Hard experience and profound disappointment have taught us not to expect too much from the RESIDENT EVIL films, which tend to be slick but thoughtless, shoot-em-up variations on the familiar zombie mythology as laid down by George A. Romero. By those diminished standards, RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE is actually not too bad – which is not to say it’s good, just that in its over-eagerness to provide an endless profusion of audience-pleasing action, it occasionally delivers a halfway decent set piece. It’s seldom scary, and it’s never very exciting, but it does achieves its goal of delivering a little mindless entertainment.
Although officially based on the Capcom videogame, RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE betrays numerous other influences. It’s part zombie movie, part anime-action film, part MATRIX knock-off. There’s even a little Dario Argento thrown in (the computer-generated effects showing an interior view of the aftermath of a hypodermic injection might suggest CSI, but it’s probably closer to images from Argento’s OPERA – a suspicion confirmed when we start seeing bullets fly by the lens in extreme close-up before achieving their splattery results). In fact, there’s so much in the film, that there almost has to be something to like. You just have to wait for it.
And wait you do. It’s no accident that writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson launches with a big action scene (multiple clones of Alice [Milla Jovovich] attacking the underground stronghold of the Umbrella corporation, which is responsible for the T-virus that brought about the zombie apocalypse), because after that, the film wanders around aimlessly, trying to find a story to tell before finally settling into a familiar scenario of a few survivors holed up in a relatively safe place – in this case a prison ( instead of a shopping mall, as in DAWN OF THE DEAD).
After that, there is not much to do except hope to hook up with some other survivors – if any still exist. It’s the same old dilemma we have seen other characters face in this situation, and Romero pretty much used up any life left in it, till there was nothing left for SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD earlier this year – and the idea feels twice as dead now. *
But really none of that matters. The minimal story is just an excuse to deliver enough cool scenes to cut together into a cool trailer. You almost sigh a breath of relief when the zombies break into the prison – ending the tedium and forcing the characters to start shooting. The ensuing chaos results in several nice moments, such as Claire Redfield (Ali Larter)’s battle with the Axeman (Ray Olubowale) – who pretty much shows up just so he can get in a fight.
Anderson knows that he doesn’t need his script to justify this kind of stuff; it’s justified because that’s what the audience paid to see. He’s not even particularly interested in making some kind of pop art statement about female empowerment; we just take it for granted that we see two tough chick running, shooting, and fighting because it's twice as cool as one tough chick running, shooting, and fighting, and after all who cares about feminism?
Instead, Anderson focuses his effort on shooting it all in super-slow-motion, with lots of spraying water and flying glass – all looking really beautiful in 3D. The process – thankfully, not a post-production conversion – packs an added punch to the bullets and debris that go flying through the air – sometimes off the screen and into the audience’s collective face. The 3D is not perfect – it is better at adding depth than at projecting objects out of the screen – but it is better than anything we have seen since AVATAR.
Anderson is at his best when showing off his 3D toys for the pretty effects they can achieve. His approach is far too superficial to generate any real suspense – you never really fear for the characters, and if one of them does become zombie chow, it’s not as if he even pretends to expect you to care. So instead, it’s all a question of showing off flashy technique in order to achieve the expected “Ain’t it cool!” response. This works up to a point, but ultimately it feels like someone trying way to hard to meet and beat the Wachowski Brothers at their own game (which, come to think of it, was a goal that defeated the Wachowskis as well, when it came to the MATRIX sequels).
In a way, Anderson’s best sequence is the opening titles, which play out over a rainy sidewalk in Japan: as a woman stands strangely still and silent, passersby move in and out of frame, obscuring the credits that seem to float in the air. The payoff – she turns into a zombie and attacks – is predictable, but it leads to a memorable zoom-back to a wide shot of the globe, as the dot representing this first victim expands into a black stain spreading wider and wider, eventually enveloping almost everything. It’s visual flash of the most ostentatious kind, but for once in the film, it perfectly makes a narrative point, demonstrating the spread of the T-virus faster than any montage of incidents ever could.
Although there are one or two good jumps, the horror element of RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE is pushed rather far onto the periphery, with the zombies mostly outside the prison. When they do get some screen time, they are spruced up with CGI to add tentacle-like appendages that sprout from the mouth. There is a faintly desperate air to the effect – as if trying to achieve something different from the same old walking dead – and yet the image is just bizarre enough to be truly startling, especially when the revelation is carefully staged and time to provide some of the film’s few genuinely startling moments.
Too bad the characterizations and performances are too flat to take RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE’s popcorn flick dynamic and raise it to the level of a an exciting adventure. We don’t expect Shakespeare, but we don’t even get the enjoyable thrill of good pulp adventure: the characters are not broadly drawn archetypes; they are barely drawn at all. They’re really just there because somebody’s got to be jumping through the CGI hurdles that Anderson tosses around the screen.
Jovovich and Larter pretty much walk through, relying on their looks and apparently so pleased with getting to do the action that delivering dialogue was almost an afterthought. Boris Kodjoe shows a little charisma as Luther West (so much so that when his character apparently dies, it’s no surprise that he returns). Kim Coates makes a fine creep as the self-centered movie producer who still wants to run the show even though the world as he knew it is gone. Unfortunately, Shawn Roberts is a dud as the villain, delivering flat line readings in a voice apparently meant to echo Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in THE MATRIX.
RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE is an oddly comforting movie. You might think that the end of almost all human life on Earth would be cause for some existential angst, but not to worry. The presence of zombies and villains is actually an antidote to despair, providing an unending recreational workout that ends up looking like the world’s glossiest exercise music video. It’s not much of an achievement, but it could have been worse. And really, the scene of Alice jumping off the rooftop, with zombie following her, lemming-like, to their doom, is worth the price of admission.
Against all odds, Anderson pulls off a small coup at the finale: a cliff-hanger promising an action-packed sequel. As frustrating as it is to see the only real excitement related to what we hope to see in the next film, the teaser does elicit some small anticipation, rather than a groan of dread.
- There are other touches that seem like direct references to Romero’s zombie films. For instance, in what feels like a clever inside joke, Anderson builds to the revelation of a heavily armored vehicle – a la the Dead Reckoning from LAND OF THE DEAD – and then discards it, just to subvert expectations.
RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE (Screen Gems, September 10, 2010). Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Music by tomandandy. Cinematography by Glen MacPherson. Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, Wentworth Miller, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere, Ray Olubowale.