When I was beginning to brainstorm this column, the first thought that came to my mind was to write the following introductory sentence: “Let’s face it, video game movies are usually steaming piles of triceratops droppings.” Yeah, my use of Jurassic Park is super clever, but the statement itself is tired. I’m tired of hearing excuses about why game movies suck and why movie games suck. Blah blah blah. You know what? Video games and movies are two immensely intertwined mediums. I’m talking really really close cousins…Alabama close…and you know which series is a prime example of games influencing movies influencing games? Resident Evil. With Resident Evil: Retribution in theaters this Friday and Resident Evil 6 less than a month away, it seems only fitting that I explore how two series, which fans argue could not be more different, share much more than just a name.
When the original Resident Evil movie was released in 2002, moviegoers were introduced to Alice and an underground base known as the Hive. Gamers, on the other hand, were outraged that Paul W.S. Anderson, who previously earned geek cred with his remarkably faithful Mortal Kombat flick, ignored the setting and characters of the original game, seemingly spitting in the face of fans everywhere. Here’s the thing: Anderson was smart to break free of the shackles of the game in favor of telling his own story, inspired by the series, but not beholden to it.
Both the games and movies follow strict plot structures, but with one notable difference. While the games feature self contained stories complete with self destruct sequences to contain any outbreaks, the movies veered left when they allowed the T-Virus to infect the entire world. This allowed the movies to progress forward in ways the games cannot. Alice and her cohorts are dealing with a worldwide problem while the game characters are placed in one location, complete their mission, then await the next outbreak. The movies are in a persistent world, the games, are not. This is where the movies excel, by offering us a new take on the Resident Evil story, an alternate universe that allows for no character to be safe. Fans that argue the movies don’t follow the games need to think about this for a moment. Would you really want to see the games played out on the big screen, offering no surprises, or would you prefer new stories inspired by the game universe? Your answer informs the enjoyment you derive from the movies as they pertain to the established franchise.
The character of Alice (Milla Jovovich) herself provides the most interesting aspect of the Resident Evil movie series. Love her or hate her, she is, more than any characters that appear, the bridge between the two medium. In the very first film, Alice is suffering from amnesia and her actual name is never mentioned. She is a blank slate and is just as confused about the events as the viewer. Remind you of anything? Alice is essentially a player character in a video game. Her character is the eyes through which the movie watcher experiences these events. While the games themselves feature fleshed-out (to a limited extent), characters, the time we spend alone with the game characters, silently exploring corridors or blasting through hordes of infected, is time in which we imprint our own personality on the characters. Because of the interactive nature of video games, even the most developed character has a piece of us in them if only because we are the puppet master. Movies cannot accomplish this as well as games which is why a character like Alice is a necessity in a game based movie. Even as her character grows and evolves (both physically and emotionally) in the subsequent films, we still feel as if she is a part of us, our entry into the movie world, because of her portrayal in the first Resident Evil. Whether or not this was Anderson’s intention does not negate the outcome.
One of the complaints about the film franchise is that Alice also acts as a Mary Sue character, a paragon that all other characters look up to. She has no flaws and is more powerful than anyone she comes across. I am not going to argue that Alice isn’t a Mary Sue, but rather state that she is just one of a long line of Resident Evil characters who fit that mold. Leon Kennedy is a super agent who the President has on speed dial, Claire Redfield is a beautiful biker chick who can wield a bowgun like she’s been hunting all of her life, and then we have Chris Redfield. There would be no need to research viral weaponry when Chris, through sheer force of manliness, can punch a boulder in half. If Chris and Alice ever got together, their offspring would literally be a new species, an uber-species capable of reshaping reality with a single thought. If there is one aspect of the franchises that are mirror images, it’s the overpowered protagonist; a trend that has been growing more and more obscene in the games.
With the Resident Evil films taking place in an alternate universe, we also run across alternate versions of our favorite characters. This is where in all but two notable examples, the films fail in their attempt to stay connected to the game franchise. The original movie featured no characters from the game aside from a voice cameo from Birkin, a scientist from the second game. This lack of game characters meant viewers could only complain about their absence, not their portrayal. Gamers are known for their inability to accept change in their favorite characters so Anderson was wise to keep them out of the first movie. When Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the first movie sequel, was released, we finally had a movie interpretation of Jill Valentine, and all was good. Actress Sienna Guillory nailed the look, physicality, and personality of Valentine. It was clear that even if she wasn’t a fan of the games, she respected the source material and it came through in her performance. Unfortunately Apocalypse also introduced us to the first of the “In Name Only” characters, Carlos. Starting with Carlos and continuing with Claire and Chris, the protagonists that were also featured in the games were thrown into the mix and acted as nothing more than stock horror movie characters. This is partly the fault of the actors. Wentworth Miller will never be up to the task of becoming Chris Redfield, and partly because of the role the characters played in the plot. While movie Jill had followed an alternate version of her game history, complete with brain-washed villainy in the upcoming movie, the other characters just seemed to be thrown in to please fans. You can’t have it both ways. Either give the gamers what they want or leave out the characters. They will not compromise. As a footnote, while Wesker does not have a giant role in the films, he at least looks and sounds like his game counterpart.
The Resident Evil movies are not award winning cinema. The Resident Evil games are not emotional journeys to the heart of what makes us human. Resident Evil is, at its core, about attractive people fighting monsters with a touch of conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure. Both the films and games do their best to entertain, and they both succeed on their own merits when it comes to pure entertainment. In order to get the most entertainment from each, we must remember this: dudes and ladies blowing up zombies. See, not so different.