The Resident Evil film franchise is not exactly known for being the pinnacle of cinema. It isn’t even known for being the pinnacle of video game movies, and that’s already a relatively low bar. It’s a fascinating series, since–as fans know–it has almost nothing to do with the source material outside a few character appearances, trademarked names, and various monsters. Primary director/producer Paul W.S. Anderson is also not known for quality material (Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon notwithstanding). 2002’s Resident Evil, ironically, has the least to do with the source material yet is the best quality film of the franchise. Resident Evil: Apocalypse introduced game connections but fails to hold up; it’s much campier while taking itself too seriously. Resident Evil: Extinction is a boring, nigh literally plotless and pointless mess of a film–so bad and irrelevant that its follow-up, with few exceptions, ignored it completely. That follow up, Resident Evil: Afterlife, saw the (thankful?) return of Paul W.S. Anderson, and the series took a much-needed drastic turn towards camp embracement. Don’t get me wrong… it’s still not a good movie. But it was a huge step in the right direction towards entertainment. Resident Evil: Retribution is, hands down, the most fun film in the franchise. It’s terrible, for sure, but it’s so gloriously fun. That’s why, when it was finally time for Mr. Anderson and wife Milla Jovovich to announce the final film in the franchise, I was excited to see how it all played out.

I suppose I’ll let you know once I’ve seen it. I mean, I technically saw something akin to a cinematic narrative. There were characters, settings, rising action, and a climax. Now, not all stories need an introduction. Some stories can begin in media res, or “in the middle.” And not all stories need a conclusion–some end on cliffhangers or have open endings. Here, however, we are presented with an interesting problem, and it’s one practically every film in the franchise has, exemplified perfectly by The Final Chapter. First, while beginning in media res, we start in the middle of a story that isn’t where we left off. This series has a bad habit of ending on a cliffhanger and then either not following through or resolving it quickly in order to move on. In short, the beginning of each film is like the beginning of Evil Dead II: they just retcon themselves as if to start the franchise over from a different angle. Similarly, the other major issue is that this film, too, ends on a cliffhanger despite being the final film, giving us the ultimate unresolved ending.

As a film franchise, the concept of retconning every film is beyond frustrating. If you’ve never heard the term, retcon–or retroactive continuity–is when a follow-up within the same franchise decides to drastically alter what we already learned previously so that it fits better with the story wanting to be told now. Besides the aforementioned Evil Dead II, another famous and more modern retcon would be Star Trek, which built the retcon cleverly into the story so that the updated film franchise could exist without being a detriment to the previous films’ timeline. Retconning can be both positive and negative depending on how it is done. For example, the Saw series was entirely built upon retconning itself in order to brilliantly strengthen its own delicately interwoven continuity. On the other end of the spectrum is the Resident Evil series.

My primary issue with this franchise, however, is its constant retconning or ghosting of its own characters. Alice’s purpose, abilities, and general franchise function changed from film to film, and sometimes multiple times within the same film. The Red Queen (and the Ashfords vs. the Marcus’ in general) is one of the worse examples from the franchise, changing voice, appearance, motivations, and backstory depending on the film. Some characters simply vanished from the franchise entirely, never to be given proper closure–and not for any good reason either… usually just because Paul W.S. Anderson felt like it. Narratively, this becomes a major issue when trying to tell an overarching story.

Not only is this a film franchise that rarely delivers in quality, plot, payoff, character resolution, or source material similarity, it is a franchise that continually, somehow, made more money with every subsequent film. Let me repeat this: the Resident Evil films are not really made for anybody, yet they gained more viewers with every new release. Say what you will about Paul W.S. Anderson, but the man is either ridiculously talented, or he made a deal with Satan (and/or a crossroads demon, depending on your fandom). Seriously, he is a fascinating enigma in Hollywood. In a time when all we had for video game movies was Super Mario Bros., he gave us Mortal Kombat, a campy film that, to this day, most people still consider one of the best of the sub-genre. He is a director with great ideas, yet he struggles to properly present them on the screen, or presents them with varying degrees of success. Depending on who you ask, Event Horizon and Soldier are sci-fi cult classics. Alien vs Predator, quite a bit less. Death RaceThe Three Musketeers, and Pompeii, on the other hand, are not even in the running. Even if someone doesn’t like his movies, he has some form of competence as a director, which you can see by the sequels to his movies that he doesn’t direct. Don’t believe me? Try checking out Mortal Kombat: AnnihilationAVP2: Requiem, or the second and third Resident Evil flicks and come back to me.

With all of this in mind, we can now discuss the worst visual and narrative decision in this entire franchise: The editing of The Final Chapter. Editing in and of itself is a vital cinematic storytelling technique. In fiction, you have various writing styles–long and short sentences, vocabulary use, point of view, person, punctuation, and chronology. How a film is shot and edited is the cinematic version of these literary components. There are spectrums here, as well. On one end is the long take, aka the single shot, where the camera never cuts, and multiple actions and dialogues may occur. I am a huge fan of these mainly due to how impressive they are, but also due to what they can convey. There’s a great indie zombie film entitled The Battery, directed by and starring a man named Jeremy Gardner. The film has numerous long takes, and I once chanced an interview with Mr. Gardner about the film. This is what he had to say about them:

Well, this might seem obvious but I’m a huge Alfonso Cuaron fan, Children of Men is one of my favorite movies. The things he does in a single take are feats of choreography, planning and just plain fucking magic. Our single takes are more akin, I imagine, to something like Jarmusch’s  Stranger Than Paradise. Now, to be honest, I haven’t even seen Stranger than Paradise, but I had read once about how he basically just locked the camera off and let the scenes unfold in front of it. That always stuck with me as an antidote to all the fast-paced chop chop editing that is so prevalent now. If everything else about our movie was going to be the antithesis to other zombie movies–its green instead of grey, its slow instead of fast, there’s not a lot of gore–then I thought it should be framed and unfold in a different way as well. Plus one big recurring motif in the movie is the idea of having to wait with the characters. I very much liked the idea that because these characters have nowhere to be, time is more languid and nebulous. The audience is forced to sit with them as mundane things play out. We have to watch Mickey change the batteries in his Walkman, we have to watch the guys brush their teeth, and finally we have to watch a character wait to find out the fate of the other. Waiting, to me, is terrifying. I always liken it to a diagnosis scene in a movie. Typically it would go something like this: CUT TO: Doctor: “You have cancer.” To me, the far more terrifying way to shoot it is to have to watch the person sit in the goddamn waiting room. Just sitting there while other patients are called in and the news drones on on TV, pretending to read a magazine. Waiting is tension building. Its probably another reason I love baseball so much. There is time to breathe between each pitch. To wonder what’s going to happen. It isn’t constantly moving like other sports.

They were difficult from a technical standpoint–our sound guy always wanted to kill me. But honestly once you’ve run through it a few times then it just becomes about nailing it. There’s no coverage to get, which is both terrifying and freeing. A funny thing, about Ben waiting in the car. I really wanted that scene to drag out. I wanted it to be six or seven minutes long. I thought, that will really be almost unbearable. The only way to give the audience a sense of what Ben is feeling is to make them feel stuck with him. So, the cue—and this is a bit of a SPOILER— for Adam’s character to come back into the car, was going to be when I put my cigarette out. The sound guy would wave and he would come back. But I forgot to put the fucking cigarette out, so the scene stretched to something like eleven minutes. It was such an exhausting scene, emotionally, and we were shooting on a road, that we only did the really long take twice. I wish I could have done it ten, twelve times and wrung myself out, but after two takes and all the screaming and cigarettes, my voice was shot. We ended up using the first take too. So here I am thinking that I’m going to be really ballsy and shoot that static shot for seven minutes and I accidentally let it run eleven. I still haven’t watched that scene all the way through with a festival audience, it makes me too uncomfortable.

Understandably, the film is slower paced and can afford long takes. That is the kind of movie that it is. He makes a great point about how the tension in the waiting room is far scarier than the cancer reveal, yet most movies are more concerned with showing the money shot most of the time (or the “fast-paced chop chop editing,” as he put it). You can have films that show action in a long take, and there are both good and bad examples, because it is all about the choreography, as Gardner put it. At the top of the list is Saving Private Ryan, which has 20 minutes of action in a single take and has gone down in film history as one of the greatest segments ever put to film. At the bottom of that list is The Last Airbender, which mixes poor fight choreography, cheap sets, and clunky camera work to give us boring and–quite frankly–perplexing long takes.

Action, in particular, is put together almost incomprehensibly these days, which leads to the other end of the spectrum (see: the Bourne franchise). First, however, let us take, for example, a non-action film: Moulin Rouge!. It’s an understandably polarizing film. The editing is all over the place, and there is a cut every other second in the film. However, it is meant to be a cartoonishly frenetic film. This editing style was meant to make you feel exhausted and emotional, but in a far different way than The Battery. The best sequence in Moulin Rouge! is the Tango de Roxanne, which actually becomes more and more chaotic as it goes. By the time we reach the climax of the number, there appears to be multiple cuts per second. And it works. Now imagine taking that chaotic 15 seconds of film and turning it into an entire movie. That’s what we have with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

There is no artistic purpose to the editing of the film. It doesn’t even reach the stylistic purposing of the Bourne movies. There appears to be no real rhyme or reason to its cuts. It is disorienting, dizzying, chaotic, and ultimately perplexing. The film is almost entirely action, though the cuts occur even in the minimal downtime we are given. I am not entirely sure what Paul W.S. Anderson was thinking when he helped cut this film together, but it is even stylistically the opposite from even his previous Resident Evil films, which were more focused on slow motion and making sure the “money shots,” as it were, were visible. While there might be one, maybe two action beats in the film that are somewhat decent, the film in its entirety is a mind-boggling disaster that becomes nearly impossible to follow.

The Resident Evil film franchise is a unique case study in what not to do in long-form storytelling and adaptation. It’s clear the filmmakers were making it up as they went, throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what stuck, yet they were never satisfied with what they ended up stuck with. They continually dug themselves into a hole, and when they realized they couldn’t climb out, they had to keep digging and hope they found more than their own laughably large grave full of the undead.

3 Thoughts to “The Mind-boggling Complexities of Technical Narrative in the Resident Evil Films”

  1. So first, welcome back…

    There’s a lot to parse here, and I’m sure I’ll forget a few things. I’m mildly fascinated by Paul W.S. Anderson’s career. I’ve written a review of the first Resident Evil film but haven’t published it yet. In that, (and yes, I’ll publish it eventually) I comment that Anderson seems like a guy who has a ton of really interesting ideas and no way to actually show them to anybody. Something happens, and all of his best ideas come across limply, leaving the audience to try to piece together his intention.

    Roger Ebert historically hated this franchise. I can’t recommend his review of RE: Apocalypse highly enough. No one hated like Ebert (okay, maybe Mark Kermode does), and when he got the bit in his mouth, he ran hard. One of my favorite Ebert review moments ever comes from the Apocalypse review: “In a scene where several characters are fighting zombies inside a church, the renegade scientist comes to the rescue by crashing her motorcycle through a stained-glass window and landing in the middle of the fight. This inspires the question: How did she know what was on the other side of the window? Was she crashing through the stained glass on spec?”

    I’ve long had a problem with the way action sequences are filmed in a lot of modern movies. I desperately wish that action movie directors would sit down to a Shaw Brothers marathon before filming. I want to see the action, not a blur of motion. When someone connects with a kick or punch, I want to know who is being hit and by whom. Martial arts movies tend to film fight sequences from a middle distance and with longer takes. I can see (for example) both fighters. I can see all of them–no legs below the frame. I can see the strikes coming and connecting, and I can follow the action.

    Another good example is a film I think you’ve disliked–Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. While it’s not a perfect movie, even if you don’t like it, go back and skip through it. Watch the battle sequences, particularly the long battle at the end. The action is frenetic and chaotic, like a battle, but as a member of the audience, we can follow the action and see what is happening. Constant cuts and extreme close-ups just make for confusion, and Peter Weir allows us to experience the chaos of the battle by specifically not making the editing or filming chaotic.

    A note on retconning–as you say, there’s good and bad. The Evil Dead retconning is interesting because it really only retcons the specifics. The main points of the plot, the main aspects of the characters don’t change. In fact, the only significant retcon is between Evil Dead II (Ash ends as a hero to the people of the past) and Army of Darkness (Ash starts as a prisoner to be sacrificed). And, well, it kinda works because Army of Darkness is supposed to be campy and silly. The retconning in Resident Evil seems a lot more significant. As I recall, Alice in the first movie is a security guard. In the sequel…she’s a scientist? Is she a dolphin trainer in the third, a talented chef in the fourth, and a social worker in the fifth?

    As a final note, Gardner (that segment here being your own version of a long take) should watch Cleo from 5 to 7. You should watch it, too.

    1. Thanks!

      Haha, yeah, I’ve heard commentary on that motorcycle bit before. As for her character, she IS a security agent from Umbrella originally, but with badass fighting skills. She’s never been a scientist, so I’m not sure where they got that idea. She becomes a test subject BY scientists and is injected with the T-Virus, which she bonds with (unlike any other subject), which makes her a kind of super soldier. From there, it just gets complicated. She gains crazy powers, loses crazy powers (rinse, repeat a few times), and then there’s stuff with clones and her actual origin and blah blah blah. It’s very convoluted, and they can’t really make up their mind what they want her to be. Or, really, they get cool ideas and then realize she’s either too powerful and could destroy all the bad guys quickly or get other ideas and have to alter what they’ve already come up with. It’s a mess.

      I definitely agree action directors should look at some Shaw or old school kung fu. The Raid: Redeption definitely gets this right. The Matrix got it right, too. Among a few others, of course. I’ll need to give Master and Commander another chance. It *was* like 13 years ago, and I think I’ve grown as a film fan since.

      As for Evil Dead II, I was more thinking at the very beginning, since it basically changes the last 30 minutes or so from the original movie. It also makes the series far more slapstick.

      I’ll have to look into Cleo from 5 to 7. Sounds just like what Gardner was talking about!

      1. The Raid does get it right. Of course, since it’s a martial arts movie (something that The Matrix is at least in part), that’s not too much of a surprise. The Warriors is another good one for fight sequences that show the whole fight.

        While there’s not a lot of personal combat in them, the Mad Max movies are solid on actually showing us what happens in an action sequence, too.

        There are examples. It can be done. It makes me wonder why more people don’t seem to understand that.

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