Here's a not-so-big secret: most Hollywood adaptations of video games are not very good. Why? The reasons are numerous, but the most obvious one is that they're totally different mediums, and so much is lost in translation. The end result is usually something that leaves neither fans of the games nor those who simply enjoy a good movie satisfied.
So the fact that there are now five Resident Evil movies is frankly incredible. How has the series lasted this long? What's the secret to its success? Sure, Milla Jovovich kicking zombie ass is a primary reason. But there's something else too, which pisses off fans of the source material to no end: the movies are, ultimately, nothing like the games.
Other than the fact that people have been turned into the undead by a virus engineered by the Umbrella Corporation, plus a few familiar zombified threats tossed in, the first RE flick had absolutely nothing in common with its namesake. No Jill Valentine, no Chris Redfield, just some woman named Alice.
One could rationalize that instead of trying to depict every little thing from the games in a literal fashion, the movie shrewdly tapped into the essence of the games instead. And perhaps others should follow suit. But that's not the case either. Instead of sneaking around dark mansion hallways, worrying about every little noise from around the corner and managing a scarce supply of bullets, it was jumping off the walls of brightly lit research facilities, to give a demon dog a roundhouse kick.
As the sequels came along, more and more elements from the games were inserted into the films, but still only to a very minor degree. Stars from the games made appearances, including Jill and Chris, but they played second banana to Jovovich's character, and were often nothing like the game characters they were based on.
The stories and set pieces again bore little resemblance with the games. Over time, fans of the games began to warm up to the movies, and appreciate them for what they were: over-the-top action spectaculars whose video game-esque qualities (the ridiculous stunts, over the top enemies, and limitless supply of ammo) were somewhat justified. Plus, the chance to how some favorite element from the games might be employed on-screen was a bonus.
The movies succeeded because they looked at the source material as inspiration when needed, which was not very often. It's rare to see something that would seem to cater to a specific audience (the Resident Evil name implies that the series is for Resident Evil fans), yet absolutely does not. It chose an audience to appease, and that audience isn't necessarily RE players.
But somehow, this approach works—and the results more than speak for themselves. Each successive Resident Evil movie has made more money than the one before it. With that in mind, perhaps the next Street Fighter movie should star an original character as well? Since both previous attempts have tanked already, I say it's worth a shot.
All of this is why the most recent Resident Evil movie, Resident Evil: Retribution, is so odd. Not only does it do a complete 180 by being the most video game-like of the bunch, but also it dips heavily into the source material—which at this point, is rather risky.
Things kick off right where the last RE movie ended (just as the previous installment, Resident Evil: Afterlife, did). It's one of those beginnings that completely brushes aside everything that Alice (and the viewer) endured last time, which would be frankly infuriating if the entire franchise wasn't a mindless cartoon in the first place. Besides, isn't that also very video game-like anyway?
After Alice is knocked out during the latest barrage by Umbrella, she finds herself in some picturesque, suburban setting. She's now a housewife, with a wonderful husband and a beautiful daughter. Not surprisingly, zombies appear out of nowhere to ruin everything. While trying to get the hell out of dodge, Alice and her daughter have a chance encounter with Rain, the Michelle Rodriguez character from the very first movie, who is all of a sudden alive again.
Just as it seems as if her number is up as well, Alice wakes up in an Umbrella-designed holding chamber, semi-nude. Imagine that bib you get at the dentist, but as a "dress." Which, really, is the other major reason why people go see Resident Evil flicks: you're guaranteed a scene in which Jovovich has been captured and conveniently stripped of all her clothing.
Here where one of the main antagonists in the movie, Jill Valentine, confronts her. Remember how Jill was brainwashed in Resident Evil 5, the video game? Same thing here, right down to the purple jumpsuit, sudden blonde locks, and goofy metallic spider in her chest (which looks even sillier in real life). Evil Jill was introduced in the last movie, and takes center stage here.
A disruption in the system allows Alice to flee her cell (and get a new leather outfit), after which she ends up in the streets of Tokyo, of all places, where a sudden zombie outbreak occurs. We get to see the first of many supremely flashy fight scenes here, which culminates with the arrival of Ada Wong. Ada is this particular movie's obligatory/token character from a game, but she's not the only one.
Ada is working for Albert Wesker, the main bad guy from the games. Albert wants to help Alice escape the Umbrella facility that she and Ada are currently prisoners in. He also wants them to join forces with him, because he's now out to take Umbrella down as well, so he's a good guy. Huh? And to lend assistance, he's sending a strike force that includes Leon S. Kennedy and Barry Burton?! What the hell!
Such a sudden influx of characters from the games would be one thing, but such a bizarre amalgamation is another. It's almost as if the director was given an ultimatum by the studio head that he HAD to insert fan favorites into the mix. It feels like some crazed, hardcore RE fan fiction. I hesitate to call it bad fan fiction since, let's be honest: the storylines from the actual games are pretty weak to begin with.
We also learn that the facility is a testing ground for Umbrella's chemical weaponry. Each area simulates a different environment, which Alice and Ada must traverse. So basically, they were in the Tokyo level beforehand, and must now traverse the New York stage, and even a Moscow one, to reach safety. It's like any action game in which stuff takes place all over the map, but with some semblance of logic applied (if you can call it that).
To push the game-like allusions even further, every time they reach a new spot, weapons and ammo are casually acquired. Because that's just what happens when you enter a new stage. Also, in one of them, Alice and Ada not only encounter a major foe from a previous movie, but two of them simultaneously, making it effectively a boss rush.
By far the most interesting level is the suburbia one. Remember that dream from before? Well, it wasn't just a dream after all; Alice eventually comes across her daughter from before. Turns out, what we saw before was just a routine simulation that Umbrella performs to test whatever out. The Alice from before was simply a clone (for those unfamiliar with the other movies; her character is cloned a LOT).
This also explains Rain's presence from before, and why there's another one, out to kill Alice on Jill's behalf. That's one way to bring previous stars back from the dead if no other explanation can be given. Whether by design or not, this video game movie does an excellent job of incorporating tropes from the source material, or at the very least have them be present, in a semi-organic fashion. In this case: why do all characters in a video game look exactly alike? While, again, also not trying very hard to be like the thing it's based upon. It's very weird if one actually sits down to think about it.
Anyhow, because the girl believes Alice to be mom, she all of sudden comes along for the ride, effectively making her the Newt (from the James Cameron classic, Aliens) of the motion picture. Unfortunately, that relationship isn't fully explored, but given what kind of movie we're talked about in the first place (other than daughter freaking out when she enters a room filled with mom clones), it's nice to have at least something to think about in the first place.
Despite Retribution embracing its roots far more than ever before, it's still a Resident Evil movie, which means action sequence, after action sequence, after action sequence. While these are impressive when taken by themselves, collectively, they become a bit tiresome. At least we have the guys who play Leon and Barry to point and laugh at. (Who appear to be like two dudes who would portray the characters in an unofficial knock-off porn based on RE,especially Barry's beard. They have the acting chops of adult film stars as well.)
Not to give everything way, but in the end, Alice eventually makes a rendezvous with the strike force and they all stand toe to toe with Jill and her personal army, in a scene that could be considered an unintentional nod to Capcom's VS games, in which characters from virtually every single movie leading up are all sharing the stage together. Oh, and those who thought that this movie might be the last RE flick… the fact that each makes more money than the last, as previously noted, is something not lost in the filmmakers. The sufficiently wacky ending definitely lends itself to another sequel.
In the end, if you're a fan of the film series, then you are going to absolutely love this latest installment. It's easily the best one thus far, with the best fight action sequences, interesting background details, and enough nods to the past to serve as a thank you to fans for sticking around for so long, which is important for most franchises with so many movies underneath their belt. The only complaint for such folk is how, surprisingly, it's a bit light in the zombie-killing department.
As for fans of the games, most should be sufficiently amused by all references to past games, more so than in the past. Die-hard fans might still be pissed with the not so finer details (like Wesker as a good guy), but at the very least, no one can say that the movies have nothing to do with the games anymore.
And that fact that, as noted, Resident Evil: Retribution is the most video game-y entry of a film series to be based on a video games, but at the same time is hardly like the video game it's supposed to be, and somehow actually works, is noteworthy. I think?
Matthew Hawkins is a NYC based game journalist who once upon a time used to be an editor for GameSetWatch plus numerous other outlets, self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of the Attract Mode collective, and contributes to The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on his personal home-base, FORT90.com.