Video game fans are justified if they feel some trepidation over the new movie Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Not only are cinematic adaptations of beloved games notoriously disappointing, this new Resident Evil movie (based on the long-running horror game series) also functions as a dreaded reboot. The previous Resident Evil movies were successful enough as global endeavors that they lasted through 15 years and six feature films, always with Milla Jovovich in the lead, and her husband Paul W.S. Anderson directing, writing, or both.
Jovovich played Alice, a character invented for the films, while game-derived characters flitted in and out of Alice’s narrative. The storyline departed from game canon, but it did mimic the repetition and mission-based structure of Resident Evil-style games in general. Raccoon City goes back to the source material for its leads, focusing on Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario), who was played in some of the older movies by Ali Larter. Claire, along with her older brother Chris (Robbie Arnell), was orphaned as a child, and remitted to the creepy Raccoon City Orphanage, in the care of William Birkin (Neal McDonough, in case you were wondering whether Birkin is a bad guy). Eventually, Claire broke from her troubled past and left Raccoon City, while Chris stayed and became a cop.
Though the movie features a few flashbacks explaining some of this, its central story picks up with the siblings as estranged adults. At the behest of a local conspiracy theorist who insists that Raccoon City’s longtime economic engine, the pharmaceutical giant Umbrella, has performed nefarious experiments on the populace, Claire returns to her hometown. Raccoon City has barely been hanging on since Umbrella vacated, just like Claire did. How did Claire meet this paranoid man with stories of sinister experiments that square with her childhood experiences? A chat room, of course. “What the hell is a chat room?” Chris asks. The year is 1998.
Plotwise, the utility of this movie’s period setting is questionable, beyond horror films’ now-standard elimination of the smartphone advantage. In addition to a vague tribute to the era when the Resident Evil games first gained popularity, 1998 seems to have been chosen so writer-director Johannes Roberts could indulge in a variety of ’90s soundtrack cuts, with a far more exacting ear for his chosen slice of the decade than, say, Fear Street: 1994. The songs even function as shorthand characterization for people who aren’t fully fleshed out: Claire settles a car radio on the Cardigans-gone-dark tune “My Favourite Game,” while Donal Logue’s older, blustering police chief hasn’t joined the ’90s at all, and instead favors Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” which amusingly scores a scene of mayhem.
The malady afflicting the few remaining residents of Raccoon City isn’t just economic. As with the games and previous films, the area has been infected by a virus that turns people into zombies — and as with the earlier Resident Evil movies, Welcome to Raccoon City isn’t a particularly distinguished zombie picture. For the Anderson/Jovovich installments in this franchise, that was beside the point: Those films are more sci-fi/action than horror, with clones firing automatic weapons at various undead mutations. Roberts has made more of a horror movie, albeit not an especially scary one. The difference comes more from its tone, and especially from the textures of Raccoon City itself. In the Anderson series, it’s a generic location that exists to hide an underground lair, be quickly ravaged by zombies, and get annihilated by a bomb. As a place, it’s about as believable as its extremely game-y name.
Roberts works from stock locations — a police station, a mansion with hidden passages, a small-town diner — but gives Raccoon City a rundown moodiness. It still doesn’t seem like a real city, but this time, the effect is more intentionally melancholy. Time has passed it by and a corporation has left it for dead. Even the zombies look sadder. Once fully transformed, they’re nothing special, but during their long decay, they’re forlorn creatures, dripping tears of blood as their humanity drifts away. Like Anderson’s films, this one takes inspiration from John Carpenter, specifically Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13. There’s even a Carpenter-esque font, counting down the hours until Raccoon City will be destroyed. By not resolving those conflicting impulses — an escape mission vs. mounting a defense — Roberts generates an unspoken tension. Will these characters defend their hometown, or leave for good?
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City doesn’t often give those characters the depth that might have complemented the movie’s hometown-from-hell ambiance. When the charismatic Scodelario summons straight-faced grit, it’s hard not to think of Crawl, a monster movie that puts her steeliness to better use. Some game fans resented that Milla Jovovich made a central character out of someone who isn’t part of the gaming mythology. Still, Jovovich’s star quality and commanding physicality is noticeably lacking from these versions of Claire or Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), one of Chris’s co-workers on the force.
The cross-cutting between Claire the outsider, her occasional flashbacks, and multiple groups of law-enforcement officials is also a little diffuse. At first, the separate storylines keep the movie humming along. Eventually, converging the cast takes a lot of unnecessary legwork, and the initial separation denies them the opportunity to create any chemistry with each other.
For all of its limitations and points of departure from the previous series, though, Raccoon City maintains that lineage of B-movies made with skill. Roberts presents familiar images in novel ways. He uses orange lighting to give his movie an eerie warmth. He stages one zombie attack in abstract flashes. A climactic monster mutation is memorably grotesque. Even a simple shot that seems designed to mimic a game’s first-person-shooter vantage cleverly replaces a weapon with an unadorned lighter. His style keeps the movie entertaining even as the story moves in circles: investigate zombies, run from zombies, look for other people investigating zombies, shoot zombies, repeat.
It’s comforting to know that Resident Evil hasn’t been rebooted into something overblown — and that’s another reason the 1998 setting feels right. That year was right around when Anderson was making shlock like Event Horizon and Soldier, following his initial success with the first Mortal Kombat movie in 1995, much to the distress of sci-fi fans and critics alike. In spite of his bad reputation, Anderson stuck around and eventually amassed a critical following. Many of his movies, even some of the junkier ones, now look a lot more respectable than they used to, with tight pacing, memorable production design, and well-choreographed action. (Seriously, give Resident Evil: The Final Chapter or Monster Hunter a watch; they’re more fun than so many bigger-ticket blockbusters.)
Roberts, whose previous titles include a Strangers sequel and the shark thrillers 47 Meters Down and its sequel, has a vastly different approach to pulpy genre material than Anderson, but may be on the same trajectory. So many filmmakers are recruited out of smaller-scale thrillers and promoted, often too quickly, to faceless tentpole-assembly duty. (Look at Jaume Collett-Sera, director of The Shallows and Non-Stop, who just made one of his least interesting movies with Jungle Cruise.) The modest pleasures of Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City may not propel Roberts to the big time. Let’s hope not. Whether his next project is a new horror-thriller or more Resident Evil, he’s well-qualified to keep the B-movie fire burning.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City opens in theatrical release on Nov. 24.