When videogame producer Shinji Mikami of Capcom unleashed the first "Resident Evil" videogame on an unsuspecting public back in 1996, not only did he kick-start what would become one of the most popular videogame franchises in recent years, but he also coined the phrase 'survival horror', which would define a new genre of action-oriented gameplay. Hitting the market a year before the immensely popular "Tomb Raider", "Resident Evil" immersed players in richly textured three-dimensional environments, making full use of the capabilities of the then-state-of-the-art first-generation Sony Playstation. The game's plot and presentation drew inspiration from both the "Alone in the Dark" PC game and George A. Romero's 'living dead' trilogy ("Night of the Living Dead", "Dawn of the Dead", and "Day of the Dead"), with police officers investigating an abandoned mansion overrun by zombies and other unearthly creatures, danger lurking at every turn, and the use of cinematic cut-scenes (complete with horror film-inspired camera angles and gore) to advance the story. Not surprisingly, the game was targeted at 'mature' gamers-- a rarity at the time.
Even with a 'mature' rating, the top-notch graphics and unique gameplay elements shot "Resident Evil" to the top of the charts and became one of the best-selling Playstation titles. It was then followed by a number of platinum-selling sequels on multiple consoles, including "Resident Evil 2", "Resident Evil 3: Nemesis", "Resident Evil: Code Veronica", "Resident Evil: Survivor", and the soon-to-be-released remake of the original "Resident Evil" on Nintendo's GameCube. Not content to remain a console gaming experience, the reach of "Resident Evil" has grown to encompass comic books, action figures, a series of novels, and even a live amusement park attraction. In addition, the 'survival horror' concept has become an established genre in videogaming that now includes Capcom's own action-heavy offshoots "Dino Crisis", "Onimusha", and "Devil May Cry", as well as Konami's spooky "Silent Hill" and Square's "Parasite Eve".
With the immense popularity of "Resident Evil", it was inevitable that the videogame franchise would eventually make its way to the big screen à la "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" and "Tomb Raider". Capcom began work on a "Resident Evil" movie back in 1997, and the initial plans were to have Alan B. McElroy ("Spawn") write a starring vehicle for horror icon Bruce Campbell ("Army of Darkness"). However, by 1998, George A. Romero, whose films inspired "Resident Evil" in the first place, had been brought in to write and direct the film, though he was promptly fired after turning in a weak script. It would not be until 2001 that "Resident Evil" would finally get off the ground with "Mortal Kombat" director Paul W.S. Anderson at the helm using a story crafted by McElroy, and actresses Milla Jovovich ("The Fifth Element") and Michelle Rodriguez ("Girlfight") in starring roles.
Unfortunately, early details about the film revealed that the story would revolve around 'a team of soldiers trying to stop a supercomputer from destroying the world', which sent a shiver up the spines of the game's die-hard fans. "What the hell does a supercomputer have to do with zombies?!" was a popular sentiment, and it seemed as though Hollywood was going to turn out yet another terrible game-to-film adaptation along the lines of "Super Mario Bros." or "Wing Commander". Well, the good news is that "Resident Evil" is a decent game-to-film adaptation, as it remains fairly faithful to the mythology that has been built around the franchise, and offers the game's fans exactly what they are looking for: machine guns, zombies, and a dash of martial arts. Unfortunately, the bad news is that with the weak script, ho-hum acting, and paper-thin characterizations will probably limit its appeal to mainstream audiences.
The action begins underneath the American mid-western metropolis Raccoon City, where the multinational conglomerate Umbrella Corporation has a vast underground lab facility known as 'The Hive'. It is here where the seemingly mild-mannered consumer packaged goods firm conducts classified and highly illegal research in the areas of genetic engineering and bioweapons. When a vial of the lethal T-Virus is released into the Hive's ventilation system, the supercomputer responsible for the operation and security of the facility, The Red Queen (a bratty version of HAL 9000), locks everything down and kills all the employees in a misguided effort to contain the biohazard.
In response, Umbrella dispatches a group of commandos to investigate, including the fearless African-American leader Shade (Colin Salmon of "The World is not Enough", an obvious nod to the African-American heroes in Romero's zombie films) and the gutsy Rain (Rodriguez). While infiltrating the Hive, they have unexpected company in the form of Alice (Jovovich) and Spencer (James Purefoy of "A Knight's Tale"), two Umbrella employees who are suffering from unexplained memory loss, as well as a cop named Matt (Eric Mabius of "Cruel Intentions"). Pretty soon, the rag-tag group of combatants finds themselves not only having to deal with a homicidal supercomputer, but with the reanimated corpses of the Hive's workers, who have been zombified by the T-Virus. This then leads to a non-stop running battle against the undead as the team tries to escape from the Hive alive.
One of the hooks of the "Resident Evil" franchise is the mythology that has been built around the games. Thankfully, Anderson (who apparently 'lost' three months of his life to the videogames) and McElroy stick fairly close to what has already been established in the series instead of trying to 'reinvent' it ("Street Fighter", anyone?). However, instead of being a direct rehash of the games, the film is set up as a prequel to the games, establishing the 'how' and 'why' to events that would figure prominently throughout the franchise. Moviegoers with a passing familiarity with the games will appreciate the background that establishes how the T-Virus outbreak started in the first place, the origin of 'Lickers' and 'Hunters', the rationale as to why there was a zombie-infested mansion in the first "Resident Evil" game, and the purpose of the underground railroad in "Resident Evil 2". Fans will also salivate at how the film sets up the already greenlit sequel, "Resident Evil: Nemesis", in the zombie-infested ruins of Raccoon City.
In addition to remaining faithful to the source material, Anderson also does a decent job of injecting tension and atmosphere into the film with some slick production values and having two of the characters suffering from amnesia and gradual revealing their true motivations. The films action sequences are also technically polished and are clearly targeted for the post-"Matrix" generation, with some wire-fu kicks and bullet-cam hijinks thrown into the mix. And though "Resident Evil" is nowhere near as gory as some of its 'old-school' brethren, Anderson does offer up enough stomach-churning moments (albeit tame) for horror fans, particularly a scene involving a run-in with a decapitating laser defence system.
However, with little for the characters to do other than run away from the zombies, the action set pieces become somewhat repetitive, especially with the loud and buzzy heavy-metal soundtrack that is used ad nauseum. Indeed, with its thin characterizations and 'run-and-gun' storytelling, "Resident Evil" is a poor cousin to the standout entries in the zombie genre, the classic "Night of the Living Dead" and its sequel "Dawn of the Dead", which provided at least some sociological subtext and moral complexities to the mayhem.
With such limited material to work with, it is also not surprising to find the performances a mixed bag. Jovovich and Rodriguez acquit themselves decently, with the former possessing the necessary athleticism and vulnerability to play the film's reluctant heroine, while Rodriguez offers up more of the same intensity and bad attitude that made her fun to watch in "The Fast and the Furious". Unfortunately, the news is not as good for the rest of the crew, with stilted line delivery and wooden emoting being the order of the day.
Despite its shortcomings, "Resident Evil" will probably remembered as on of the better videogame-to-film adaptations that have come and gone over the last decade, and could potentially launch a lucrative movie franchise for Sony Pictures. With its slick production and decent action sequences, "Resident Evil" is a fun, though empty-headed, guilty pleasure. However, for future installments, Anderson will need to focus less on the visceral and more on the story elements if "Resident Evil" is to truly find mainstream acceptance among the moviegoing public.