Orchestrating the Apocalypse: The Survival Horror of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evils

By Christoph Huber 

“This is a product of the Umbrella Corporation. Our business is life itself. Some side effects may occur.” —commercial announcement lead-in to the end credits of Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

By now, there is a certain familiarity to the steely determination on Milla Jovovich’s face as she makes her trademarked announcement: “My name is Alice. And this is my story…” But this time around it comes with a capper: “…the end of my story.” Almost 15 years after Paul W.S. Anderson’s video-game adaptation Resident Evil (2002) became a surprise hit, the ensuing film series has come full circle with the sixth instalment, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. The highest-grossing horror-film franchise, habitually drubbed by most mainstream critics, Resident Evil has established itself as the rare blockbuster series that uses a formulaic framework to achieve exciting stylistic experimentation in true B-picture spirit, its 3D-upgrade with Part Four a blessing in the faulty field of stereoscopic exploitation. The Resident Evil films thrive on the topicality of their paranoid premise: disaster movies in spirit, the real catastrophe they conjure beneath their sleek action trappings is the powerlessness of the individual in the face of omnipotent corporations—its infected DNA owing as much to the conspiracies of, say, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as to the more obvious horror and sci-fi influences.

But the saga’s major assets have always been the populist verve of Anderson’s unassumingly effective mix-and-matching of genre standbys and his stylish mise en scène (he wrote all entries and directed them all, apart from Two and Three), as well as the acrobatic charisma of his wife/star Milla Jovovich. Yet while The Final Chapter’s long-delayed reveals bring closure to Alice’s increasingly convoluted (if, frankly, incidental) storyline in a satisfying farewell celebration, Anderson’s stylistic about-face may come as this sequel’s biggest shock. Then again, he always maintained that the films were not so much “straight horror or zombie movies” but science-fiction thrillers, even as they brought back zombies and made them the key metaphor for this apocalyptic millennium’s film and television output. When the first Resident Evil hit theatres in 2002, the genre had mostly been dormant. Soon thereafter, Danny Boyle’s sped-up 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s pointless reboot of Dawn of the Dead (2004) officially inaugurated the commercial resurrection of the undead—spearheaded in recent years by the TV/graphic-novel combo The Walking Dead, but for quite a while now the timely “silent majority” killer-mob-angst staple in cinema, whether in big blockbusters (World War Z, 2013) or countless cheapies, including George A. Romero’s remarkable extrapolations of his Living Dead saga.

Romero’s classics and Lucio Fulci’s rip-offs from the late ’70s and ’80s provided models for Anderson’s revitalization project, their attack scenarios revamped into craftily engineered suspense-action set pieces. But the thematic throughline for Anderson’s survival-horror contraptions was the tried-and-true battle of Alice, initially just a small cog in the wheel, against an all-encompassing corporate entity—fittingly named the Umbrella Corporation—willing to sacrifice everything, mankind included, for power and profit. Itself the profitable product of various powerful corporations (from video-game giant Capcom to distributor Sony Pictures), the Resident Evil cycle has milked this irony throughout its existence even as it became, along with Pokémon, a flagship franchise of current cine-capitalism. Smart cross-marketing publicity helped (the release of The Final Chapter has been timed to coincide with the most recent game, Resident Evil: Biohazard), but surely also the film series’ timely relevance comes into focus as a virtual world of capitalism has asserted its domination over “reality” since Anderson’s first Evil. Who cannot identify with the portrayal of contemporary man feeling threatened and powerless in the face of an unstable but thoroughly monitored universe governed by un-transparent conglomerates—especially if this helpless everyman’s representation is the gorgeous superwoman Milla?

This setup was sketched, however thinly, from the beginning, a proposition submerged in pointed B-picture entertainment terms blown out of proportion by reappropriation for heavy-handed superproductions. Though not exactly cheap, the average Resident Evil movie’s budget of around $40 million (with 3D peaks around $60 million) is peanuts compared to the money poured into the extravaganzas of James Cameron, Michael Bay, or Marvel Studios. The lucky break came with a helmer still able to bring off the modest proposal of subversion-laced vulgar amusement with comparably limited means. I’ve made my case for Paul W.S. as the superior Anderson of the current trifecta for the “Best 50 Filmmakers Under 50” anniversary special in Cinema Scope 50 (he’ll be 52 when you read this), but on this occasion it’s worth pointing to his assertion of how an enthusiastic audience reaction to Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1989) was decisive in shaping his cinematic ambitions. Hardly as radical or ambivalent as the Dutch master, Anderson nonetheless shows a similar fondness for concocting pulp ecstasies with a punch.

An ardent video-game fan, the Brit-born Anderson followed his homegrown debut Shopping (1994) by detouring to Hollywood with the spectacularly amusing if stridently silly and screamingly CGI-colourful cine-transposition Mortal Kombat (1996), before production problems on subsequent films convinced him to return to Europe and, later, Canada, for financing. (Three Resident Evil films have won the Golden Reel Award for Canada’s highest-grossing production.) Having obsessively played the first Resident Evil games (the series was launched in 1996, its Japanese title Biohazard changed for the international market), Anderson struck a deal in Germany with the rights holder, whose previous attempts at cinematic adaptation had failed—they had even tried Romero, but then rejected his script (which is floating online, however). Written on spec and upgraded from a DVD-only release after test audiences cheered previews, the first Resident Evil was a vehicle ideally suited for Anderson’s strengths. Less storyteller than metteur en scène, the writer-director adopted a game-level structure (the lab; the villa; the underground train, etc.) for his modular style of filmmaking, moving an Alice-led team of characters through various well-defined locations and increasingly perilous set pieces on their way through Umbrella’s submerged high-tech facility, the Hive, in the wake of an intentionally caused viral epidemic.

“They hunger for flesh, but they don’t need it.” The fury of the zombified attackers springing from every corner is explained later on, though the literal feeding of the undead proves just a side effect of the crucial feed. Resident Evil is all about constant surveillance, mostly represented in vector-graphic 3D models, which are also helpful for the spatial orientation key to Anderson’s arrangements. Playing to its director’s proclivity for underground spaces—a family inheritance from growing up in a clan of coal miners (“It’s the lure of going down there into the dark, it’s in my blood,” Anderson told Dave Kehr)—the simplistic but elegantly mounted layout of Resident Evil showed Anderson as a descendant of the geometric-style tradition running from Fritz Lang to John Carpenter; some flashback-induced uncertainties even point to the surreal worlds of another champion of the cavernous, Edgar G. Ulmer. (While hardly forced to operate on Ulmer’s Z-level budgets, Anderson nevertheless showed a comparable knack for economizing on the shoot, adapting sets—including leftovers from the previous year’s maladroit, mega-budgeted WWII epic Enemy at the Gates—to be reused for the next stages, while mostly shooting in unfinished Berlin underground stations.)

For all its high-concept trappings, Resident Evil was remarkably close to the kind of B-picture “they just don’t make anymore,” its seamless fluidity in retrospect suggesting a near-Walshian exercise in forward momentum, abetted by well-judged reveals of background story via sudden memory flashes amidst an apocalyptic scenario taking place in an amnesiac, corporate-controlled wasteland. (Until 9/11, the working title was Resident Evil: Ground Zero.) These remembrances regained are mostly Alice’s, as she eventually comes to realize that she is a former Umbrella employee who was involved with renegades trying to steal the genetically engineered “T-virus,” thus helping unleash the disaster— or did she? Discovering her seemingly superhuman powers as she confronts both the undead (the word “zombie” is strenuously avoided in all Resident Evil films) and an even more impressive menagerie of mutant monsters, Alice is also faced with the classical conundrum of the Blade Runner (1982) replicants: are her incomplete memories just fabrications, making her another design element in the nefarious corporate plot, powerless to escape (per paranoiac Pynchonian phrasing) while doing their bidding?

While Resident Evil may have tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that keeps on giving, it clearly had no philosophical aspirations beyond what emerges from expertly arranging an amalgam of (hardly original) influences, from Blade Runner and Alien(s) to Romero and Hitchcock. (Even the laser-grid booby trap, which became an emblematic image of the series, conjured Vincenzo Natali’s then-recent Cube [1997].) Still, apart from his visual panache and economy, Anderson made other key contributions to the lasting power of the franchise. Having learned that adapting a video game means trying to approximate its universe and atmosphere, not slavishly following its storyline (thus also boring the built-in gamer-fan crowd—surely the core audience for the animated Resident Evil films have fallen into this exact type of trap for the last decade), Anderson invented a new lead character with Jovovich’s Alice—whose name, which we only learn in the end credits, is a deliberate nod to Lewis Carroll, and Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass would accordingly become fertile sources for the series to come. Alice’s computer holograph nemesis is called “the Red Queen”; a secret entrance behind the mirror becomes her way to a strange and scary underworld; she herself, as the sequels reveal, is a “white rabbit” used for Umbrella experiments (her ominous proper name is “Project Alice”); and the floors are adorned with chessboard patterns, ideal for Anderson’s geometrically organized compositions (the “game-board shot” showing the characters from above, etc.). The bountiful Carroll references emphasize the playful side of Anderson’s B-picture farrago, which is also evident in his frequent tongue-in-cheek reversals of genre expectations to cap a set piece, as well as his slightly surrealistic approach to narrative necessity: it’s not just Alice’s manipulated memories which allow creative and amusing loopholes in a half-dozen storylines otherwise orchestrated to dovetail logically, right down to the time that has passed between films, both in their fictional world as well as “for real.”

Most importantly, however, the series has been grounded by the felicitous presence of Jovovich, who has become the heart of the franchise to Anderson’s brains. That chemistry shows onscreen: attempts to parlay Milla’s success in the first Evil into other genre efforts like Ultraviolet (2006) simply fell flat, while the next two series entries—Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)—suffer somewhat from Anderson’s absence in the director’s chair. Tied up with AvP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), Anderson assigned Apocalypse to second-unit vet Alexander Witt, whose direction is legible enough but lacks the strong sense of organization needed to distinguish the weakest material in the series. Conceived for franchise consolidation, Apocalypse is close to a run-of-the-mill zombie-disaster movie, starting with a reprise of the first part’s final Romero quote (the newspaper headline “The Dead Can Walk!” from Day of the Dead [1985], as Alice moves into the devastated outside world and promptly picks up a shotgun). Joining forces with original game protagonist Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), Alice moves through amped-up assault levels with considerable brio (Milla’s church-window crashing, flying motorcycle, shoot-punch-cartwheel combo entrance is a keeper, yet only a mere hint of future acrobatic feats), ultimately leading her to the realization that she may actually be Umbrella’s most dangerous experiment rather than those malevolent, bright-neon-glow spirals containing the virus.

More outrageous and still enjoyable, Extinction served as proof that the defining traits of the series had fallen into place. Recurring building blocks to connect the established themes include an opening sequence that is like a short film unto itself; an introductory narration summing up previous events and beginning with the line “My name is Alice” (in all sequels but this one!); a deadline to ratchet up tension as the protagonists move through the film’s levels to an epic final fight; and an even more epic crane-out punchline (plus another in the end credits). Yet the third part also proved that, with the formula established, the content could get weirder. The opening is a trompe-l’oeil replay of the first film’s start—only here Alice fails in her mission, and is discarded on a heap of 96 identical-clone Alice bodies. As normal civilization recedes into the distance (in the five years since the outbreak, Las Vegas has sunk into the sand), Alice’s psychology provides the film’s shape: her dreams cause amazing mid-desert levitations of stones and motorcycles, her guilt complex (“I failed all of them”) forms the centre of a veritable orgy of self-sacrifice, and her fighting prowess (she can even fry a chip in space!) goes hand in hand with a sense of the erosion of the self, as she recedes from society and starts to disappear amidst the possibility of endless multiplication through clones. (“You were one of the 50 basic models,” she’ll be informed in the next film.)

Extinction grafts Alice’s evolution onto a shameless Road Warrior (1981) rip-off, as she joins a truck-trek of survivors hoping for a mythical Arcadia free from infection, only stopping for an extended detour through a zombie-crow version of The Birds (1963); the Mad Max angle (shooting in Australia was considered before settling on Mexico) likely influenced Anderson, who was busy with Death Race (2008), to pick Australian director Russell Mulcahy, he of Highlander (1986) non-fame, to helm the film. Going for a grittier, shaky-cam action style (especially when no impressive Milla choreography is involved), Mulcahy also insisted on sun-bleached settings in opposition to Anderson’s dark lairs—although for the Kombat-style “Finish him” move against Umbrella head honcho Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who has turned into a tentacled monster named Tyrant, it’s back down to the bloody lab (which itself could be straight out of Day of the Dead, replete with desperate zombie-conditioning experiments). After all, Alice has realized there is no escape in the outside world—Umbrella’s satellite-link system can pick up her signal if she just utters a word in the most godforsaken place. When, at the end, she joins Umbrella’s holographic board meeting to announce their comeuppance through her army of clones, her rebellion is paradoxically coupled to the embrace of her status as a company project rather than a human being, setting the stage for the series’ astonishing mid-way reboot.

The creation of Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) was described by Anderson as “making my first movie all over again,” and with it the series fully comes into its own—testified to by the fact that the use of umbrellas during the impressive viral-outbreak opening on a rainy, populated Tokyo street crossing feels less like a quote from Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent, 1940) or Johnnie To (Sparrow, 2008) than a pun on the evil corporation’s name. More substantially, Afterlife establishes the hoped-for safe haven first as a pipe dream (Alice, arriving in the purported Arcadia only to discover an airplane graveyard, is hardly able to continue her lonely battle: “What if there is no one to watch the tapes?” she muses about her dutiful recordings), then as an Umbrella trap. The counter-movement is Alice’s hesitant self-assertion: after she invades the Japanese Umbrella HQ, aided by tons of her clones (a mesmerizing set piece), she’s miraculously rehumanized by resident Mabusian antagonist Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), only to discover over the course of the film that it doesn’t make much of a difference—it might even be another trap. But as Anderson gets deeper into Alice’s amnesia-addled mind and the character’s inner conflicts get more pronounced (and increasingly absurd), conventional story elements are reduced to minimum-necessity markers on her path. The quantum leap of Afterlife also comes from Anderson’s commitment to letting the franchise plot run wherever Alice wants to take him, sacrificing narrative control and instead investing everything into spectacular kinetics and visual elegance.

If Milla’s earlier stuntwork had promised gravity-defying flights of fighting fancy associated more with Hong Kong choreography than Western action, Afterlife delivered it with a knockout, basing it on actual physical input, with exuberant CGI additions just eye candy. The liquid spray-enhanced centrepiece fight against a huge, axe-wielding monster is a marvel of 3D presentation, geared to a sense of volume, weight, and impact rather than the distracting gimmick of things comin’ at ya commonly associated with the third dimension. With his miner’s heritage, Anderson instinctively understood that stereoscopy is about depth, treating his derelict industrial landscapes and underground caverns like characters on par with iconic, rather than psychologically three-dimensional, protagonists. Here Anderson reaches a level of pleasing abstraction, with plot points serving only as signifiers of ideas, the series’ recurring motifs threaded into a celebration of pure cinema, out-Matrix-ing clichéd slow-motion effects with a musical grandeur. This is what the fifth instalment is all about: stylistically the smoothest and most accomplished entry in the franchise, Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) plays like a free-floating musical arranged out of fastidiously orchestrated action choreographies and the symphonic soundtrack electronica of tomandandy (returning from Afterlife)

In Retribution, Alice finally moves through wholly artificial worlds, stripped of all illusions of the real. Supporting characters, like Michelle Rodriguez’s fighter from Part One, reappear as various, conflicting clones. The settings, including the most reassuring suburban surroundings and “real” locations of previous instalments, prove to be underground-facility simulations; in a delicious sight gag, an explosion’s mushroom cloud is cut off as it hits the ceiling. Although Alice makes her bid for humanity by following the impulses of (surrogate) motherhood, Retribution is an assertion of uninhibited movieness in a certified virtual hell (even the clean-lit, white Umbrella corridors feel unpleasant), starting with a jaw-dropping, seven-minute opening-credits battle scene in slo-mo reverse (before playing out “normally” in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 35 seconds), continuing with the hair-raising chase of a burning Rolls Royce through “Moscow” (with the pursuing monster, named Licker, ultimately crashing through the window of a liquor store into a stack of vodka bottles), and finally settling next to an icy ship graveyard for an intricately staged showdown-slugfest for minutes on end. At one point, Alice even likens the action principles of operating a gun to cinema, explaining: “Just like a camera: point and shoot!”

Surprisingly, The Final Chapter not only ignores Retribution’s kicker—Alice called in by the evil Wesker to help in humanity’s last stand from a White House besieged by undead armies—but also settles for an antithetical aesthetic: opting for a more aggressive style achievable only with lightweight 2D cameras, Anderson had this one converted to 3D, leaving the previous films’ stereoscopic grandeur in the dust. Instead of going for depth and space, the frenetic cutting (by Neveldine/Taylor stalwart Doobie White) telescopes Anderson’s still-working spatial arrangements to split-second legibility, making The Final Chapter the most relentless series entry (despite being the longest, at a challengingly quick 106 minutes), closer in style to Death Race than to any of its franchise predecessors; it’s almost as if Anderson wanted to transmit the rush of completing Alice’s saga after years of withholding (no spoilers, but it’s worth noting that her goddess status is manifested in what returning villain Dr. Isaacs calls “a trinity of bitches”). “They say that history is written by the victors. This, then, is the history of the Umbrella Corporation,” Alice announces this time, appearing first as an assembled image of video monitors before manifesting herself as an undisputed action heroine capable of taking out a flying monster. But the White House is already in ruins, and the ticker is set for humanity’s extinction. So, it’s back to the Hive, with 48 hours to release the anti-virus. Time to rewrite history.

Exchanging one video-game convention for another—the movement through self-contained levels is mostly replaced by time-limit pressure—Anderson privileges speed over space, with the last 37 minutes of the countdown even playing out in “real time.” This compression allows The Final Chapter to function as an exhaustive sampling and variation of the series’ own greatest hits, from mutant dogs and mindfuck battles to laser grids and killer conspiracies, plus generous helpings of key influences: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) hovers over the opening highway stretch, Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) provides the setting for a midway siege, while the return to the Hive (proudly including a still-hilarious Verhoeven punchline steal from RoboCop [1987]) lets Anderson close the circle and fashion his ultimate paean to Alice-Milla, whose story it turns out to be after all. After a daunting image encapsulates how Resident Evil was never about the zombies, a final zoom-in (instead of the usual crane-out) on the key image of Alice’s eye confirms it, while leaving an eye open for ancillary adventures.

After all, the corporation never sleeps. As pleasurable as the various accomplishments of the Resident Evil cycle may have been, what’s most striking is how in that same period its paranoid fantasies, once at a somewhat safe remove, have come to seem believable, possibly real on some counts—almost a “serious” pendant to Mike Judge’s visionary Idiocracy (2006). The Final Chapter’s real scare scene is a “we’re here to talk the end of the world” Umbrella board meeting, in which Dr. Isaacs announces his plans to avoid impending disasters (wars and the rise of fundamentalism, viruses and ecological crises, including an inevitable famine caused by monopolized food production) by steering the world into an “orchestrated apocalypse” so that “the chosen few” survive. He gives it the religious spin that companies nowadays reserve for their brands by referencing Noah’s Ark: “It’s been done once before. With great success!…The means of salvation are at our hands!” He also gives it all away with the promise of a cleansed earth, “one that we can then reboot in our image.” You can imagine a million ad campaigns being born right there. That’s the true survival horror of Anderson’s Resident Evils: not the science fiction, but the everyday.

chuber@cinema-scope.com Huber Christoph