The Resident Evil: Degeneration movie features plasticine characters, impossible situations, a nonsensical storyline full of plot holes you could drive a truck through.
It's fun to look at, and the action is pretty absorbing — but ultimately, it's vapid.
Finally, a perfect Resident Evil movie.
Say what you like about Degeneration. I'll say I like it, because for good or for ill, it's actually the ideal reflection of the franchise on which it's based. True, the plot makes little traceable sense – but try and find a Resident Evil plot that does. We're talking games about obscene mutant zombie viruses, here.
I mean, why should a powerful pharmaceutical company invent an obscene mutant zombie virus, anyway? There's never any good reason – and Degeneration stays on point, utterly refusing to offer one. And in the games, when the D-Day biohazard outbreak inevitably occurs, the government tries to cover it up instead of prevent it every time (yep, that happens in Degeneration).
We're talking about games where people leave their top-secret files lying around to helpfully edify interlopers, for example – a high point of Resident Evil 4 is discovering a handwritten note titled "Our Plan." Y'know ,just in case you wanted to know. And no matter how gruesome the viruses get, some power-hungry villain always elects to inject themselves, paradoxically trading away any actual control they had over the situation. Degeneration doesn't break that pattern, either.
Speaking of patterns, are you seeing one here? Yes — Degeneration is utterly faithful to its source material, even admirably so. In the film, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield team up for the first time since Resident Evil 2, and this time around isn't too different for the pair: Claire still goes to great lengths to protect a little girl, Leon is still too shy to admit he's interested in a tough woman, and the two must split up to pursue separate objectives throughout the story – which again culminates in a fight against a self-injected, large-armed G-Virus mutant villain.
No whining about spoilers. You could have seen it coming a mile away. There's even a seminal self-destruct sequence activated. Of course.
At face value, then, it seems that Degeneration captures the "flavor" of Resident Evil far more than the dissociative Milla Jovovich films that bear only a passing memetic resemblance to the games — fans don't tend to like those films, do they?
So if you dislike Degeneration, maybe you actually dislike the source material.
The more storied a video game franchise, the more challenging it is to create a film based on it. As a matter of fact, instead of challenging, let's go with impossible. We either end up with a decent film that has nothing to do with the game (but have we yet had a good one?); a flick that admirably reflects the game but is utterly unappealing to non-fans (dear Advent Children!) , or, what we most often get – a terrible film that both movie-goers and game fans despise.
If Degeneration was a bad movie, that's because it was faithful to the games – and what makes the games good simply isn't the same kind of thing that makes a good movie. There's obviously a broad schism, then, between the way we experience game stories as players and the way they translate as narrative.
It sure looks like scriptwriters and producers consistently aren't "getting it" when it comes to what's lovable about a video game they're trying to translate to the big screen. On the other side of the canyon, audiences are unlikely to understand Resident Evil or Final Fantasy VII when it's presented as film, outside of its native context.
But is it really that film production is just not taking games seriously enough? That the film industry doesn't understand how sophisticated games really are?
Perhaps to an extent; unfamiliar with the language of games, films often mistranslate a title's appeal. That's what happened with Silent Hill, which might have been successful as a well-acted psychological thriller – but turned out mediocre, if we're being kind. It reproduced the game's visual style and feel almost unsettlingly, even chill-inducingly, going as far as to incorporate pieces of Akira Yamaoka's original soundtrack.
But it completely missed the boat on what makes Silent Hill appealing – its psychological subtlety – and instead zeroed in on the series' most obvious elements, stripping them of their context and highlighting their ridiculousness. It might have been possible to make a complex, mature Silent Hill movie if it had focused on the right things.
The dominant problem, though, is that the narratives of games are unfortunately not nearly as sophisticated, intelligent, affecting or entertaining as we think they are.
Story can be important to games, and sophisticated story is arguably key to advancing the medium beyond toy status. But it's not always necessary to an excellent video game – just look at the strength and success of Resident Evil even despite its ridiculous plot lines. Resident Evil 4 is so good, for example, that it manages to be awesome even though it features an annoying Napoleon-man chasing Leon with a gigantic mechanical version of himself – and he's a lot more appealing than the girl you've got to rescue. That's a seriously solid game, right there.
Similarly, there are some excellent video game stories out there that run alongside really awful games. But a movie is a story – period. It's got no choice. On the big screen, a video game's weird, clumsy narrative doesn't have things like gameplay to hide behind. On film, games can't escape the fact that they're often shallow without their interactivity, their action pacing, or their player-created experience. And ironically enough, it's the major action franchises that end up being made into films – the ones that need story the least.
And yet every time we go to the theater for a video game movie, we're expecting – what? Something that resembles a live-action cut scene from the game? Or a deeply-affecting, sophisticated dramatic journey based on Max Payne? Seriously?
We have high hopes of video game movies because our emotional relationship to games is so strong. Perhaps this love leads us to expect more from a film representation than it's reasonable to expect – and that's the source of our cultural trait of being impossible to please regarding films. But we've also learned the language of games; we've learned to treat broad-stroke stereotypical characters as shorthand for whatever we'd like to fill in.
We've learned to back-shelf absurd plot elements in favor of creating our own story about the joy of the boss fight. We've let our imagination make characters far more exciting and intriguing than they are.
What's to like, really, about Leon Kennedy — besides the fact he does a bad-ass suplex? Albert Wesker's among many people's favorite video game villains of all time, and yet it's true that he's barely even got a consistent characterization from one game to the next. We like him because he talks creepy and he looks cool doing it, and now he's got those red eyes, and that thrust punch thing in RE 4? Amazing.
In fact, you might be getting a rush of enthusiasm just thinking about these characters – hey, I do. Ready to rush to the comments to talk about them, to share your favorite moments from Resident Evil, to explain why you think the stories are really good?
Go for it. But the vitality and adoration you feel around Resident Evil comes from your relationship to it. That's something that will never translate to the big screen – might as well quit hoping.
[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, reviews for various outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]