Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ten Feet Tall: The Resident Evil Films

Resident Evil: I was roughly 15 when I saw the first Resident Evil film, and at that time I was more a fan of the games than I was a cinephile. Expecting grunge, battered ocre-tinted corridors and murky lighting, Paul W.S. Anderson's more sci-fi leaning take on the franchise didn't resonate with me at all. Even now (ten years later) as I saw more and more fellow film-smart people embracing the series, and having myself watched the other four films, I avoided revisiting the original. My reasons were stubborn and unfair, given that I had long since accepted, and giddily took part in the abandonment of the game aesthetic displayed in films 2 through 5. Finally, as much for the purposes of this blog post as anything else, I forced myself to give the original another go.

I still think I would probably mark it as my least favorite of the series, though I've found plenty more to like about it than my 15-year old self would approve of. As much as Anderson deviates from the games, he is content to indulge in classic zombie movie tropes (which, fair enough), albeit in a mostly-refreshing way. However, with Alice only being slowly revealed as a character worth investing in as the runtime nears to a close, I find it harder to fully commit--Alice, and what she represents in this crazy excessive display of hedonistic cinema is my favorite aspect of the franchise (more on that later). Formally, the movie flirts with innovation and it certainly lays the groundwork for the brilliance to come, but still leaves me the filmic and feminine equivalent of blue-balled.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse: The first half of the sequel, not helmed by Anderson but rather Alexander Witt, feels experimental and underdeveloped; shaky cam, awkward slo-mo (a technique that would later become a polished trademark of the series) happily offset by the welcome presence of Mad Men's Lane Pryce. The installment won me over with the use of Nemesis, a Frankenstein-ish tragic baddie who earned his own game I fondly remember playing with my elder brother, and the fearless headlong plunge into unconventionalism it took in its final thirty minutes. Alice finds herself, "rescued" from a helicopter wreck, trapped in an Umbrella lab only to demobilize her captors and escape with her friends. That her fate as a free woman would ultimately be worse than if she'd stayed was the kicker: a sort of ambiguously feminist wink to the viewer. No matter what kind of horrors the fucked-over world has in store for her, Alice is always determined to choose shooting her way through her day, and trying tirelessly to not be eaten, over being kept and exploited for vaguely patriarchal, ominous purposes.

Resident Evil: Extinction: So far, I think I'm the only person I know who thinks this is the second best (bowing only to the 5th film) of the series. Sure, its imagining of the post-apocalyptic landscape as a lifeless desert is not particularly creative, but that's beside the point. Extinction develops Alice, a heroine that even fans of the film like to shortchange as a cipher unworthy of further exploration. Here, she's elevated to mythological status: the one girl so special, so awesome, so unique, she could save the world--if only she would cooperate. That she doesn't, and instead enlists an army of her own unsolicited clones to take down and evil corporation is just too badass for articulation. Also, there's that part where she uses telekinesis to blow up a murder of zombie crows.

Resident Evil: Afterlife: The scope and desolation of Afterlife is devastating, and a sense of loneliness and desperation permeate the entire film, tinting every joke with an underlying bass note, and every boss fight with an exhausted anti-energy. Few franchises have the stones to obliterate the world and continuously portray an increasingly hopeless aftermath, film after film. Afterlife admires, passively, the strength of its characters while showing us that they, really, don't have a chance. But, like the Angel finale or maybe even like life in general, fighting is the point--winning isn't expected. For this intuitive compassion, his lack of success-expectation, and willingness to entertain survivalist fantasies, Anderson could maybe be called one of the most humanist filmmakers in Hollywood.

Resident Evil: Retribution: First off, RE: 5 is the finest example I've seen to date of cinematic 3d, single-handedly convincing me of its need to exist. It's also the only installment I've had the pleasure of seeing in theaters--though the final shot left me hoping the franchise never, ever, ends. This film pulls every successful aspect of the prior films out with a syringe and injects them back into a strange breed of movie that is wholly new, entirely exciting and already being woefully overlooked and undervalued by most critics. The inclusion of fan-favorite characters Leon S. Kennedy and Ada Wong (okay, so I totally nerded out over their mere presence) is as pointless as it is popcorn genius. Alice's choreography is poetry in motion, a snaking chain whipping infected skulls and snapping back in pleasing aesthetic rhythm, reminding us that anything can become pure cinematic magic in the right hands. Milla's Alice, in the first corridor shot (surrounded by fake undead Tokyo-ites) managed in minutes to become far-removed from Buffy, Uma's Beatrice Kiddo, an Sigourney's Ripley via sheer all-business demolishing. Those female action heroes that came before her, and she is forever indebted to, were still, ultimately, based in emotions. Alice has fleeting emotions--i.e. "don't die" or "don't let Umbrella win"--but mostly acts out of pure reflex. Her 'action' transcends because it involves no thought, no emotion, and no gender. Yet, with all that in mind, she is not machine-like: she is a woman... on the verge of a nervous breakdown, maybe, but not until her work is finished.

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