In case you missed the first Resident Evil film, the story involved a virus that gets loose in a secret facility, killing its victims and turning them into zombies. The expert team sent in to clean up the mess—in the great tradition of crack experts—proved a poor match for the problem, ending up by and large killed in horrible ways. Nevertheless, it seemed that they had succeeded in containing the virus—until the film’s coda, when our heroine Alice (Milla Jovavich) awakened from some kind of secret experiment and stepped into a world apparently overrun by zombies. Like a good sequel RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE picks up this thread and plays it out, taking elements from the first film expanding them onto a much larger canvas; the film even backtracks a little bit to show us how things got so bad while Alice was locked inside the lab.
That’s the good news. The not so good news is that, despite the implication of the final shot in the first film, and despite the word “apocalypse” in the new title, the sequel has nothing to do with the end of the world. Instead, the zombie phenomenon is limited to Raccoon City, which is effectively quarantined by the Umbrella Corporation, the evil company responsible for the virus in the first place; and the plot more or less follows the third video game in the series Resident Evil: Nemesis, as our character seek to rescue a scientists daughter and find a way out of the city before it gets nuked to prevent further spread of the virus. A city overrun by zombies is not a bad premise for an action-horror movie, but it isn’t quite “apocalyptic,” either. So don’t go expecting Dawn of the Dead type despair over the possible extinction of the human race; just sit back and enjoy an amiable thrill ride, which is all this film wants to be. Like its predecessor, it succeeds.
In the manner of good genre films, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE works because it fulfills the lowest common denominator demands of its intended audience, serving up the required elements in a fast-paced, entertaining, and even stylish fashion without getting bogged down in unnecessary distractions like intricate plotting and believable characterizations. You immediately know whom you’re supposed to like, and whom you hate, and after that there is little development. This is a film in which the most important thing about the lead character is how well she handles a gun and how good she looks while doing it. In fact, with the addition of Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), the sequel offers us two gun-toting chicks instead of one. You might wonder who too similar characters will interact (will Jill and Alice bond, or will they turn competitive because they are too much alike?), but the film isn’t going to worry about that; it’s simply going to revel in showing them off as they blast their opponents without breaking a sweat, and for brief moments the film teeters on the bring of turning into a shooting gallery contest: who will bag the most zombies?
There are some interesting plot developments that prevent the film from descending into nothing but repetitive shoot-outs. We learn that the T-virus originally had a benign purpose (it revives and strengthens dead cells, which can help crippled people regain the use of damaged limbs). Alice has been infected with the virus. And along with the zombie humans and zombie dogs we saw in the first film, there is now a new menace, called Nemesis, the mutant result of the same experiment that turned Alice into an unstoppable zombie killer. This provides the opportunity to interject a Terminator-like threat into the mix (slow and unstoppable, like a tank), and the script (by Paul Anderson) even contrives (somewhat lamely) to have Alice go mano-a-mano with what is, in a sense her twin. As hokey as the moment is, the script redeems itself with a nice twist about the identity of Nemesis; unfortunately, the fight itself falls flat, revealing one of the major weaknesses of the film.
As much fun as the action and horror is, director Alexander Witt relies too much on jumbled camera angles and fast cutting, which sometimes prevent you from seeing what is actually happening. This kind of technique is fine if the point is that things are happening too fast to keep track of, but more often it is used to obscure the fact that the fights are not particularly well staged. The showdown between Alice and Nemesis is a perfect example. The right approach should have been obvious: Alice is fast and agile; Nemesis is slow and strong. The fight should have been staged in long shots, with overhead camera angles, showing us Alice darting, feinting, running circles and figure-eights around her opponent while looking for an opening to launch an attack (float like a butterfly, sting like a bee). Instead, the editing goes cut-cut-cut-cut-cut while the two characters hit and kick at each other with little noticeable difference in strategy, even though they have obvious physical differences that should require them to fight quite differently.
This is one of those cases where flashy technique turns out to be not at all stylish, nor very effective. Fortunately, director Witt is better at handling the explosions and gunfire, and Anderson’s script is more fun that the one he himself directed for this year’s Alien Vs. Predator. The Resident Evil franchise will never surpass George Romero’s Living Dead films in importance; in his original trilogy (Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead), Romero hit on the metaphor of ghouls as a new society rising to devour – literally – the old. You could fight them, but your ranks shrank as the living died and joined the other side, forcing a horrible choice: fight to retain your individuality and risk having your body eviscerated by the group mob, or give up your mind and personality to become one of the enemy, a mindless zombie with no memory of who you used to be. RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE doesn’t add much of interest to these established genre elements, but it does put them to good visceral effect. And to some extent, that’s what genre filmmaking is all about: finding a formula and doing it well. RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE is not going to win any converts or cross over to mainstream viewers, but for fans it is an enjoyably well-made addition to the zombie sub-genre.
RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (2004). Directed by Alexander Witt. Screenplay by Paul W. S. Anderson, based on the videogame. Cast: Milla Jovavich Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, Thomas Kretshman, Sophie Vavasseur, Raz Adoti, Jared Harris, Mike Epps
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