Resident Evil revisited: Why the franchise still resonates 15 years later

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Jan 24, 2017

There's no doubt the deck was stacked against it.

Following on the heels of Wing Commander (1999) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), director Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil (2002) looked poised to join the ranks of other mediocre video-game-to movie adaptations that had crashed and burned before it. It's notoriously hard to get games right on film, and much as it's taken years for comic books to finally get their critical due on the big screen, video games are still working to break through. At first, it seemed like Resident Evil would be just another footnote on that journey, as critics basically eviscerated the film from the jump. 

However, bad reviews can't trump cold hard cash. Just ask the Transformers franchise. Thanks to its modest $35 million budget, the film’s $102 million box-office haul was more than enough to deem it a success — and thusly one of the only video game film franchises was born. Resident Evil has outlasted three Spider-Men, two James Bonds and was building a sci-fi film universe six years before Marvel decided to dip its toe in the water. Seriously, it opened the same year as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. Which franchise would you have bet would last longer at the time?

It's managed to survive a decade and a half without being rebooted or abandoned, and there's a reason Resident Evil has endured as long as it has. It's not so much because it's good, because, let's be honest, this stuff isn't high art. It's because instead of playing conservative with its creative license, the Resident Evil franchise has always swung for the fences — even if that meant a straight-up boss battle brought to life, chopping people up with lasers, resurrecting fan-favorite characters for the sheer hell of it or throwing in a plot twist because it's too fun not to. Over 15 years, the Resident Evil franchise has been nothing if not ambitious.

Anderson cherrypicked the coolest stuff from whichever games he wanted and made those elements fit into his own unique spin on the story, giving fans what they wanted but not exactly what they asked for. Yes, the franchise weaved in most of the characters and elements fans were jonesing to see while telling its own story that starts out as a small mission underground and literally wraps up with the end of the world. Like I said, ambitious. 

 

In Milla Jovovich's Alice, Anderson created a female superhero where there weren't a lot of female superheroes at the time. He started building a mythology, silly as it might be, that has allowed him to make some of the wildest sci-fi movies ever conceived. Armies of clones? Check. A giant complex that basically works to make simulations that are video game levels brought to life? Check. A literal battle for the fate of the world with zombie hordes attacking Washington, D.C.? Double check. Most movies aren’t brave enough to just go that bonkers.

In crafting one of the only successful video game movie franchises in history, Resident Evil captured the fun of playing a video game and brought it to the big screen. It didn't so much try to bring the video game to film but to make a film as fun as a video game. A subtle distinction, but a critical one.

Throughout five films, Resident Evil has managed to build its own world separate from the video game universe. We recapped the entire saga on video, and there’s a lot to know if you want to walk into the sixth entry, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, fully prepared, but it all really comes down to a few points: Alice is awesome, Umbrella is evil and zombies have taken over the world.

If you know those three points, you can drop into pretty much any Resident Evil film and have a good time. It's the reason the franchise has managed to break the sequel stigma of diminishing returns, with the fourth film in the franchise (Afterlife, 2010) actually standing as the most profitable of all. In Hollywood, that’s pretty much unheard of (unless we're talking about a Star Wars movie, of course). You can miss a sequel (or four) and still feel comfortable picking up the next one. It's all ridiculous anyway, so you can just kick back and have a good time regardless.

In an era of ultra-serious comic book movies and heady sci-fi fare, Resident Evil has largely remained unchanged by the shifting tides around it. Anderson set a tone of WTF-ness that has endured into its second decade -- and, in a way, it's almost brave. Where other franchises may course correct in an effort to appeal to recent trends, all Resident Evil can be accused of is going a bit overboard with the slow motion in the past few films. In the grand scheme of things, it's not the most unforgivable sin.

This series knows what it is and has never been afraid of telling B-movie stories with a blockbuster budget to get there. There aren't a lot of films that check those boxes, and though critics might not dig them, audiences certainly do. It's brain candy in the same vein as the Fast and Furious franchise -- the same type of ridiculous action set pieces, except with zombies and monsters instead of sports cars (ooh, can someone say crossover?).  

As the Resident Evil series finally says goodbye with The Final Chapter, it's important to remember the franchise itself has been a love letter to the genre. It's been a big, weird, silly and — most importantly — fun ride. Go get 'em, Alice.