With a new mutant strain of Resident Evil content on the way, there’s no better time to revisit the unlikely series of blockbusters spearheaded by filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson and actor Milla Jovovich. The duo have (literally) brighter days ahead as they most recently took on Monster Hunter to great box office success, but their time spent on Capcom’s Resident Evil franchise was definitive. Not just for their professional and personal lives, but for the state of videogame movies at large. Anderson is a videogame adaptation OG, helping set templates with both the fighting game and the horror-game-that-becomes-a-zombie-action-extravaganza genres that just haven’t been matched since—even if the individual movies in question can vary sharply in quality.
So now, as Sony attempts to reboot Capcom’s renowned horror game franchise on the big screen later this year with Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City and Netflix looks to take it to the small screen with a pair of projects—the live-action Resident Evil and the anime series Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness—it’s time to assess the totality of RE’s original films. The series’ films—all of which were included in our ranking of every live-action videogame adaptation ever—make up the sixth highest-grossing horror franchise and the highest-grossing videogame movie franchise. But are they any good? Does Anderson’s vulgar auteurism shine through the blood and bile? Did the films learn as they went, or become increasingly insular cash-grabs aimed at diehards? All we can truly agree on is that the lasers of the first film are awesome.
Director: Alexander Witt
Godfather 2, Empire Strikes Back, Aliens…that’s a list of arguably superior sequels in franchises. It is also a list you will never find Resident Evil: Apocalypse anywhere near. One of two films in the series that lack Paul W.S. Anderson at the helm—he was occupied with Alien vs. Predator—Apocalypse is muddled and frenetic even by the franchise’s usual “high muddle, high frenzy” standards. With much of the action shot in darkness and rain, even the predictable jump scares are somehow rendered less effective. What does this entry have going for it? In addition to franchise cornerstone Jovovich, viewers get a solid helping of Oded Fehr and Sienna Guillory as Carlos Olivera and Jill Valentine, a little Nemesis action and an answer to the question, “What has yellow-eyed scoundrel Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) been up to since terrorizing Ralphie and Randy Parker in 1983’s A Christmas Story?” (The answer? Plenty of movies from ol’ Uwe Boll, which even the worst entry in the Resident Evil franchise soars above.) —Michael Burgin
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
The fourth film in the Resident Evil franchise reins in the setting after the long, doomed road trip of Extinction, with much of the action taking place in a pretty banging opening “when clones attack” sequence at a Umbrella facility in Tokyo, ye ol’ “prison facility surrounded by hordes of undead” in Los Angeles and a tanker/research facility. Apart from the opening, the film is pretty much the standard affair of explosions and “next up to get dead,” though it does introduce a new monster, the Axeman (modeled after Resident Evil 5’s Executioner Majini). Also, if you’ve ever wondered where Wentworth Miller’s excellent work as Leonard Snart/Captain Cold in The Flash/Legends of Tomorrow was born, we present to you the actor’s portrayal of game protagonist Chris Redfield. —Michael Burgin
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Milla Jovovich’s vitality elevates Resident Evil: The Final Chapter above being just a retirement party for one of contemporary cinema’s most durable franchises. She’s so good at playing a somber badass that by now she could easily sleepwalk her way through these movies, but she’s managed to stay engaged with the material and with her role despite going through the same routine for a decade and a half. Kill monsters, gain superhuman powers, lose superhuman powers, die, regenerate, start again. Alice is so much a part of her DNA that the line between the actress and the character has irrevocably blurred. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter isn’t just Alice’s story. It’s their story—it begins with Paul W.S. Anderson and Jovovich, it ends with Anderson and Jovovich, and there’s enough wiggle room in the final shot that if they ever feel like it, it can keep going with them, too. Anderson isn’t a very disciplined filmmaker, but he does have a better sense of how film and videogames intersect as mediums than most, and that works in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s favor. There’s a casual attitude to the way Anderson approaches writing, as though he considers dialogue and plot obstacles to the real meat of Resident Evil as an action-horror hybrid: Watching Jovovich go toe-to-toe with hulking abominations or take out squads of assassins in fight scenes lifted right out of The Book of Eli. You could build a drinking game around the number of times someone says, “Damn you” or “Get out of there” or “Behind you,” though make sure to have emergency services on speed dial if you do.—Andy Crump
Director: Russell Mulcahy
This third film in the franchise is in some ways a sun-drenched antidote to the claustrophobic Resident Evil and dark, rain-soaked Apocalypse that preceded it. As a result, especially when compared to Apocalypse, the film feels a bit lighter on its feet and more coherent. Besides introducing the popular game character of Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), Extinction expands the stakes (and Alice’s power set) while otherwise ticking off one zombie trope after another as the plot advances. This isn’t a criticism—this is a horror franchise, after all—and if anything, the shift to more of a Mad Max (Road Warrior) meets, well, more Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome) helps this installment stand out even as the plucky band of survivors are, predictably, plucked by the constant flood of T-virus-afflicted monstrosities. —Michael Burgin
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
As a franchise based on a videogame series that is itself pretty recursive, the Resident Evil series is laden with callbacks, flashbacks, throwbacks and comebacks. Add in all the clones—so, so many clones—and any tour through the movies means lots of familiar faces and tons of familiar places. Resident Evil: Retribution, the penultimate entry in the Jovo-verse, relies on its recursiveness more heavily than most in both setting and cast, which is a plus for anyone who enjoyed the characters of Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr), Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and even One (Colin Salmon). It also injects some “new” game characters in the form of Ada Wong (Li Bingbing) and Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb). Retribution also seems to possess more clarity of plot and pacing than some of its fellow entries. This has less to do with any newfound sophistication of storytelling and more with character dialogue being full of variations of “Now we need to do this” or “Oh no, the Red Queen is doing this or that!” (followed often by an image of the homicidal AI giving an order that, indeed, does this or that). For bonus cinematic style points, Anderson throws in some Mortal Kombat-flavored “X-ray shots” of bones cracking and organs failing, which, though of dubious dramatic importance, did make me wonder if a shared universe was pending. —Michael Burgin
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
In the original Resident Evil, director Paul W.S. Anderson borrows from classic horror movie tropes made popular by films such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Ridley Scott’s Alien to depict a group of protagonists within an enclosed space fighting off monsters. Anderson makes heavy use of the kind of cheap jump scare tactics—loud banging noises, jarring music—that have become too predictable to startle any sci-fi horror fan. The protagonists are largely incompetent, following the “no man left behind” mentality and stubbornly protecting one character by the name of Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), who’s bitten by a zombie halfway through the movie anyway, leaving the confrontation between the crew and Zombie Rain a lot less shocking. Yet, there is one scene (which would later find its way into Resident Evil 4) that puts this movie above the pack and makes it well worth watching—one that amps up the gore and manages to be ingenious enough to overcome the lackluster action that surrounds it. Main badass Alice (Milla Jovovich) and her cronies find themselves facing off against a rather unfair game of laser dodging. In an ode to the classic security system scenes in heist films such as Mission: Impossible or Entrapment, our protagonists dare to challenge the technological prowess of the underground facility’s artificial intelligence system, appropriately dubbed the Red Queen. After venturing into a room that spells trouble, the door locks behind four members of the group, leaving them trapped in a narrow corridor. The claustrophobic setting of the underground facility is amplified by an immediate threat of death and a sickening method for killing the victims. In the film’s earlier action setpieces, everyone is going through the motions of a typical zombie-action film, but with the Laser Corridor, our disposable heroes face an unexpected challenge. The room seems to be almost toying with the soldiers: Lasers move without reason, shifting about to pick off victims one by one. In the last act of carnage, the lasers form a gridlock pattern, inescapable for the last person who has, until this point, managed to outsmart the room. Funnily enough, the sequence feels like a self-aware reincarnation of the opening scene from Cube (1997), a similarly constructed sci-fi horror film about an unfortunate group of people narrowly escaping traps like mice in a pseudo-sexual science experiment. But whereas the scene in Cube puts its one victim at ease rather quickly, the laser room scene gets its jollies out of teasing before pleasing. Hey, who ever said viewers can’t have fun watching people get diced into hamburger meat?—Turner Minton