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Revisiting The RESIDENT EVIL Franchise

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No one expects much out of a movie based on a video game, and even fewer would expect any such film to become a major franchise with almost as many entries as the game series that inspired it. But the Resident Evil films did just that; Paul WS Anderson and Milla Jovovich joined forces six times from 2002 to 2017, presenting an ever-escalating story about Alice (Jovovich) and her endless battles with zombies and other monsters that were spawned by the evil Umbrella corporation. Paul WS Anderson wrote and produced all six entries, directing four himself, and since they often pick up where the previous one left off (albeit with some nagging retcons, more on those soon) they make for a fairly consistent experience if you opt to marathon them, unlike some other major horror franchises that will give you whiplash from all of the changed directions.

Sony agrees, and has boxed together the films in a new set, presenting most of them on 4K UHD disc for the first time and housing them all in a fancy box. Each film is given a digipak type case with both the 4K UHD disc and a standard Blu-ray, the latter of which contains all of the bonus features from previous releases, while the fancier 4K discs only have a handful of brief featurettes and/or trailers (if that), presumably to use every bit of disc space on the film itself. That said, given the plethora of audio options on the films, it's strange that the accompanying audio commentaries aren't included on the 4K versions; I'm the type who likes to listen to the track right after watching the movie, so it's a bit obnoxious to have to switch discs to do that, when it seems like one more audio track to join the dozen it already has wouldn't have been too draining on the "bit budget".

But the films themselves are the real draw, of course, and it was fun to go back and revisit them all in fairly quick succession (it took me a little over a week to get through them all). It had been a while since I watched the 2002 original; so long that I actually forgot it does not contain a single major character from any of the games. While Umbrella is still the big bad and it uses a few recognizable monsters (the dogs!) and locations from the games, all of the human protagonists are original creations from Anderson, which makes sense when you consider the script was an unrelated one he wrote earlier and refashioned into a Resident Evil film. At the time this bugged me, I knew Milla's character was new beforehand, but as a fan of the games* I was hoping to see Jill, Chris, etc represented somewhere in the film, even if briefly. But over the years I've come around to what it *has* instead of what it lacks, and can appreciate that it was a big budget zombie film at a time when no one was making such things. The success of this film (and 28 Days Later the following year) helped revive the sub-genre, and for that I give it thanks.

However the film does feel rather small in retrospect, given how much more expansive the followups were. 2004's Apocalypse is my favorite of the series, upping the ante on the action and the scale while also bringing in a few game characters, namely Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). Anderson left direction duties to Alexander Witt, and it's a mostly successful switch; Witt does this weird choppy slo-mo thing whenever the zombies are running around, and it looks awful, but the rest of his action is well staged. And there's a good variety to it; this is probably the most action packed entry (or tied with Retribution) as the characters are constantly on the move, so you get interior and exterior battles across Raccoon City, some more monsters (Lickers! The Nemesis!), and a sense of how much havoc Umbrella has wreaked in just a short time. I know it's often on the lower end of fans' rankings (presumably for the aforementioned zombie-cam) but I enjoyed it just as much now as I did on opening night; even if it’s not directly related to the games’ plots, it takes what works and makes it bigger, same as the 2nd game did for the original “Biohazard” that started it all in 1996. This release actually presents an uncut version of the film that runs a few minutes longer, though none of the additions are all that significant - mostly just a few extra jokes and other bits of dialogue here and there, not a lot of action-related content. Most of it comes in the church scene, which is when Alice joins the group, so I suspect most of it was just cut for pacing in order to speed up her arrival.

Russell Mulcahy directed the third entry, 2007's Extinction, a curious one in retrospect since it was mostly ignored in subsequent films. In this one, which picks up several years after Apocalypse, the world is said to be completely overrun and essentially a Mad Max-ian wasteland, but that element gets dropped for the next three films. And it also suffers from Jill Valentine's absence; Guillory was unavailable for shooting and so they simply did a quick "Ctrl+R" replacement on the script, swapping out Jill for Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), another game character. There is no explanation for where Jill went and Claire is given almost no introduction whatsoever (in fact the other Apocalypse survivors are following her around), so it's a very lazy and frustrating switch, as both characters and their respective actresses deserve better. That said, it also brings Iain Glen's Dr Isaacs into the forefront after a quick appearance in Apocalypse, so that along with the novel fact that it's set almost entirely in daylight gives it a boost. And even though he wasn’t directing, I like that Anderson brought Linden “Johnny Cage” Ashby into the fold as a survivor named Chase, a little nod to his previous video game success.

Extinction also ramped up the fact that there are Alice clones (in fact, our Alice might just be a clone herself!), something that takes center stage in 2010's Afterlife, which was also the series' first 3D entry and brought Anderson back to the director's chair (where he'd remain for the rest of the franchise). It's also the weakest one in my opinion, as the story is weightless even by this series' not-high storytelling standards. The entire plot is Alice looks around for a place named Arcadia only to find it after crash landing her plane on the roof of a building that is basically next door. So she heads there, and that's pretty much it. As usual, along the way she meets up with a group of survivors, half of which die as they make their way on this latest A to B journey, but (more lazy scripting ahead!) this time they bring in Chris Redfield, the first game's hero and Claire's brother, a plot point that has no bearing on anything as the two share almost no time together and the amnesia-ravaged Claire doesn't remember him anyway. But still, what luck for Alice and Claire to crash their plane on the building where he was located!

It's also a slower paced entry compared to the others, which doesn't help when it's the least interesting story of the lot (on that note, it’s worth noting that it’s the only entry to not have a tie-in novelization, as if there wasn’t enough material to embellish). It seems like Anderson was simply more excited about playing with the 3D cameras (the same ones used for Avatar) than making "Resident Evil 4", so despite some fun casting choices (the great Kim Coates as a slimy movie producer is clearly having fun) and a series' best score (from tomandandy) its main attraction was seeing the various 3D effects... in theaters. The disc is 2D only (Sony's VR headset can play 3D movies even if your TV is not equipped, so like the commentaries I see this as a rather silly omission given how much they tout the Playstation on the package), so now you can just laugh at all the "COMIN AT YA!" type shots that are left in the film despite the absence of their reason for being.
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But whatever growing pains Anderson was displaying in that entry, he came out full force with Retribution, a top notch installment and easily the best of the three sequels he directed himself. It was shot in 3D again, but without any of the pacing issues that hampered Afterlife - the action here is almost literally non-stop, bringing in the most game characters yet (Barry Burton, Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy, and a return of Jill Valentine, who popped back up in a post-credits scene earlier) while also reviving several old friends - including Michelle Rodgriguez as Rain, last seen in the first film. Thanks to Umbrella's cloning operations the filmmakers had license to bring anyone back as long as the actor was available, but they finally make the most of it here. It's so fun to see everyone again that it's almost easy to forget that the script just omits Claire and Chris from the proceedings; Afterlife ended with Alice and the Redfield siblings bracing for an attack from Umbrella's warplanes, but when this one opens on that attack, Alice is seemingly a solo act. Chris is never mentioned in the film, or the next one for that matter. It’s probably the most curious use of a game character in the entire film franchise.

Otherwise though, it's a blast, giving plenty of action variety (including a big car chase!), a fun detour into Alice's suburban life (allowing Jovovich to play an average housewife for a few minutes, a very odd sight), and the rarest image in the entire series: a group of men fighting monsters without any women around. There's a sequence where Leon, Barry, and a few other soldiers storm an Umbrella facility, and it's almost disorienting not to see any women in the scene. For all the talk about how Marvel and DC kept dropping the ball on female superheroes, it's interesting to note that this six-strong franchise put women front and center for every entry. And yes: women, plural. Milla may have gotten on all the posters, but every entry put at least one woman as the 2nd lead, with Rodriguez, Guillory, Larter, or this film's Bingbing Li (as Ada) kicking just as much ass along the way. The men in the series have largely filled one of two roles: quickly dispatched fodder (any male hero who survives an entry is either killed off in the next one or forgotten entirely) or bad guys. Wesker (Shawn Roberts) and Isaacs serve as the series' primary villains, and there are several evil dudes who popped up in a single entry along the way, without any female antagonists of note (the closest is Jill, but she's mind-controlled and is returned to "good" status) When it comes to the fighting and heroics, it's the women doing the lion's share of the work in all six films. Respect!

Alice also has a daughter in Retribution, but she is unfortunately one of the many survivors of this film who just disappear in the next one, as Anderson once again sets up a cliffhanger here (Alice and her friends teaming up with Wesker!) and then ignores it when it's time to make the followup. The Final Chapter picks up immediately following that one, but once again Alice is the only character we see; via voiceover she tells us that they were betrayed by Wesker (shocker!) and she was left for dead. So we have to assume that Wesker and his team killed the others (including the little girl) but none of them are mentioned by name, so it's unclear. But being unclear is kind of par for the course for this entry, as despite having a fairly solid script and some fun new characters, Anderson ditched longtime series editor Niven Howie for Neveldine/Taylor cohort Doobie White on this entry, and it's a painfully bad choice. White hyper-edits every single action sequence (and even some of the slower chatty moments) to the point of incomprehensibility; it's actually the longest entry in the series but at the same time feels edited down to (even a bit past) the bone, making every action beat a headache inducing nightmare.
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If you can get used to it, or just have some kind of advanced superbrain that allows you to process what you're seeing when White is making six or seven cuts in a second, it's an enjoyable finale to the series, however. Glen returns (in two roles!) and we get a lot of answers about where Alice came from and why Umbrella became so evil in the first place (let's say Thanos would approve), and Larter also come back to give Alice some much needed backup after all her other friends disappeared, allowing the series one last "someone just happens to find their friend in a wasteland" moment. There are giant bat monsters, literally thousands of zombies, the dogs, super soldiers... Whatever it lacks in connective tissue to the previous film, it more than makes up for in scale, and it's impressive that they can still find new ways to kill people after all this time (a giant fan factors into one big action scene - not everyone makes it past!). And while the ending is a bit of a copout, in general it's a very good climax, paying off Alice's 15 years of fighting Umbrella and its minions.

Apart from the extended version of Apocalypse and a few featurettes, the only thing new here is the 4K transfers, so if you're not upgraded or don't see enough of a difference to warrant the double (triple?) dip, there's little reason to get this set if you already have the previous Blu-ray releases. But if you never dove into the series or perhaps are stuck with only a handful of entries on lowly DVD, treat yourself this holiday season. There are no flat out bad entries (even Retribution, for its weightlessness, has some solid action scenes), and the behind the scenes consistency makes it a fun ride to revisit. The transfers are all outstanding (perhaps a bit TOO good in Retribution's case - the 2D presentation of the original 3D imagery, in such resolution, makes some of it look a bit like Sin City) and the Blu-ray discs are jam-packed with bonus features, so if you're into the bells and whistles of such things you'll be living inside Raccoon City for quite a while. And even if you just want the movies - they were never the greatest things in the world, but seeing such B-movie fare on an A-list budget every couple years is the sort of thing we aren't likely to get much of anymore, so while they have their missteps I think time will be kind to the series as a whole. Might as well get on board now.

*I actually bought a Playstation 1 for the sole purpose of playing the first game, and likewise made Code Veronica the first game I played when I got a PS2 several years later. So it's a bit amusing to me that every one of these discs kicks off with a spot for the newly released/ impossible to find PS5, which is also heavily promoted on the packaging itself. Maybe by the time there’s a Resident Evil 8 to play I can finally find one.