To close out my analysis and summary of the Resident Evil movies, here’s my own personal ranking of each film in the series, starting from the least enjoyable and working its way up to the most enjoyable.
It has threegoodscenes and twogreatmusical pieces, but no amount of production values, music, or cool sequences can save a generic zombie film with the Resident Evil brand slapped onto it at the last minute. This is a Resident Evil film in name only, and is the most disappointing overall.
The Final Chapter feels like the first draft of a script written by someone who wants to end the series on their terms without caring about what came before. Not only is the story filled with retcons that don’t work, it also suffers from disposable characters and awful editing that makes the movie physically painful to watch. However, the film does have some good ideas, some gorgeous post-apocalyptic scenery, and the surprisingly effective ending saves the movie from being a complete failure.
Favorite Scene: The ending, where Alice is given Alicia’s memories and sets out to continue fighting the undead.
Of all six films, Apocalypse is the one that feels like the most faithful adaptation of the games, due to following the basic story of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, complete with corresponding characters, monsters, and Nemesis himself coming to life via fantastic practical effects. Plus, LJ – while a walking stereotype – is a welcome source of comic relief. Unfortunately, Alice is at her worst here, acting like a smug high schooler who thinks she’s the toughest girl around and doesn’t give a shit about anyone but herself, going out of her way to steal everyone’s thunder for her own glory.
Favorite Scene: Nemesis attacking the STARS members and sparing LJ
Retribution is in the unenviable position of being a commercial for The Final Chapter, and rewatching it knowing that all of the plot points it sets up will never be fulfilled makes it a bittersweet experience. However, it does has a lot of funactionsequences, the greatest variety of locations from any of the films, and the ending is still the best in the series.
The most original film of the series, Extinction is a satisfying, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style daylight horror film set almost entirely in a desert wasteland, a setting that has never appeared in the games. Coupled with good action sequences, a fantastic third-act fight against Dr. Issacs, and agreatsoundtrack, it’s a fun film that succeeds at carving out its own identity while staying true to the Resident Evil spirit.
The best film of the series is a blast, starting with an exciting assault on Umbrella headquarters before turning into a perfectly-paced siege film with plenty of memorable action sequences, including a fight against the Axeman, who’s my favorite monster from the games, and like Nemesis, was brought to life perfectly, and finishing with a duel against Albert Wesker, the most memorable character in the series. While the cliffhanger ending does prevent the movie from being self-contained and acting as a satisfying series finale, the rest of the film is a great watch, and I always enjoy watching it again and again.
Favorite Scene: The battle between Claire and the Axeman, which is my favorite scene of the entire series. The water, that massive axe, the music, all of it is just perfect!
Imagine that the year is 2001, and you’re off to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. You love the books and can’t wait to see them brought to life on the big screen! You get your popcorn, take your seat, eagerly wait as the lights go down… and then watch a movie that follows a bunch of characters you’ve never heard of as they infiltrate a fortress never mentioned in the books. None of Tolkien’s characters appear, and while a few monsters do menace the heroes (orcs, uruk-hai, and a warg), the story ultimately has nothing to do with his books.
How would you feel after the movie was over? Probably infuriated that you got something that has a passing resembles its source material but is more interested in showcasing the writer’s own ideas than the story you paid to see. That’s what the Resident Evil films feel like: a series of movies that had a mountain of material to take inspiration from, but chose to go its own way for better or worse. And while the films were critical failures, they were financial successes, going on to become – for a time – the most successful live-action video game movie franchise, and the most financially successful horror film series in history.
But no matter their financial and critical success, the Resident Evil films were always destined to be B movies meant to provide lots of action and thrills with little to no philosophical musings about the human condition or discussions of morality. And by that criteria, the films largely delivered on what they set out to do, thanks to three things:
1. All the films have simple stories with clear, achievable goals for the characters.
2. They take the basic idea of the games (zombies get lose and have to be stopped before they infest the world) and expand on it (zombies get lose, take over the world, and have to be stopped before the human race is wiped out) in a way that feels true to the spirit of the series, allowing fans to see characters and monsters from said games in new and unique scenarios.
3. They have lots of unique action sequences featuring monsters and characters from the games, sometimes re-created shot for shot.
Yet, for all their success, the films don’t quite reach the height of what they could have been; they suffer from an overarching story that feels disjointed and held together with staples, duct-tape, and Elmer’s school glue when viewed back to back, due to said story being made up film-by-film as the series went along. And while all the elements for great action movies are present, the biggest obstacle holding the films back boils down to one thing: Alice, the main character.
For all the anecdotes listed above, the Resident Evil films have another, unofficial distinction: they’re the most expensive fan-fiction story of all time in that they follow an original character throughout her adventures in the Resident Evil universe. And like poorly-written fan-fiction, said character is a black hole sue whom the entire universe revolves around. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is either:
1. Trying to kill or capture her.
2. Taking orders from her or trying to save her, often at great risk to themselves.
3. Admiring how awesome she is.
Furthermore, Alice is extra-special in-universe because she’s one of only two people in the world to successfully bond with the T-virus without any side effect, the other being Angela from the second film. But then Alice gets a one-up on Angela by becoming the only person on Earth to get psychic powers, and then she gets an army of clones who also has psychic powers, and then she defeats the Umbrella corporation and saves the human race from extinction, sacrificing her life in the process, only to return to life, making her a modern-day Jesus (if Jesus went around killing zombies with guns and psychic powers, that is).
But did you notice something about that description? The established characters from the games – Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Claire Redfield, Carlos, Albert Wesker, etc. – have almost no part to play in the fight for humanity. While they may shoot guns and kill zombies, they’re reduced to supporting characters, only existing to help Alice accomplish her quest. If they get a moment to do something cool that has nothing to do with Alice, she’ll swoop in and steal that moment (see: Jill trying to save Becky, Claire trying to defeat the Axeman, etc.).
While she has her sympathetic moments, and ultimately goes from being an unlikable jerk to a heroic clone trying to save the human race, there’s no escaping the fact that Alice is the biggest problem with the Resident Evil films. If she had been replaced with, say, Jill Valentine, and not gotten any special powers, we would have gotten a series that went like this:
Jill Valentine – a cop with the Raccoon City police department – teams up with her allies to fight off a zombie apocalypse, only to learn that their employer, the Umbrella corporation, is responsible for the outbreak. Armed with nothing but guns, their wits, and their determination, Jill, Claire, Chris, Barry, Carlos, Nicholai, Sergei, Leon, Ada, and newcomers Luther, LJ, Rain, Chase, and Betty roam the apocalyptic wastelands, trying to stop Umbrella and save the human race, eventually having to team with their arch-nemesis Albert Wesker in a final, desperate assault that leaves them just narrowly managing to save the human race and destroying Umbrella once and for all, allowing Jill and her friends to begin rebuilding a ruined world.
Doesn’t that sound like a great story? If we had gotten that, it’s my belief that the series would have been better recieved by both fans and critics. But instead, it was foiled by a newcomer who shoves everyone else aside so she can be the messiah. And in that lies the one lesson the ‘Resident Evil’ films offers to writers:
When adapting a franchise from one medium to another, stay true to the spirit of the source material while keeping the focus on established characters instead of newcomers.
While things will inevitably be changed in any adaptation, writers need to still present the story fans come to see. Tell the story from the original book, show, or game, respect said story, and use new ideas and new characters to compliment and support the original, not overshadow it.
Viewing the Resident Evil films years after the series concluded was a fascinating experience for me: I can’t think of any other series adaptation that has good production values, a real sense that the filmmakers were trying hard and learning from their mistakes, but still runs the gauntlet from awful to fantastic (in a B movie way). Most frustrating is that there was always the feeling that the films were always a few inches away from reaching their full potential, and it does happen a few times! Most of the action sequences – save those from the last film – are a lot of fun, the post-apocalyptic world is well done, the monsters are mostly great, and, despite all the changes made, it really does feel like a Resident Evil story come to life… it’s just not the one we should have gotten.
In the end, despite its missteps, the Resident Evil film series mostly accomplishes what it set out to do, in my opinion. It started weak, gradually got better, reached its zenith, then fell flat on its face at the end, but managed to get to its feet and cross the finish line. If you’re a fan of action movies, zombies, horror, and video games, I believe they’re still worth a watch. But most of all, they’re an important reminder that when we, as writers, are adapting someone else’s work, we’re stewards for that story. It is up to us to faithfully adapt it as best we can and respect it, even when we have to make changes. If we deliver a faithful and respectful adaptation, we’ll not only delight long-term fans, but introduce others to a world that they’ll want to explore, guiding them towards the original books, games,and stories, ensuring that a beloved story will earn a new generation of fans and be kept alive for years to come.
The third entry in the Resident Evil film series, Extinction was supposed to be the end of the franchise: by the end, we saw how Alice was going to go wipe out Umbrella’s last remaining executives, had learned that a cure for the vaccine could be created, and realized that there was hope things would finally turn out well… but box office money has a funny way of undoing even the most conclusive endings, three years later we got Resident Evil: Afterlife, kicking off a new trilogy of movies.
Taking place a year after Alice awakened all her new clone buddies, Afterlife follows their assault on Umbrella’s Tokyo headquarters and Alice’s subsequent quest to find her missing friends. Let’s see what worked – and what didn’t – in our fourth journey into the world of the undead.
What does the film do well?
It’s closer in spirit to the games
By the time Extinction arrived in theaters, many fans of the video games complained that the film series had little to do with them aside from having characters and monsters, and the most bare-bones interpretation of the plots. ‘Afterlife’ seeks to remedy this by bringing in more elements from the games, such as having Wesker be much closer to his video game counterpart, having more monsters (the Manjini, Axeman, and zombie dogs from Resident Evil 5), as well as bringing back Claire and introducing her brother, Chris Redfield, and including a location from the game as well (the ship from RE5, albeit highly modified for the film). Though the film still follows it’s own story, it deserves credit for bringing in more elements from the game.
The opening act is an excellent introduction to the villain
While the assault on Umbrella’s headquarters acts as an action-packed way to get the story and showcase Umbrella’s well-deserved beatdown, the sequence also serves as an excellent introduction to Albert Wesker, chairman of the Umbrella corporation, and the only individual in all of Tokyo who can face off against Alice and her clones and win. And not only that, but he escapes, kills all the clones by destroying Umbrella’s headquarters, and then takes away Alice’s powers, leaving himself free to continue frolicking about and do Umbrella-related shenanigans. And all of that within the first 18 minutes of the film!
It’s a great way to show how dangerous and powerful Wesker is, setting up the film’s final confrontation.
It takes away Alice’s psychic powers
One of the main problems with the previous two Resident Evil films is that Alice becomes too powerful, easily overshadowing everyone else in the series – including the villains and people from the games – and making her a god-mode sue. Thankfully, Afterlife remedies that by having Wesker take away Alice’s powers before the end of the first act, making her (in theory) a normal human again. In the words of TVTropes: “Wesker beat the Sue out of Alice. And for everyone who wanted to see that moment? It. Was. GLORIOUS.”
It has a celebrity survivor who doesn’t have an ego
Like the films before it, Afterlife features a large cast of new characters who mostly exist to become zombie fodder, and among them is Luther, a former pro basketball player. But despite his pre-zombie fame, he doesn’t expect any special treatment or privileges because of it, and even laughs it off at one point. He’s a nice guy, and a great example of a celebrity character who doesn’t let fame get to their head.
It gives the characters a concrete goal
Afterlife continues the series’ trend of giving the characters a clear and concrete goal to strive for: in the first, it was escaping the hive before it was permanently sealed, in the second it was escaping Raccoon City before it was nuked, in the third it was reaching Arcadia, and here it’s… to reach Arcadia. So while it may be repeating what came before, the revelation that Arcadia is a boat and not a town is a nice touch (and then the further revelation that it’s a mobile Umbrella research lab is another nice twist, too, so that just reaching the finish line doesn’t mean everyone is automatically safe and sound).
It has two ticking clocks
Like the previous films, Afterlife once again gives the characters a ticking clock, but ups the ante by having two of them: after we’re introduced to the prison where most of the film takes place, we see a zombie digging around underground, telling us that this seemingly impenetrable fortress won’t stay that way for long. Then the Axeman shows up, and now Alice and the others not only have zombies to deal with, but a monster who’s immune to bullets and can break down the doors keeping zombies from rushing in. Twice the pressure, double the drama!
It has a funny expletive
As I’ve written before, cursing can be funny when it’s done sparingly. ‘Afterlife’ has a particularly amusing moment where Bennett steals Alice’s plane and flies away, only to seemingly plunge to his death, leaving Luther to yell, “That’s right, bitch! Fuck you!”
Not only does Boris Kodjoe do a great job delivering the line, but it’s darkly funny that no one is sad to see Bennett face his seemingly imminent demise.
It has an awesome monster fight
Afterlife brings in one of the most memorable monsters the Resident Evil games in the form of the Axeman, a towering monstrosity of a man who wields a freakishly huge axe that can cleave someone in two with a single stroke. Not only does this guy look exactly like he does in the game (a big plus), but he’s also reinvented to make him more threatening: where the Axeman from the game is a slow, lumbering brute who can take a ton of damage, the movie makes him a monster who can not only kill you in one hit, but also run after you as well! To balance this out, the Axeman doesn’t have the durability his game counterpart has, meaning that if you get the right weapon – such as a shotgun – and hit him in the right spot, you can take him down with a single shot, giving the characters a fair chance in a fight against him. To further sweeten the deal, his big fight takes place inside a shower room drenched with falling water.
The slow-mo can be cheesy, but it’s an awesome fight with an awesome monster (and awesome music).
It gives Wesker a counter to his superpowers
Wesker is the easily most powerful character in the movies, even moreso than Alice: he’s not only an expert hand-to-hand combatant, but can dodge bullets, survive wounds that would kill a normal person, and even survive a nuclear bomb blast a point-blank range! But while his power level approaches that of a god, Afterlife wisely balances this out by forcing Wesker to constantly consume human flesh to keep his T-virus under control, making his abilities a case of powers at a price: he can do incredible things, but if he slips up, it will cost him everything.
It brings one of the best scenes from the games into the movie
It may be pure fan-service, but it’s fun to see one of Wesker’s fight scenes from Resident Evil 5 become the final fight of Afterlife.
Say what you will about just copying something from one medium to another, but it’s still a great way to show how hard Wesker is to put down. And to top it off, the end features Chris and Claire pumping Wesker full of lead by shooting him approximately 17 million times. It’s not enough to kill him, but boy is it satisfying to see villains get reduced to hamburger to ensure they can’t come back
It spares Luther
Luther is the most likable character in the film, which makes it a shame to see him get dragged away by zombies in the sewers… which makes it a treat when Afterlife decides to be merciful and spare him at the very end. In a series full of interesting side characters getting killed off left and right, it’s refreshing to see one survive to the next movie.
It gives Bennett a moment of sympathy
Bennett is not a sympathetic or likable person. He’s selfish, rude, and arrogant, willing to kill and abandon his companions to save himself, making his final comeuppance very satisfying. But before he becomes Wesker chow, his selfishness and smugness melt away for just a moment when, in the face of death, he whimpers that he just wants to go home. In this moment, we see that beneath all his arrogance and selfishness, Bennett is a sad, tired man who just wants things to go back to the way they were before the T-Virus outbreak. It’s not enough to redeem him, but it does make him just a little more human, and a little more relatable.
What could have been improved?
It could have turned Alice into a truly normal person
One of the best things Afterlife does is have Wesker take away Alice’s powers. The problem is that Alice is still capable of taking on crowds of zombies, jumping over six feet high to kick a monster in the face, swing through the air like Tarzan, scoring hits on zombies with revolvers while falling to the ground, and kicking falling shards of glass into zombie dogs. While it makes sense that Alice would still have the knowledge and experience gained from the previous three films, it would have been more better to see her struggle with the limitations a normal person would have facing zombies and undead monsters, which would make her victories all the more satisfying.
It could have explained why the world is no longer a desert wasteland
Extinction made a big deal about how the T-virus was turning Earth into Tatooine by killing vegetation and causing bodies of water to dry up. Yet here, a little over a year after the events of the previous film, there are giant glaciers, sprawling forests, and enough water to solve all of the southwestern United State’s drought problems. While this could be hand-waved by saying that Alice was able to create the antivirus the White Queen had mentioned from the previous film, it’s still a huge stretch to go from a world that’s a barren desert to a world that looks pretty normal.
It could have dropped the video logs completely
After escaping Tokyo, Alice starts recording video logs as she hunts for Arcadia and other survivors. But after arriving at the prison, she stops making them and they’re never mentioned again. It would have been better to drop them completely and invest the freed-up time in more character moments.
It could have had a better reason why the prison group doesn’t trust Chris
In the film, Chris is kept locked up in the prison because nobody trusts him and believes that he’s there for a reason. Problem is, that flies in the face of all logic. If you have a man who says he knows a way out of your safehold surrounded by thousands of zombies, and you’re trying to get to your one refuge from said zombies, it makes more sense to see what he has to say. Besides, the other survivors outnumber him and have guns in case he tries anything.
It could have given Bennett a better reason for his betrayal
When Bennett learns that the APC – the group’s would-be escape vehicle – will need at least a week to fix, he responds by pulling out his pistol and killing Angel, and then stealing the plane to fly to Arcadia. The problem is, this makes no sense. Bennett is a selfish jerk no doubt, but he has a way out of the prison, and a path to safety. Killing the one man who can repair the vehicle is too much; perhaps if he had lost patience and demanded that Angel have them all draw straws and fly away in the plane, and then get turned down, it would have made sense for him to snap and kill Angel. As is, Bennett’s decision to murder someone feels too sudden and too illogical to accept.
It could have let Claire kill the Axeman instead of Alice
One of the more egregious moments in Apocalypse was when Alice stole Jill Valentine’s victory against the zombie dogs in Racoon City’s grade school, and here she does it again: after Claire struggles against the Axeman and almost kills it, Alice literally runs in and delivers the killing blow. Having original characters steal canon character’s moments of glory is a big no-no.
It could have had a more conclusive ending
As like all the films that came before it, Afterlife ends with a cliffhanger: Not even a few minutes after stopping Wesker, freeing all the prisoners on the Arcadia, and having a moment to just relax and feel safe, Alice and her allies now have to contend with a fleet of Umbrella VTOL’s bearing down on them, led by a brainwashed Jill Valentine.
Unlike the three cliffhangers that have come before – which were hopeful or promised that our heroes would do something awesome – here the odds are so heavily stacked in Umbrella’s favor that there’s no way Alice and the others could possibly stop them. A cliffhanger implying that things will eventually work out for the heroes is acceptable, but one that implies that the bad guys are going to win is just an unpleasant way to end the story, as it gives the audience a feeling that everything the protagonists went through was ultimately for nothing. It might have worked out better to have Alice broadcast her message of hope, and then end the film there, leaving us with a satisfying conclusion, and moved the arrival of Umbrella’s forces to the next film.
Despite just pointing out how many flaws Afterlife has, it still remains my favorite of the series: the action is engaging, the visuals are great, the pacing is pretty much flawless, the elements from the games are well-translated to the screen, and there are no slow or tedious moments. It’s an action film that delivers on what it sets out to do, and I’d be happy to rewatch this one again and again. In my opinion, it’s the best film of the series… but unfortunately, it’s not the last. We still have two films to go, so check back in next time when we take a look at Resident Evil: Retribution.