This film is yet more evidence that, like the walking dead who shuffle across the screen, the zombie sub-genre refuses to die a peaceful death. In a way, this is a good thing: films as diverse as relatively lavish LAND OF THE DEAD and the virtually no-budget AUTOMATON TRANSFUSIONprove that there is life in those rotting corpses yet. In the case of RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, however, one begins to realize that the franchise is becoming almost as mindless as the zombies it portrays, lumbeirng on with only repetitive instinct,while all true vitality has long since passed away. This film is not exactly awful (it’s no worse than the recent HALLOWEEN), but it lacks the ferocious intensity that a truly good horror film should have, and its attempt to pass itself off as a post-apocalyptic action-adventure falls short of what your average low-budget cult movie could achieve.
More or less ignoring the ending of RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (there is a lip service explanation late in the film), the new film does not pick up with Alice (Milla Jovovich) under surveillance by the evil corporation responsible for the virus that turns people into zombies; instead, we are introduced into your standard post-apocalyptic world, where a handful of remaining humans struggle for survival now that civilization has fallen. The script by Paul W. S. Anderson shows a few fleeting glimpses of promise, beginning with a sly opening sequence of Alice waking up and trying to escape from the lab – only to be killed by one of the many booby-traps awaiting her. The revelation that this Alice is one of many clones who have met their deaths looking for a way out, is a clever nod to the movie’s videogame origins, in which the player’s on-screen character is frequently “killed,” only to rise again and take another crack at over-leaping the pitfall that felled him/her previously.
Further reason for hope is offered when Anderson drags in elements that suggest he has spent more time watching George Romero’s zombie films more than playing the Resident Evil game (which is known as Bio-Hazard in Japan – a fact subtly acknowledge by requent use of the word in the dialogue). Initially EXTINCTION seems to be lifting equally from DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) and LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). As in the former, there is an underground research facility, complete with a mad scientist who hopes to domesticate the zombies; in a nod to the latter, there is a band of survivors on the road, hoping to reach a safe place to live – it’s as if Anderson were offerng up the sequel promised at the end of LAND, which Romero has so far been unable to deliver.
Unfortunately, these early causes for optimism die a death more quick and painful than your typical human bitten by one of the walking dead. Whereas Romero used the zombies as a metaphor to comment on the human condition, Anderson is just killing time – finding ways to fill up the screen with something resembling a story when the only film’s true raison d’etre is to show Alice kicking ass on various opponents. No ideas are developed; no insights are offered. Action is the name of the game, and Anderson depends on that to hold your attention.
In this he is abetted but hardly aided by director Russell Mulcahy, who has made a career out of empty visual flash that passes for style. The typical critical response to this sort of thing is to proclaim that strong visuals are covering for a weak story, but Mulcahy’s visuals are anything but strong. He is like a writer who ends every sentence with an exclamation point, and italicizes every other word, capitalizing almost as many – all in the hope of revving up an engine that is barely coughs and sputters to life.
In one of the many low points, our hard band of survivors are attacked by crows infected by all the dead zombie meat they have been eating. The computerized visual effects do inspire a sense of wonder – wondering why, all these decades after THE BIRDS, modern Hollywood technology is unable to improve on the relatively primitive matte shot effects that Hitchcock utilized.
The real problem, however, is not the effects. The scene plays out like the proverbial Chinese fire drill: our supposed band of survivors show no signs of having learned how to survive; they simply run around like headless chickens getting picked off one by one. Mulcahy films the action in little bits and pieces, cut together to convey a sense of total confusion that represents not only the character’s state of mind but also the director’s: he seems to have no idea what anybody is doing or why, and he doesn’t expect you to care either; you’re just supposed to sit back and say, “Awesome, totally awesome!”
When one of the leading ladies slams the door on a bus instead of joining her comrades in the get-away vehicle, you realize you’re supposed to interpret this as a self-sacrifice on her part, but the melodrama is entirely undermined by the obvious observation: she’s on a bus full of broken windows, and closing the door is not going to trap the killer birds inside with her, so she’s killing herself for nothing.
This sort of nonsense infects the entire film, preventing any kind of audience identification or suspense. The emotional impact is nil, because the filmmakers clearly do not care about the characters or the story; their only concern is making the mayhem fun, and they are proud of it (as the saying goes, “It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.”) The point is all too clearly made when the survivors, led by by Claire (Ali Larter), part company with Alice and simply disappear from the film, which never bothers to tell us whether they reached their hoped-for haven in Alaska. Why bother with something so treacly as the survival of the human race, when you can stage another fight scene between Alice and some new opponent?
Without any genuine emotional hook, the film has to rely totally on adrenalin to keep itself running. This might have worked as a simple-minded thrill ride, if the action set-pieces had all been brilliantly executed; unfortunately, they are seldom more than adequate, relying on the usual fast-cutting close-ups meant to hide the lack of really interesting fight choreography. You can see better stuff on BIONIC WOMAN, and your brain won’t be nearly as insulted.
Even this might have been tolerable if the film had delivered what is promised: a post-apocalyptic confrontation with the living dead in Las Vegas. However, the movie cheats the audience unforgivably when it comes to the third-act pay-off. After sticking to the desert for most of the film and finally heading into a major urban center for the climax, all we see is the tops of a few buildings that have been covered with sand. The dialogue laughably tries to convince us that this is the desert reclaiming the town, as if this could have happened in the few years that have elapsed since the previous film.
Regardless of whether or not we believe the explanation (we do not), the visual impact is completely inadequate. Instead of the big, gaudy visual feast we have been promised, we get a rendition worthy of a low-budget direct-to-video movie: “Vegas” looks like nothing but a cheap generic desert set, with a few “buildings” inserted here or there. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but the film is not going out of its way to impress you with the sheer enormity of the devastation.
Admittedly, it is fun to see Jovovich back in action. She is less an actress than an icon, the contemporary cliche of the tough ass-kicking woman, but she handles herself well enough to make you want to sit through her latest screen adventure, even though you know it is not very good. In a weird recurring visual motif, in close-up her skin frequently looks too glossy, suggesting computer-generated imagery has been used to enhance her features, perhaps to make her look more like her videogame equivalent.
The rest of the cast is seldom more than serviceable, but Iain Glenn offers a nice turn as Dr. Isaacs. He is no match for his obvious equivalent in DAY OF THE DEAD, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), but he does make a good evil impression while also earning a tiny measure of sympathy (only because we suspect his research is on the right and we know his superiors are so much worse than he is).
The thing that keeps the zombie genre going is that the concept of the living dead is disturbing on some deep and dark level in our psyche. What does it mean to be human, and if people are just organic machines, how different are we, really, from the zombies? Ideas like these do not have to be addressed directly to have an impact: they are inherent in the material, and smart filmmakers will simply let them emerge naturally in the story.
Unfortunately, RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION wipes them all off the screen with its reliance on videogame-type violence. Its zombies are nothing but generic threats, an obstacle for the heroine to overcome on her way to the next obstacle. This works fine on your computer console, where the opportunity to test your gaming skills keeps you engaged with the entertainment. On film, however, it is about as exciting as watching a game demo in a store: you want to seize the controls and play yourself, but when that option is not available, you may find yourself growing bored and wanting to put a bullet through the head of this brain-dead flick.
RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007). Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Screenplay by Paul W. S. Anderson, based on the videogame. Cast: Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr, Ali Larter, Iain Glen, Ashanti, Christopher Egan, Spencer Locke, Mathew Marsden, Linden Ashby, Jason O’Mara, Mike Epps.