It's a bad film, but that doesn't mean you won't enjoy it.
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1996 saw the release of one of the most enduring horror game franchises of the following quarter century: Resident Evil. It was a huge hit with Playstation gamers and quickly spawned a sequel in 1998 which expanded the scope of the story and introduced a bunch of new characters and settings. The gameplay was slow at times, and occasionally confusing and illogical, but there were shotguns, zombies and monsters… so who cared?! Resident Evil went on to spawn numerous sequels, remakes, imitators and eventually movie adaptations.
This cornucopia of cinematic biohazards started with Resident Evil in 2002 and continued through five more live-action films until 2016’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter proved to be a strong case for nominative determinism (…until 2021, when the subject of this review made a liar of it). There were also four animated feature films released in this time, the last coming out in 2021 as well, but they were more closely tied to the game series than the cinematic outings, some of them actually serving as narrative chapters in between different games, like feature-length theatrical cut scenes.
As a young’un I clearly recall hiring both a Playstation and the game Resident Evil 2 for a weekend and then using a walk-through with my mates to get through it before our time ran out. There we were, all gathered around the TV at about two in the morning desperately trying to defeat the ‘big bad guy’ and then cheering like morons when our buddy Noel finally got off the rocket-launcher shot we needed and that pixelated monstrosity bought the farm. Pity the poor neighbours, deafened by our pre-dawn cheering.
It seems that while 23 years may have passed since then (WTF?) and a torrent of cinematic water has flowed under the bridge, the Resident Evil franchise is about as (un)dead as its most common antagonists: zombies!
“Welcome to Raccoon City, once the booming home of pharmaceutical giant Umbrella Corp. The company’s exodus left the city a wasteland, a dying town with great evil brewing below the surface. When that evil is unleashed, a group of survivors must work together to uncover the truth behind Umbrella and make it through the night.”
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a complete reboot of the franchise and features exactly ZERO Mila Jovovich / Alice, the star who drove the first six films into record-breaking box-office success for a videogame adaptation (the series grossed over USD$1.2 billion). This may come as a refreshing change to fans of the original game IP, some of whom were irritated by the invention and centring of protagonist Alice, who does not exist in the games. This 2021 film embraces the main plot-points and locations of the first two Resident Evil games, whilst reframing the story around the games’ lead characters: Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia), and siblings Chris and Claire Redfield (Robbie Amell and Kaya Scodelario). Plus, there’s enough zombies, monsters, expendable characters, and ham-fisted cultural throwbacks to the ’90s to remind you of exactly where you were when you first played the game. Gone is the slick, super-serious, CGI-crammed style of the Paul W. S. Anderson films, now replaced by a direct-to-video, low-budget, slasher schlock feel with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek vibe.
Director Johannes Roberts’ choice to set this film in 1998 allows for the hokeyness and dated ideas of those games to be played out in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s too forced. Along the way he tosses out cinematic easter eggs like a ’90s-nostalgia Easter Bunny, giving game fans a truckload of fanservice and having a laugh doing it. This is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing by making the film he has, and that is: A Bad Film.
This is not a good piece of cinema by any metric, but it knows that and it embraces it wholeheartedly. It seems clear that Roberts is aware of what he’s doing and what he’s set out to achieve and he’s using the language of a specific time period and cinematic style to achieve those ends. He isn’t trying to make a modern blockbuster, he is trying to make a grungey little slasher flick from the late ’80s or early ’90s.
This is the movie that we Gamer Nerds of 1998 would have LOVED seeing the weekend after finishing our late night play-through of Resident Evil 2. It’s goofy, it feels cheap, it’s under-lit, and a beat-for-beat rehash of the favourite moments from the games. And best (or worst?) of all, it is processed through the lens of someone referencing John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, as well as Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman (probably more the latter than the former).
The “player” characters are numerous, idiotic and expendable. The situations are hackneyed, obvious and unsurprising… But there’s a sly sense of humour about them and a myopic nostalgia for a simpler, shittier time that has its own rustic charm. On top of the tonne of Zombie people, Zombie dogs, Zombie crows and other assorted monsters and freaks, the villains aren’t exactly nuanced. But that’s what you get when you hire Neal McDonough (if he had a moustache, oh the twirling he could do!). They move the plot along so we don’t have to spend too much time with the “acting” of the lead players. Which is a mercy.
The music vacillates between ’90s throwbacks and a Carpenter-wannabe-style electronica score that’s usually inoffensive, but also unmemorable. The diegetic music, however, is either ridiculously spot-on nostalgia-mining, or utterly terrible. It has a few moments of being laugh-aloud funny but it’s unclear whether that’s intentional or not… Cardigans fans, it’s your time to shine!
In good conscience I cannot call this a good movie. It is murky, confused, ramshackle and by all metrics of modern film-making, a stinker… But I had a lot of fun with it and laughed at the right bits. I jumped at a few scares, and generally found myself feeling warmly nostalgic for the the olden days of Playstation 1 graphics, godawful voice acting, and hanging out with my best mates playing games until 2am. And for that reason alone, I can’t hate it.