“Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” Review: Out of the Rabbit Hole

Opinion on the six-film Resident Evil series produced by Paul W.S. Anderson tends to be split a few ways. There’s regular old dislike; there’s irritation at how they center Alice, an original character played by Milla Jovovich (who’s married to Anderson), rather than anyone from the games they ostensibly adapt; and there’s appreciation by the kind of sickos who genuinely enjoy Anderson’s audacious style as he works to permanently enshrine himself in the wife guy hall of fame. As a late convert to the latter camp, I went into the rebooted Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City with enormous skepticism. Surely, I believed, there’s no point in more faithfully adapting some games whose stories have never been the point in the first place.

Regardless of how anyone may feel about the prior films, we can agree that there is but one specification for whether a new one does justice to their contested legacy: can it or can it not be absorbed in relatively painless fashion on TV with ad breaks, especially if you’ve missed the beginning? And although precise testing cannot begin in earnest for a while yet, I can tentatively report that the new film from writer/director Johannes Roberts shows all the signs of handily clearing the standard of “perfectly watchable on TNT.”

Starry Night

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (which is not to be confused with the video game Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, as it was several times in a previous draft) is a competent and agreeable, if largely unremarkable, mashup of the first two video games. Among other characters, we follow Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario), who grew up in the city’s orphanage with her brother, Chris (Robbie Amell), and a number of outrageously creepy toys but eventually ran away due to her suspicions about the place and its parent company, the Umbrella Corporation. Chris stuck around and graduated into the police department’s special S.T.A.R.S. unit, which is dispatched to a mountain mansion not long after Claire hitchhikes back home, determined to expose the unscrupulous Umbrella.

The Resident Evil games were conceived in a period of mid-to-late-90s cheese that meant no one really blinked an eye at a place called “Raccoon City” (or, at least, blink at it any more than the other goofy stuff) and so now we’re kind of just stuck with it. But once you get past the name, the film’s conception of the city is one of its more thoughtful angles, portraying it as a dead-end, Rust Belt sort of place where Umbrella is pulling out and, as the primary employer, tanking the local economy in the process. The reason for their departure, we learn, is that their experiments have gradually poisoned the water supply. Certain privileged classes like law enforcement and Umbrella staff have been inoculated in secret, but most civilians aren’t so lucky.  Too poor to leave and/or entrenched in the place they’ve lived for their entire lives, the remaining townsfolk have been quite literally left behind to stew in the poison and eventually zombify.

Most of this subtext falls away as the need increases for characters to be regularly shooting things, though Roberts continues to prove himself a reliable craftsman (if a serial over-user of ironic needle-drops). Following from his surprisingly gutsy sequel to The Strangers and the entertainingly trashy 47 Meters Down shark movies, Resident Evil unspools in rich colors and deep shadows that adequately mask some of the more iffy effects. We watch one scene of Umbrella opening fire on a crowd entirely from the passenger seat of a character’s vehicle, while another sequence only sporadically lights up a suffocating dark with muzzle flashes and a flickering lighter. It’s one of the increasingly rare wide-release films to recognize its limitations and shoot around them, moving from one encounter to the next with an economy clearly meant to recall John Carpenter’s early work.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Just the Beginning

Although the film will continue to be pushed and perhaps even lauded as a “proper” adaptation, that very same faithfulness results in a misshapen structure that’s antithetical to the attempts at no-nonsense brevity. Between Claire, Chris, Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia), Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), and Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper), the film sags under the weight of so many characters whose names are all announced with the knowing portent that they are major characters. What we end up with is a herd of attractive action heroes who cannot be condensed, composited, or killed off because to do so would be to invite the fanbase’s ire and undercut sequel potential. (And even then, there are sure to be complaints about Leon’s characterization as almost totally incompetent, which at least gives him a distinct character trait in the crowded cast.)

Ironically, the cramped plotting prevents the film from capturing the more eccentric edge of its source material. The Resident Evil games function as many games do, like a distorted mirror of what’s popular in other mediums and what a “playable” version would look like. Faithful game adaptations deal with a level of redundancy as a result, regurgitating material that is itself already regurgitated, if not competently portrayed within the game already. The (magnificent) first Mortal Kombat movie came out at a time before the game’s character models had evolved beyond rather stiff approximations of real actors, but when watching the new one, it’s tough to shake the feeling that you could just be playing one of the modern games’ elaborate story modes instead.

Without the Resident Evil games’ veritable zoo of zombified critters (take care to curb any expectations of Roberts flexing his CGI shark expertise) and just one of its trademark flesh abominations, the film limits itself to being a largely passable zombie film. That’ll do if you are, say, flipping through TV channels, but it also means the film takes all its cues from games and movies that provide more compelling ways to get more or less the same thing. Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a step backwards, albeit an inoffensive one. And if nothing else, it does manage to work the phrase “Jill sandwich” into the dialogue.