In the original Resident Evil video game -- named Biohazard in its Japanese incarnation -- a brash young American infiltrates a large manor house, only to find it inhabited by terrifying, soulless zombies. But since Gosford Park had already come out, the makers of the Resident Evil movie had to go with something a little different. In keeping with current trends, they went with a prequel. Originally subtitled Ground Zero, and renamed for obvious reasons, the film shows fans the origin of the undead and other mutations, a story the games have alluded to but never specifically told.
It seems like to do so would be a tiresome exercise: The beauty of the games, the first one in particular, is the way the story slowly unfolds, throwing players into a situation and forcing them to gradually glean the tale from bits and pieces of information obtained by gathering evidence and solving puzzles, all the while dodging zombies and various other nasty creatures. When the movie opens with text, read aloud for the illiterate, baldly spelling out the fact that a corrupt supercorporation named Umbrella is secretly involved in viral warfare, it seems as though writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat; middle initials recently added so as not to confuse him with the Magnolia director) were looking to club us over the head with an obvious, linear setup.
Thankfully, Anderson turns out to be a genuine fan of the games, so after an obligatory opening sequence in which the zombie-creating T-Virus is unleashed, we settle on Alice (Milla Jovovich), a pretty naked girl in the shower, who finds herself in a large mansion completely unaware of who she is and how she got there. Forced to don a revealing dress that seems to be the only clothing available, she does what any good game player would do: She starts exploring the place.
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To disclose too many plot specifics would spoil the fun, as the slow-reveal style of the game is imitated well. Suffice it to say that before long, Alice, with a local police officer, is dragged alongside a team of high-tech commandos led by Colin Salmon (M's chief of staff in the last two Bond movies) into a compound 800 feet below ground known as the Hive. A laboratory formerly run by the Umbrella corporation, the Hive has recently been shut down by its HAL-9000-esque computer, Red Queen, which appears to have killed all inside. (Alice, underground, Red Queen...get the tedious Lewis Carroll metaphor yet?) Just to make matters scarier, the Red Queen inexplicably talks with the voice of a six-year-old English girl.
And yes, there are zombies, though the film's TV spots seem cagey about revealing that fact, despite their being the defining characteristic of the well-known games. To make things even worse for the characters, not one of them ever appears to have seen a George Romero movie, so it takes them more than half the movie to figure out that you have to shoot them in the head (not the case in the game, but ah, well). Other unpleasant critters are lurking as well, including zombie Dobermans and one of the game's more grotesque creations, a mutant from the second game transcribed to screen with absolute faithfulness. Gamers also will appreciate a reference to the creation of another familiar monster near movie's end, along with references to the original title of Biohazard, the trademark image of an eye opening and the setting in the hills beside the fictional Raccoon City. No green herbs or typewriter ribbons, though.
To clear up the longtime negative buzz surrounding this film, created in part by Web geek Harry Knowles and his irrational dislike of director Anderson: No, this movie is not a PG-13. Yes, there's gore, and no, it's not primarily digital, although CG is used, as in A.I., to digitally delete chunks of people's faces. And yes, this movie is faithful to its source -- even Anderson's mise-en-scène in every shot looks like a painstaking re-creation of the game's scenarios. To say it's the best video game adaptation yet isn't much, as even lowbrow pleasures like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider get spit on by folks who seem determined to dislike them from the get-go, but Anderson has done a bang-up job. Yeah, we'd all have liked to see Romero direct it (he was the first choice, until Capcom rejected his script), but considering that didn't happen, things worked out pretty well.
And the movie is cheesy in parts, but then so was the game, notorious in its English dub for poor voice-acting and translation ("Jill? Wesker? Hmmmm I wonder what happened to Jill and Wesker?"). The banner of such cheesiness is carried herein by Eric Mabius (The Crow: Salvation), saddled with the animelike hairdo of game protagonist Chris Redfield and forced to badly deliver such lines as "Corporations like Umbrella think they're above the law but they're not!" Michelle Rodriguez is better, doing her standard girl-who-kicks-ass shtick, but augmenting it by suffering from zombie-bite sickness most of the film. Star Jovovich isn't at her best, but that's mainly because her character is required to be in shock most of the movie, except when she remembers that she's a Charlie's Angel, or happily sheds clothing to maintain that R rating. Frankly, most of us can live with that.