring the ever-watchable Milla Jovovich. It may not have huge rewatch value, and it may only really strike a chord with true Resident Evil fans (who should add a point to the movie score), but newcomers shouldn’t be too put off – this merely means that they have to pick up all the films in the series and play some of the videogames, which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing! Those who’ve followed Milla Jovovich’s Alice this far in the increasingly preposterous style-over-substance action-with-a-hint-of-horror zombie Resident Evil film franchise will find it hard to resist. So why bother struggling against it? Just shift your brain into neutral and check out the latest in the, clearly unfinished, consistently dumb-but-fun series.
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