The Resident Evil film franchise has been a paradox ever since the first film, despite an all round critical-panning, smashed it’s 102.4 million US dollars at the box office in 2002. At once, Resident Evil lovingly paid homage to the legendary video-game series on which it is based (recreating the mansion and many in-game moments shot for shot) and at the same time disregarded it in favour of pursuing an entirely different storyline. Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, the heroes of the first Resident Evil game, never made it to that first film. Instead, we follow Alice (Milla Jovovich), a character of Paul W. S. Anderson’s own devising: an Umbrella employee once charged with defending the Hive, a secret underground lab for experimental viral weaponry, now turned against her former employers. The film combined elements of classic zombie movies, horror, 90s action sequences set to tracks written by Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, corporate thriller and sci-fi in a pulse-pounding 90 minute ride. James Cameron described Resident Evil as his ‘biggest guilty pleasure’ in an interview in 2014, and that, for me, gets fairly close to hitting the nail on the head. Because despite receiving a measly aggregate of 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s undeniable Resident Evil has moments of pure brilliance: the laser-corridor which so decimates the seemingly cool and collected elite team, the unexpected return of Kaplan at the critical juncture, and the increasing sense of despair as one by one our heroes get picked off in often bizarre and unexpected ways. Its films like Resident Evil which brings lurching back to life the age old question: Can we really make a distinction between popular and ‘high’ art? Or, in other words, why do we so denigrate that which is frivolously entertaining? Resident Evil has never striven to be anything other than it is: an excuse to have old-school badasses die one by one against hordes of ravening undead.
The series continued much in the same vein as the first despite different directors for Apocalypse and Extinction, juxtaposing the sublime with the staid. Apocalypse, the second film in the series, is perhaps most disliked of all the Resident Evil films, and yet, despite sketchy dialogue and dodgy acting from some of the side cast, there are still moments of spectacular wit and action: L.J.’s (Mike Epps) cry of ‘ten points’ for hitting a zombie with his car (which has since been re-purposed by countless films), the cocky S.T.A.R.S tactical squad taking on Nemesis and being obliterated for their trouble. The sequence at the end of the fourth film, Afterlife, where Wesker (Shawn Roberts) takes on Alice and the two Redfields (who finally make it into the series by film four), is nothing short of breathtaking, a spectacular piece of slow-motion choreography synchronised with Perfect Circle’s industrial rock track Outsider. The ripple-effect bullets are no doubt derivative from the Matrix franchise, but it hardly matters when the execution is so good. Borrowed and adapted cinematography are a mainstay of the series: the opening of Retribution, the fifth movie, features a beautiful sequence where the action plays out in reverse, reminiscent of the trailer for the 2011 zombie survival video-game Dead Island. Again, it is done so well, with such eye-popping tenacity, it hits its mark regardless of derivation; conjuring, frankly, awe. In this respect, Paul W. S. Anderson is something of an auteur. He ‘steals’ extensively, as Picasso says all great artists should, but always makes it his own. His cinematography is often familiar but never unoriginal. Again, a paradox.
And now, we come to the finale, aptly named The Final Chapter. It’s been a long and rocky road over 15 years. I admit I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of goosebumps as the opening voiceover from Alice twists the usual opening mantra to make an ominous statement: ‘This is my story. How it ends.’ Alice has been the hub of the series, played with such dedication and conviction by the eminently watchable and charismatic Milla. She has never dipped throughout, remaining an enticing mix of sheer kick-ass and compassion. Alice’s ability to care about, even love (in a non-sexual way), those she has just met, coupled with her ability to destroy those who oppose her, makes her irresistibly likeable. She is a person of extremes in all senses – just as easily ready to make a best friend or snap someone’s spinal column with her bare legs. And of course, her ability to love ever becomes the source of her pain as her friends are killed again and again and again.
That pain is felt, and developed, more expertly in The Final Chapter than possibly any of the previous films. It’s as if Paul W. S. Anderson has been holding back, or else, refining and refining his process until he got it down to a point of razor sharpness. Despite The Final Chapter’s maddening pace, partially resulting from blitzkrieg editing which at times is epileptic (sometimes the frames are coming so fast that multiple images remain imprinted on your retina), there are actually a surprising number of moments in which we pause for breath and are allowed to appreciate the characters, how they are feeling and what might be going on beneath the surface. There is real character development here, and also time taken to draw things together. After an initial rampage through the post-apocalyptic dust, in which we are re-introduced to the villain from the third movie Extinction, Dr Alexander Isaacs, played by Iain Glen of Game of Thrones fame, we move on to Raccoon City where Alice meets her old friend Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) and a group of survivors.
Dr Isaacs has changed a little since we last saw him: now a God-fearing lunatic who brings with him a band of ‘faithful’ and hordes of zombies which he thinks of as his Godly flood. Iain Glen’s performance might be one of the most incredible things I’ve seen so far this year simply from the sheer energy he brings to it. He oozes madness, but not for madness’s sake. His convictions, and the steps he wishes to take to implement them, seem completely rational if taken from a certain standpoint. As the film goes on, and things develop, he ends up showcasing an incredible range and certainly hands-down proving the best and most interesting opposition Alice has ever faced. The climactic confrontation between Dr Isaacs and Alice, which also features a final re-visit of the laser corridor, is probably one of the best villain and hero showdowns I’ve seen in years purely because it is so satisfying, and perhaps because the creators have no shame about giving us an age-old recipe: one-liners, sleek and dazzling choreography and plain old good versus evil morality. Resident Evil, despite how relentlessly it is bashed by viewers, critics and even fans, never tries to give us anything other than something bloody entertaining, and bloody entertaining it is.
More perhaps than any other series I could name, Resident Evil is intertextual with itself. In Extinction, we are treated to a dream-like re-run of the laser corridor scene from the first movie, which turns out to be part of an experiment to re-create Project Alice. In the fifth movie, Alice enters a simulation of the opening of the fourth movie: a moment where the zombie virus breaks out in Tokyo. She also traverses landscapes from the second, third and fourth films. In the second and fifth films, we see a repeat of a scene in the first film in which Alice wakes up in the Umbrella facility in the white hospital robe. Each re-iteration carries different inflection: Alice having acquired new powers, or lost them, for example. The Final Chapter proves to be the most intertextual of them all, drawing together elements from across all the movies in the series. There are many moments where seemingly innocuous details from the earlier movies are brought together in mind-boggling ways. The sense of time having passed since our last encounter with these revenants from earlier movies is not only conjured in brilliant set design and a superbly ominous colour pallet which persists throughout the movie, but also through the literal real-world gap of 15 years. Any body that’s been a long-serving fan will get nostalgic pathos from these references alone.
Things truly begin when Alice returns to Raccoon city, the setting of Apocalypse and where The Hive from the first movie is located. She finds the survivors in a base eerily reminiscent of a tumbledown skyscraper where she fights Nemesis in the second film. Events transpire that she must infiltrate the Hive once more, though it now sits in a nuclear crater and is referred to with religious reverence as The Pit. There is a word in ancient Greek: katabasis. It’s a term for the literary trope of ‘descending into hell’ in epic poetry. Though it sounds high-falutin, we see this trope translated in films time and time again: infiltrating facilities, entering into warzones, touching down on an alien planet. The Final Chapter takes the cake as one of the most literal, vivid and pulse-pounding versions of this trope rendered on screen. Though the symbolism may be too obvious for some (the exterior of the facility is guarded by dogs called the Cerberus Project), the outstanding cinematography often justifies it and goes one step further in lending it a mythic quality. There is a scene with a wind-turbine that will shatter you emotionally, not just for tension, but for sheer grandeur. It illustrates, perhaps better than any of the scenes with zombies, what Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil is all about: that no matter how hard you try, you can’t save everyone, but by God, that doesn’t mean you stop trying.
The added religious dimension to The Final Chapter, most obviously apparent in Dr Isaacs but present elsewhere in subtle imagery, lends The Final Chapter a kind of power which its predecessors lack. This, coupled with a radically different musical score (Paul Haslinger) that treads a fine line between electronic and industrial rock, gives it a feeling that is at once quintessentially Resident Evil but also grander in some way. Like the cinematic elements, the music is weirdly eclectic in how it resembles other scores: calling upon Interstellar and Tron Legacy to name just two.
The deaths scenes, here, seem to matter so much more. Though we are never under any illusion that the side characters are pawns to be destroyed by Umbrella while Alice soldiers to the end, they somehow seem more deeply significant. I put it down to the script, which probes the themes of identity and humanity whilst quite deftly layering its meaning. But, joyously coupled with this (once more paradoxes abound) and unlike films which cling to their identity as weighty and artistic pieces, The Final Chapter unashamedly commits to giving us pace over theme: within the first thirty minutes we have been for-real jump-scared half a dozen times, sweated through an adrenaline-overdose vehicular chase and witnessed several brutal amputations. There is a zombie hold-out battle to end all zombie hold-out battles in the middle of the film that would happily serve as the climax to most other action movies.
The best thing, perhaps, about The Final Chapter is that we get to the heart of Alice at last. Despite how fascinating I have found her as a character, how eager I was to watch her progress (and put up with the dodgier aspects of the films for the sake of it), I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. That missing piece is revealed in what is a bold and astonishing twist to the series: entirely unpredictable but also entirely believable to the point at which it causes you to re-contextualise all that you have seen up to this point. I can’t say more than that, but suffice to say I’m sure fans of the series will be pleased. Alice, after 6 movies and 15 years, deserved an amazing send off, and she gets one. While others may be slightly disappointed with the fate of other franchise characters, this pales into insignificance next to what is a worthy and awesome catharsis for our heroine. I couldn’t help but be moved. The bated silence in the cinema confirmed I wasn’t the only one.
The Final Chapter is emotional, which is perhaps why it is one of, if not the, best of the series, but it also returns to its pulse pounding horror/thriller roots. The original Resident Evil film is a master class in the ‘turn of the screw’, every ten minutes reducing the odds of survival for our heroes drastically. Fans of Event Horizon, Paul W. S. Anderson’s 90s cult classic, will spot many references in The Final Chapter, but more importantly, will feel the same unrelenting sense of peril. There are a bunch of other movies echoed in The Final Chapter’s cinematography including Mad Max, Star Wars, The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes (the predictive fighting – uh huh) and even, bizarrely, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It’s something of a kleptomaniac’s jigsaw that culminates in a moment of sublime heroism. It is bombastic, undeniably, time after time treating us to Paul W. S. Anderson’s signature pan-out shot which reveals vistas of either desolation, zombie-hordes or remoteness. It is formulaic, as the interchangeable side characters present in every movie (one of whom is a traitor normally) attest. It is derivative. It is not even cohesive. Though Claire Redfield reappears in six, her brother Chris never does. Wesker varies wildly from being the main villain, chairman of the Umbrella corporation, to being a puny pawn in the grip of far larger players. The cliff-hanger finale to the fifth movie, in which heroes and villains unite at Washington DC to make the ‘last stand of humanity’ is glossed over with a few lines of at the start of The Final Chapter.
But despite all this, The Final Chapter is, inexplicably, a tattered, theriomorphic masterpiece.
We live in a world of dreadful remakes and reboots, where no film series is allowed to die. Ever. Resident Evil, with its undead hordes, seemed the eerily plain epitome of that at one point, another series that had gone on well past its natural death. And yet, Resident Evil has never been one of the Hollywood corporate productions, it has always had a B-movie feel about it, a weirdness. David Engber calls it ‘unusual genius’ and I’m inclined to agree. Fans of the game have a big love-hate relationship with the series, reviewer aggregates destroy the films, and critics don’t even bother fleshing out their thoughts anymore.
And yet, here I am, telling you, despite all the pressure from my inner academic and society, that The Final Chapter is bloody awesome, bloody epic, a triumphant guns-blazing climax that sends off our beloved heroine, not with a whimper or a bang, but with an ebullient, decimating roar of riotous metal.
Review by Joseph Sale
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