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Spout About: “Resident Evil: Afterlife” — Still Following Alice in Zombieland?

Spout About: "Resident Evil: Afterlife" -- Still Following Alice in Zombieland?

Taking in almost $28 million, “Resident Evil: Afterlife” ruled the box office over the weekend. It’s the biggest opening yet for the franchise, though the 3D surcharges were obviously a factor. In fact, adjusted for the fee, attendance seems to be down compared to 2007’s “Resident Evil: Extinction.” Still, it’s a relatively successful series and it’s no surprise there’s already a fifth installment in the works. If you saw “Afterlife,” you’re already expecting another sequel anyway, because consistent with the franchise it ended with a bit of a cliffhanger.

Yet while I’m down for the continuation — as I noted in our fall movie preview, I’ve always enjoyed the films as a guilty pleasure — I wouldn’t mind if at some point the plug is pulled but the final installment still ends with that same lack of closure. I don’t know if this is something carried over from the video game franchise they’re based on, but the “Resident Evil” movies have always worked well as somewhat isolated episodes in a serialized story, which will never be fully concluded. If Alice (Milla Jovovich) never completely takes down the Umbrella Corporation and/or rids the world of the zombie-like infected, I will be satisfied.

Honestly, I think of these movies as slightly more than a guilty pleasure. They’ve won me over in terms of what they do and where they’re going. I don’t have as much love for the middle installments, “Apocalypse” and “Extinction,” as the first and fourth, both of which were directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who has remained producer and sole (credited?) screenwriter of the entire run. Yet I remain an enthusiast overall. And I’m glad to see, amidst all the dismissive reviews, some colleagues and peers coming out with fair defenses, appreciations and examinations.

From the beginning, what has appealed to me most is the series’ tendency to keep viewers like myself in the dark in multiple senses. Back when the first “Resident Evil” arrived, I championed the way it brought us into the story on somewhat equal ground with its initially amnesiac heroine, Alice. After a clearly laid out but not entirely apprehensible prologue, we’re thrown into the comparatively very confusing situation of Alice waking up with no memory and then learn background details as Alice comes to understand, be told or remember them. It did what “The Bourne Identity” did the same year, only a few months earlier.

But I was informed by a number of people back then that those familiar with the “Resident Evil” video games did not have this same sense of mystery. Although the plot of the movies are quite different from the games (a comparative look at the games vs. films can be found at G4’s The Feed), there is apparently enough borrowed from the latter for the gamers to go in with a comprehension and appreciation the rest of us don’t have. The same can be said about any kind of adaptation, but it’s slightly different with these films because they’re so loose in the translation. John Lichman puts it nicely at GreenCine Daily:

They’re almost like fan-fiction with an original Mary Sue (or omnipotent) character introduced purely to interact with the game’s equally deified characters, such as Alice going mano-a-mano with the hulking Nemesis in “Apocalypse” or Tyrant in “Extinction.” In the Capcom universe, these beasts are deadly bosses causing hours of thumb cramping for frustrated gamers; in Anderson’s universe, they’re mere cameos for Jovovich to quickly dispatch.

I guess I can relate it to being a former “X-Men” reader who could get excited during the “X-Men” movies whenever a random — and in the context of the onscreen story, inconsequential — mutant would show up in the flesh or otherwise be referenced to. For example, when a non-metallic-skinned Piotr Rasputin appears in “X2” solely to carry a television. No non-fan knows or cares who he is other than another genetically gifted student, this one apparently with superhuman strength. Lichman continues:

Here, no one cares who Chris Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy are—they’re supporting players who can be freely killed off because they’re second fiddle to multiplying Milla Jovoviches. Anderson still offers some red meat for observant fans, like the game’s zombie Dobermans, who have become a reoccurring icon since the first film.

“Afterlife” continues this tradition of offering familiar creatures, such as something named The Executioner, which comes from the game “Resident Evil 5.” In the movie there’s no background given for the giant, speechless monster. He just shows up with his enormous axe-like weapon, has a showdown with Alice and Claire (Ali Larter) and is done away with in a spectacular shower room scene. And it doesn’t matter that we don’t know who or what he is. Most filmmakers would feel a need to align the unknowing audience with the knowing through some sort of exposition. But that’s kind of unfair to the knowing, and in the end it would also be unfair to those of us who don’t care, who just go to see these movies for incidental spectacle.

Glenn Kenny shares his amusement with this sensational stuff at Some Came Running. One of his points of interest:

The zombies here have these weird-ass Venus Flytrap things that pop outta their faces, and there’s one zombie who’s like this complete giant scythe-wielding mutant grim reaper dude. A more intellectually curious zombie movie would have made an attempt to explain these novelties/anomalies/whatever the hell they are. But if it were a more intellectually curious zombie movie, it wouldn’t be a Resident Evil movie, would it?

In addition to the “grim reaper dude,” which I mentioned above, I assume the “weird-ass Venus Flytrap” zombies are originally a part of the games, too. I must confess, though, that I had not seen the prior film, “Extinction,” before watching “Afterlife.” So from my perspective (and Kenny’s), they could have just as well have been introduced and explained in that third installment. Same goes for a number of other things in the new film, like The Executioner, the guy doing his best Agent Smith impression, and the Alice clone army, the last of which turns out indeed to have been from “Extinction.”

The funny thing about these movies is sometimes they do involve recall flashbacks to previous installments. We get a reminder of where the series last left off with Ali Larter’s character, for instance, and later get a (new) flashback revealing what happened to her and other “Extinction” characters since then. Therefore Anderson must have exposition guidelines in place and knows what is necessary and what is not, for each of his audiences. As is evident by Kenny’s and my enjoyment, the narratives work well enough as adaptations or on their own and as isolated stories that don’t exactly require familiarity with past episodes.

I have to say I’m very thankful Anderson came back on as director for “Afterlife,” because in spite of how much I appreciate being in the dark with certain parts of “Resident Evil” narratively, I prefer to know what is going on within each particular scene. Say what you will about his scripts and maybe even his direction of actors, but Anderson can really stage an action sequence well. He may employ a lot of slow-motion to do so, but especially compared to “Extinction” helmer Russell Mulcahy (as well as most filmmakers in Hollywood right now, including Christopher Nolan), he visualizes these set pieces with great precision and guides our eye perfectly through the most complex of scenes. Unlike during most of today’s action movies, I never got bored watching “Afterlife,” never had to look away during any scenes with insufficient coverage that then poorly utilized fast-cut editing to distract from such deficiency. John Nolte at Big Hollywood knows what I mean:

After stepping away as director for the middle two entries, Paul W.S. Anderson (the most unfairly maligned film director working today — other than Brett Ratner), who has overseen the production of the entire series, returns to the director’s chair bringing with him a much appreciated and increasingly rare talent for staging complicated action sequences in a comprehensible way. Unafraid of the tripod and possessing enough faith in the physical choreography of his scenes to deliver the goods, few directors are as gifted as Anderson when it comes to allowing audiences to understand the geography of what’s happening. No Greengrass-ian crutches to falsely inflate the energy – no hyper-edits and no shaky-cam.

As for the 3D element of “Afterlife,” which does deserve its fair share of praise, I don’t think it quite lives up to the promise of the film’s marketing, which made a big point of telling us it’s shot with the cameras James Cameron used for “Avatar.” Still, given my waning interest in the format this year, and coming as someone who early on felt second only to Jefferey Katzenberg in his enthusiasm for the new digital 3D technology, gimmick and all, I’m happy to say it’s probably the best live-action 3D movie of the year. Not that there was much competition. Josh Tyler of Cinema Blend itemized and rated the factors that make “Afterlife” worthy of the 3D surcharge. From his guide:

Resident Evil: Afterlife isn’t an innovator, it’s not coming up with anything new, it’s not pushing the technology to a new level, but it is doing everything possible with the best of what’s available and that’s more than can be said of any 3D movie that’s been released in theaters since Avatar. Is it a 3D craze cash-in? Absolutely, but it’s one that’s cashing in, well, the right way. They planned ahead for 3D and the put a maximum amount of effort into it, with whatever amount of time they had available to shoot it.

Finally, I leave you with a bit of John Gholson’s piece in defense of the whole “Resident Evil” series from Cinematical:

There will be a generation of kids raised on Resident Evil that will look back on these films with the same nostalgia us old-timers reserve for our favorite funky franchises and not-so-great monster movies. If you can recognize that, there’s a certain charm to the Resident Evil series. While it may not hit my personal cinematic sweet spot, I can appreciate its intent, and I won’t begrudge any filmmakers who are earnestly trying to fill a void in the starving world of theatrical creature features.

Now share your own thoughts on the new installment and the franchise in general down below. Will you keep following Alice’s adventures in zombieland through further sequels?

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