There are some people who think that a movie based on a video game should automatically be considered mindless trash. Good science fiction movies, they say, should be based on loftier sources, such as the sacred texts of Bradbury, Dick, or Heinlein. Or on the holy scrolls handed down from the sanctified Temples of DC and Marvel Comics. I dare to disagree.
Case in point, the Resident Evil movies, which are loosely based on the Capcom video games of the same name. The critics hate them. Even Roger Ebert, who usually likes science fiction films, gives them a thumbs down. But the critics just don’t get it. The Resident Evil movies shouldn’t be judged as just run of the mill science fiction/horror films. These are art films—cinematic art on the level of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Cocteau, and Bunuel. Ridiculous, you say? Blasphemy? Well, read on.
First, to summarize for those who wouldn’t dare corrode their eyeballs by watching one of these flicks, the Resident Evil films are about a place in the future called Raccoon City where a lot of weird experiments, including development of biological weapons, are being conducted by the Umbrella Corp. Something goes wrong and the T-virus is let loose in the underground lab facility, killing everyone. Everyone, this is, except a female security guard named Project Alice (Milla Jovovich). But the trouble was, as Alice says in the opening narration, the dead didn’t stay dead. They became brain-eating zombies.
Alice doesn’t know for sure what exactly happened, because when the movie begins she is lying on the floor of a running shower with a serious case of amnesia. Somehow the T-virus didn’t kill her, but instead has given her almost superhuman strength and agility. Alice has to piece it all together, trying to find out what happened and who is responsible, while fighting hordes of zombies, mutated animals called Lickers, and a giant known as the Axeman, who carries a weapon that looks like a combination of an executioner’s axe and a cheese grater. Behind it all are the mysterious people who run the Umbrella Corporation.
I won’t bore you with further description of the plot. Mainly because, if there is one, I couldn’t follow it. It’s got something to do with an anti-virus and Alice’s attempt to figure out who she is, and destroy Umbrella. I guess it all makes sense. Or maybe not and maybe that’s the point. Because in an art film plot doesn’t matter. Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, did they worry about plot? Great art deals in ambiguity. Art films teach no moral, have no message. Themes? How bourgeois!
Art simply is. Whatever meaning is to be found is in the mind of the beholder. And judging the Resident Evil movies on that basis we must conclude that writer/director Paul W. S. Anderson is an artist of the first order. First he presents us with Alice, lost in a maze, trying to piece together her past, discover her identity. She’s the quintessential existential hero, in the best tradition of Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard. True she kicks serious Zombie butt, during the course of the film series. And she looks real good doing it. But beneath all the surface blood and gore (which is all the critics pay attention to), Anderson asks the really big questions about life and death that we all face.
Who is really running everything? What does he or she or they want? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? Project Alice is Everyman, or Woman, fighting every minute just to survive while trying to find some meaning in life. Aren’t we all?
And then there are the zombies. The zombies in Resident Evil are a metaphor for the mindless masses of modern life. In the film, the zombies were created by the mysterious Umbrella Corporation’s accidental release of the T-Virus. In real life, zombies are created by the tech giants, who make gadgets that render people oblivious of their environment. There are thousands of zombies all around us. They are blinded by text messages on their cell phones, their ears deafened by their i-pods. They stagger around the streets and malls, bumping into each other, falling into fountains, walking out into moving traffic. Some even get behind the wheel of a car and kill people. There are other factions at work destroying the population’s attention span so they can’t hold a thought longer than 140 characters, but that’s another issue.
Director Anderson is a careful visual stylist, and it’s hard to find a shot in any of these movies that isn’t a carefully crafted composition. His style is surrealism, and as the great surrealist Dali had his wife Gala as a model and inspiration, Anderson has his wife, Milla Jovovich, as the central character around whom the entire series is built. And I do mean built.
Finally, in what is perhaps Anderson’s greatest artistic statement, he give us the ultimate symbol of death, the death that we all fear and seek to escape from. Well, you can run, but you can’t hide from The Axeman. This guy with the combo gigantic axe/cheese grater, is a more potent symbol of man’s mortality than anything Eugene O’Neill ever thought of. Like the Ice Man, The Axe Man Cometh. And he’s coming for you!
So it’s obvious from the evidence cited above that the Resident Evil films cannot be judged superficially, just on the level of blood and gore, and that Paul W. S. Anderson is truly one of the great visionary artists of our time. The sixth and possibly final film in the Resident Evil Series is coming in 2014. It’s not too soon for the Cannes Film Festival to get its Palme d’Or award ready. Recognition is due!