From Cutscene to Celluloid is our ongoing series examining the process of adapting video games to the silver screen. To catch up on previous entries in this series, click here.
Capcom’s 1996 classic “Resident Evil” is the birthplace of the survival horror video game. You play as Jill Valentine/Chris Redfield (player’s choice), agents of a special task force named STARS, traversing an abandoned mansion riddled with monsters. As you explore the mansion and examine journal entries, notes, and other tidbits left behind, you discover that the mansion is a front for The Umbrella Corporation, the biotech company responsible for an experimental virus which can reanimate dead organisms. In simpler terms: This house is full of zombies.
One of the key pioneering aspects of the original game was its emphasis on puzzle-solving and survival. Nearly every room in the mansion features some kind of riddle or trap or monster to keep players on their toes. Ammunition and health pickups are limited, forcing the player to prioritize escape routes above blowing away everything that moves. Later entries in the series would lean more towards action RPG territory, but the original set the tone for an entire subgenre of gaming to follow.
ADAPTATION: THERE AND BACK AGAIN
From its very conception, “Resident Evil” is a game borne out the horror movie stylings of the 1970s and 1980s. Its gloomy aesthetic and sudden jolts of terror directly harken back to the works of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci. “I want Resident Evil to give the player the feeling that he’s the main character in a horror movie,” Capcom producer Shinji Mikami explained.1 His game would lift images and compositions straight from the Romero playbook, not as a matter of theft, but as a means of evoking that classic horror movie feel. That evocative style helped turn the game into a hit, and a franchise was born.
In 1998, Capcom hired George A. Romero himself to direct a live-action TV commercial for the Japanese release of their game “Resident Evil 2” (known in Japan as “Biohazard 2”). Hiring the father of the modern zombie to help advertise their latest zombie game seemed like a no-brainer. The ad features Brad Renfro as Raccoon City cop Leon Kennedy and Adrienne Frantz as Claire Redfield, both trapped inside a police station overrun by zombies. The commercial runs a scant thirty seconds, but features Romero’s signature zombie look.
At that point, it had been fifteen years since Romero’s most recent zombie feature, Day of the Dead. Numerous attempts to get another installment off the ground fizzled throughout the 80s and 90s. In a behind-the-scenes documentary produced for Japanese television, it is immediately apparent how delighted Romero is to be back in the company of his beloved ghouls. 2 One gets the sense that if no one had been there to stop him, he might have produced an entire film right there on the spot. As fate would have it, when Capcom and Sony decided to move forward with a feature film adaptation, Romero’s name was at the top of their list.
Sony officially hired Romero to write and direct the feature adaptation of “Resident Evil” in 1999. Not a gamer himself, Romero had an assistant videotape themselves playing the games, which he would then watch and study in developing his treatment (in effect becoming the world’s very first professional Let’s Player). His vision for the film incorporated elements from both games, primarily focusing on Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, whom his screenplay portrayed as lovers. Jill is still a STARS agent, called in by Colonel Wesker to investigate the goings-on at Arkley Mansion. Meanwhile, Chris—a farmhand who senses the zombie outbreak early on thanks to the strange behavior of his animals—gives chase to the mansion following the chaotic evacuation of Raccoon City.3
After commissioning and reviewing multiple screenplay drafts, the studio soon fired Romero from the project. “His script wasn’t good, so Romero was fired,” producer Yoshiki Okamoto curtly explained.4 The company felt that he was turning their film into a rehash of Dawn of the Dead. They also believed fans would not take kindly to such changes, and that newcomers would simply dislike the premise all together. For his part, Romero did not take the rejection lightly. He vented his frustrations on his (now defunct) website:
Deep in my heart, I felt that ResEv was a rip-off of Night of the Living Dead. I had no legal case, but I was resentful. And torn… because I liked the videogame. I wanted to do the film partly because I wanted to say, “Look here! This is how you do this shit!”1
After dropping Romero, the studio fielded a treatment from Paul WS Anderson, who recently had some success in directing Mortal Kombat for New Line Cinema. Anderson’s treatment hewed closer to Capcom’s vision for the film, despite inventing new characters and situations out of whole cloth, and lending the film a more militarized aesthetic. Anderson would steer Resident Evil away from the gore-splattered design of Romero’s films and instead focus on building an atmosphere of dread to shock his audience. “It’s too easy to gross people out on a splatter level and far harder to scare them senseless,” he explains, going on to refer to the Romero approach to horror as “dated and hokey.”1 Some, such as author Jamie Russell, speculated that this was code for Sony gearing their adaptation more for mass audiences rather than horror aficionados. In late 2000, Anderson’s production was officially given the greenlight.
THE FILM – “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE DOWN HERE.”
Resident Evil (2002) stars Milla Jovovich as Alice, an amnesiac sleeper agent for the Umbrella Corporation, who is led down into the bowels of Umbrella’s underground research facility, The Hive. Taken at gunpoint by a tactical strike team, Alice is forced to help them lock down and contain an outbreak of the T-virus, the bioweapon that turns its victims into zombies, before it spills out onto the surface. Accompanying them in their mission are Alice’s partner Spence (James Purefoy), a Raccoon City cop named Matt (Eric Mabius) and tenacious soldier Rain (Michelle Rodriguez). Along the way, the team are constantly harassed by The Red Queen, The Hive’s self-aware computer system which manifests itself as a hologram of a little girl.
An original creation, Alice is an amalgam of the series’ female protagonists, many of whom would later appear in the film’s five sequels. In an interview with MSN readers, Anderson curiously mentions that despite inventing Alice himself, he nonetheless saw Milla as portraying Jill Valentine. 5 In addition, on the film’s DVD commentary he notes that Alice primarily exists as the lynchpin for a running Alice in Wonderland theme that ultimately goes nowhere. (Though we do see Umbrella scientists testing the virus on a white rabbit.)6 Later films will grant Alice telekinetic superpowers, but from the start we find that she already has enhanced fighting skills. Of course, here they only really allow her to kick a dog in the face. To date, Alice has never made an appearance in any Resident Evil game.
If the studio was worried audiences would not like the premise, the answer it seemed was to change the premise. The film is positioned as a prequel to the Resident Evil saga, explaining the origin of the T-Virus and portraying the zombie outbreak as an act of corporate sabotage. Later entries in the series would further flesh out this backstory (to the point of completely rewriting it). Paul Anderson’s take on the material would veer far afield of the path the video games would follow, while still mixing and matching whichever game elements seem like the most fun at the time.
New Maze, Same Monsters
Let’s talk about the way this series scrambles its monsters real quick. In this first installment, the final monster is not the Tyrant, as in the original game, but rather the Licker from “Resident Evil 2”. The Tyrant won’t make an appearance until the third film, and the monster from the third game, Nemesis, shows up as the Big Bad in the second film. Then we have the “las plagas” zombies from “Resident Evil 4″ turning up in the fifth film. Finally, the Axe Guys from the fifth game appear in both the fourth AND fifth films. Lickers, incidentally, show up in parts one, two, five and six. It’s all very confusing.
The majority of Resident Evil takes place inside The Hive, as Alice and the rest of the militarized Mystery Inc. gang wander into one zombie trap after another. Perhaps the most iconic trap in the film, and one that the series keeps returning to like a moth to the flame, is the Laser Room. The corridor leading to the Red Queen’s mainframe room is a brightly-lit hallway protected by roaming lasers that cut through anything. As the soldiers make their way down the hall, a laser activates and scans across the room. While most of them duck out of the way, one is caught unaware and loses their head. Then the laser returns in pairs, quickly slicing off another soldier’s fingers. Agent One (Colin Salmon) manages to survive the longest, but is no match for the laser turning itself into a grid at the last second, cutting him up into a hundred pieces. True to the nature of the games, the only way to defeat the Laser Room is to survive it, as Alice will learn in later installments.
Despite leaving the mansion behind in its opening minutes, the film still finds plenty of creepy, dark locations for its cast to traverse. Abandoned laboratories, storage facilities, office corridors; anyplace where zombies might congregate, Resident Evil crams ‘em in there. One of the film’s strongest sequences finds the gang clambering around in a sewage tunnel. It’s a perfectly disgusting place for the film to deploy the classic “Go on without me!” scene, in which one of the soldiers is injured and trapped against a pipe. He tells the others to leave him behind, fully planning to finish himself off once the zombies close in on him. He weighs the choice between shooting himself or letting the zombies take him. It’s an anguished sequence, but one that feels like vintage Romero, illustrating what might have been.
The film even takes time out of its hectic zombie-blasting schedule to have Alice do a bit of exploring. Below we see an overhead shot of Alice inspecting a dead janitor. This is a direct nod to some of the wonky perspective shots employed by the video games. This type of shot makes sense in a game for two reasons. First, the sudden change in perspective is a clue that there is something important here. If this were a game, your eye would instantly be drawn to the gun in that dead body’s lap. You would have to weigh your desire for that ammunition against your willingness to fight off a potential zombie. Second, this is an instance of evoking that sense of cinematic dread that Shinji Mikami wants you to feel. It’s tricking you into thinking you’re playing a movie.
When filtered back through as a stylistic choice in a film, this serves little purpose. What little tension there is here comes from the fact that you know that corpse is going to jolt back to life. The film barely milks that tension, instead having Alice pause just long enough for the shot to register, and then go straight for the gun just to get it over with. Anderson is enough of a fan to recreate compositions and elements from the games, but not a strong enough filmmaker to give those elements any depth. As a means of storytelling this shot accomplishes nothing, and compositionally it’s just fuck-ugly.
RESIDENT EVIL: RECEPTION
The film scored very well with test audiences. In a recent interview with Deadline, Paul WS Anderson revealed that had the film tested lower, Sony was fully prepared to release the film straight to DVD. There were still fears among studio brass that the film would not perform well in the US due to its female leads. “[Hollywood] executives recite this law: female lead action movies don’t work because guys want to imagine they’re that guy. They’ll feel emasculated if you’ve got a woman wielding a heavy machine gun.”7 It’s as true today as it was then, though the film would go on to prove executives wrong, and spawn five Alice-led sequels.
Resident Evil hit US theaters on March 15, 2002 and went on to gross $103 million worldwide on a $33 million budget.8 This was enough to justify a sequel, 2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, which Anderson would begin work on almost immediately. Ticket sales were strong, but critics were not as kind. It currently holds a 34% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. “Like other video game adaptations,” the site’s consensus reads, “Resident Evil is loud, violent, formulaic, and cheesy.”9
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert observed the following:
“Resident Evil” is a zombie movie set in the 21st century and therefore reflects several advances over 20th century films. For example, in 20th century slasher movies, knife blades make a sharpening noise when being whisked through thin air. In the 21st century, large metallic objects make crashing noises just by being looked at. 10
The Final Analysis
Whether Ebert realized it at the time or not, he makes an interesting point. Resident Evil sits at a somewhat precarious moment in history. Written and produced in the months before 9/11, it was released in early 2002, in the wake of all the political insanity that those attacks unleashed. The film reflects this divide in its opening and closing scenes. As it begins, we see Umbrella’s inner workings, moments before the T-virus is unleashed. When the inciting event occurs, innocent office drones are suffocated as their floors are hermetically sealed. A young woman riding the elevator meets a gruesome end when she tries to slide out through the closed doors, only for it to rise up and smash her face into the ceiling. It’s a scene of utter destruction in the most innocuous of settings.
Finally, as Alice stumbles out into the street in the closing scene, we emerge into a world completely and irrevocably torn asunder. The bustling metropolis that once was Raccoon City is deserted. Smashed up vehicles litter the streets; a newspaper floats by, whose headline reads “THE DEAD WALK!” (One final direct pull from Romero.) As Alice pulls a shotgun out of a police cruiser, the camera tracks out as we see the extent of the devastation. Resident Evil, in these two scenes, is one of the few films of the early 2000s that clearly depict the mood of America immediately pre-and-post 9/11. There was no way Paul WS Anderson could know just how eerily these scenes would play a few months after he filmed them, but the effect is chilling just the same.
Resident Evil may be a sub-par adaptation of a classic video game at best, but it’s one of the key transitional films of the 2000s. The same way Capcom kicked the aging George Romero to the curb for a younger, more mainstream vision, so too does Resident Evil eschew the original game’s horror movie tropes in favor of grimdark action cinema pablum. And just like the ongoing War on Terror, the Resident Evil series has been an unfortunate fact of life for the past fifteen years.
Citations/Sources For Further Information
- Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema
Jamie Russell’s comprehensive encyclopedia of zombie cinema, which situates Resident Evil as the keystone in the zombie resurgence of the early 2000s.
- Resident Evil 2 Commercial George A. Romero Documentary
Directed by Hideki Kanbara, this short documentary details the production of Romero’s commercial shoot, which is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing what a Romero Resident Evil actually looks like.
- George A. Romero’s Resident Evil Script
DailyScript.com hosts a transcript of Romero’s original screenplay.
- Resident Evil: The Movie, A Production History by Rob McGregor
Rob McGregor’s production history of Resident Evil for Biohaze.com is exhaustive and fascinating. The purpose of this piece isn’t to detail the film’s myriad production failings, otherwise we’d be here all day. So if you’re interested, McGregor’s piece is essential reading.
- MSN Talks to Director Paul Anderson and Actress Milla Jovovich
Retrieved via Archive.org’s Wayback Machine, MSN Live conducted this interview between Anderson, Jovovich and Resident Evil fans. It was transcribed and published on the now defunct website CountingDown.com.
- Resident Evil DVD Commentary
The commentary track that accompanies the film features a lively conversation between director Paul WS Anderson and stars Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez. Most of the conversation revolves around the three pointing out nods to the game or how cool Rodriguez’s character is, but they drop a few interesting nuggets along the way.
- ‘Resident Evil’ Filmmakers Set ‘Monster Hunter’ As Next Franchise: Q&A
A November 2016 interview with Paul WS Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt on the making of Resident Evil.
- Resident Evil (2002) — Box Office Mojo
- Resident Evil (2002) — Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes aggregates critic review to generate a general consensus on a film’s quality. Scores shouldn’t necessarily be checked against one another, as each score is merely representative of the critics that reviewed a given film.
- Roger Ebert Reviews Resident Evil
Ebert reviews the film with his trademark curmudgeony wit that, to this day, is sorely missed.
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