So, a few things you should know about me before we embark on the rewatch of one of my favorite movie series.
1) I don’t like zombie movies.
2) I don’t play video games. Not out of dislike, but out of shame. I am that gamer — the one that can not use a controller without flailing all over and falling into the coffee table. Better to just walk away.
3) I don’t like horror movies. This is actually a subset of 1) I don’t like zombie movies. My problem with horror movies is not that they’re scary — it’s that they’re gross or fucking depressing. Scary is good. Gross splatter or torture porn turns my stomach. I like movies that offer up hope for humanity, not a nihilistic desire to see how easily and pointlessly we can be torn apart.
What I do like, however, is action shows with women as the action lead. I grew up on Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Princess Leia rushing around laser-blasting bad guys in Star Wars. Courtney freaking Cox as the amazing telekinetic girl on Misfits of Science. Scarlett, Lady Jaye, and the Baroness on GI Joe. I feel certain I watched something with a killer girl mermaid at some point, but I may have just dreamed it. Of course, there was Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And there was that peculiar movie The Fifth Element, which made me a Milla Jovovich worshipper.
There aren’t a lot of women-led movies, especially action-adventure movies, that make it to the Midwest. So, despite it being a zombie movie, I went to Resident Evil, expecting to have to cover my eyes (which I did), because Milla, kicking butt!
I expected the plot to be awful since it came from a video game shooter.
It wasn’t awful. Simple maybe, but awesome.
Since this is a 14 year-old movie and a zombie movie at that, I’m not going to sweat spoiling things.
The basic plot runs something like: Sabotage unleashes a deadly T-Virus in an underground research facility — The Hive — creating zombies. The company’s computer AI locks the Hive down and a special corporate team of soldiers, as well as three quasi-civilians, goes down to deal with it. Mayhem ensues. Some of it quite gross.
So why do I love this movie so damned much that I rewatch it at least twice a year?
The set up is genuinely creepy. Even after all these years, the idea of an underground facility where a huge corporation expects you to live, work, and play is appalling. Even before you add in suspicious military R&D experiments happening in the same place.
When the Red Queen, the AI, detects sabotage, and starts locking down — killing people in the process — Resident Evil is genuine modern horror. It’s still creepy, no matter how many times I see it. There’s something awful about all your security protocols turning against you, about realizing the system is designed to protect the corporation, not the people who work there. And it’s more scary, because characters don’t panic blindly — they try to problem solve, though they’re doomed to failure. You can’t laugh at them as they flail. You don’t get to declare them “Too Stupid to Live” as they split away from the group and wander into a dark basement. You realize you’d die, just like them.
Then we meet Alice (though she’s never named in the movie), and I knew I was going to like this show. The first shot we see of her is curled up, naked, on the floor of a fancy shower. But it’s not lascivious. Not a slow pan over her skin. It’s just factual. She’s naked on the floor; she’s waking up; something has happened.
I’m not hugely fond of the amnesia trope, but in Resident Evil, it works beautifully. It allows Alice to be both our entry into this strange world, the “every person” — confused and afraid, learning the ropes — and still be the bad ass that she’s been trained to be. The movie did a great job of letting us see she was amnesiac without having her stare blankly into a mirror and say “oh, who am I?”
Instead, she puzzles over scars and bruises on her body; she tests her handwriting against a note left behind (Today all your dreams come true) and finds it doesn’t match; she investigates the house and is startled to find guns nestled beneath row after row of white clothing.
Before that investigation palls, she’s dragged into a SWAT style team formation; the leader demands she report, and then we’re off! The pacing here — and pretty much throughout the movie — is very good. And just as we realize she’s an Umbrella employee, a soldier, she also starts getting memory flashbacks where she wonders if she might also be the saboteur.
I could dissect the movie, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, there are sensible twists, there are ramp ups of action and monsters as needed. People die. People are infected. The tension builds well, and it ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.
So it’s well-crafted, consistent world-building. So what? What makes me love it so?
One of the things I loathe about zombie movies is that all too often, zombies are a cue for the writers and directors to wallow in man’s inhumanity to man, to really showcase how venal, petty, and savage we can be.
But Resident Evil, a movie based on a video-game shooter, decides that humans are… full of compassion. That when the chips are down, they help each other. When things get worse and worse, they cling together; they get smarter and more determined. And life, above all, is something to value and fight for.
When One, the leader of the SWAT team, demands Alice’s status report, and she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he doesn’t berate her, demand she think harder, that she try to remember. He just acknowledges the amnesia and moves on. Later, when she’s distressed and doesn’t want to remember, he doesn’t berate her or tell her to suck it up, as would be plausible for his character to do.
As is traditional, some of their party gets bitten and gets infected. At no point do these soldiers turn on each other and decide to kill their infected “for the greater good.” Even when the computer AI offers to help them escape if they kill their infected companion, they attack the computer instead of killing Rain.
Another soldier — Kaplan (AKA the pretty-eyed soldier to me) — infected, bitten, separated from the group, tells them to leave him behind, that he has one bullet left, that they can’t rescue him, and he intends to shoot himself. Regretfully, Alice and the team leave; but alone, despairing, surrounded by monsters, Kaplan shoots the lead zombie and tells them they’ll have to work for their meal. Later, his decision not to suicide ends up saving the others. Life has value, even when you doubt it, the movie says. And your life has value to more than you.
This push to keep on living, to keep on connecting and helping each other — it turns what could have been a zombie-shoot-‘em-up into something much more satisfying.
It becomes about hope, and fighting the good fight, and not giving into despair.
The villains in Resident Evil are faceless. They’re the Umbrella Company, which treats its employees like drones, which marks everything as their property (including Alice’s wedding ring, in a lovely creepy touch). The scientists who are experimenting with the T-Virus in flashback — you never see their faces, only their hands, their actions. The hazmat team who drags Alice away at the end is completely blank; their hazmat suits have mirrored visors so that you can’t even see a face behind a mask. And in the end, they’re the ones who spread the disease by choosing to continue their experiments on Alice’s last companion, rather than treating him with the anti-virus. If they’d acted humanely, acted with compassion, the world wouldn’t have ended.
There is a single villain with a face. When one of their party commits the inevitable betrayal, it’s a shock to the remaining team, and they decide, simultaneously, without speaking, to let an approaching zombie bite and infect him. If he’s not compassionate, if he’s seeing people as only pawns to manipulate, if he puts himself in the same position as the Umbrella Company — they’ve decided he’s not worthy of being a person. It’s a group execution, and none of them blink.
Big picture stuff: it’s all about hope.
But the small picture is damned appealing also. Multiple women grace the screen, and though one dies early on, Alice and Rain bond, so hey, on top of passing the humanity test, Resident Evil passes the Bechdel test. There’s a quick stab at diversity, but nothing significant compared to later entries. It’s stylish in the way of the good music videos; and well-lit enough that I’m not staring blankly at a too-dark screen wondering what’s happening. The dialogue might be plot-dense, but it still builds character well.
It hasn’t dated badly — though it does reveal the millennial fear of experimentation into viruses and genetics — ooh scary! The faceless, careless, corporation is sadly, still timely.
If you like zombie movies, you’ve probably already seen this. If you like action-adventure, you’ve probably already seen this. If you have a mad crush on Milla Jovovich, you’ve definitely already seen this. So, why not take the time to watch it again, and come tell me your favorite parts?
My favorite part might be Alice, still amnesiac, still out of her depths, having just watched the Red Queen kill a whole group of the SWAT team, take a breath and pick up the slack. She’s brave and she’s supportive and she’s going to get the job done. It’s not her fault that getting the job done makes things so much worse.
Best creepy part? Probably the team standing in a room full of large boxes full of monsters being pumped full of all sorts of scary shit, and Kaplan, perplexed, saying “Dining Hall B. That’s what’s on the map.” There’s something particularly scary about a map that lies to you, and one that has the audacity to be a very dark pun? Gruesome, in the very best way.