Resident Evil: Exhaustion
By Noel Vera

Resident Evil: Extinction
Dir: Russell Mulcahy (2007)

Sitting through Paul W. S. Anderson's latest produced script for the big screen (helmed by Highlander and prolific music-video director Russell Mulcahy) the thought went through my head that I was tired; no, I was out-and-out sick of this sort of fare.

The promotional copy of Resident Evil: Extinction promised this would be the last of a trilogy of movies based on the video game; I clutched at that promise like a man in the desert would his canteen of water. Ninety minutes of crap is easier to bear when it's supposed to be for the last time.

Meanwhile, I still had to sit through the movie. Alice (Milla Jovovich), The Umbrella Corporation's greatest creation, survived the nuking of Raccoon City (long story, see previous pic), but so, unfortunately, did the virus; it's broken out all over the world and brought the human population to the brink of extinction (Hence the title--get it? Get it?).

Alice has been avoiding Umbrella's spy satellites by keeping to herself in the desert; meanwhile, a convoy of survivors lead by one Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) has been making their way across said arid landscape. Alice and Claire's paths converge on the nearest available Umbrella facility, where a fenced-off compound (surrounded by thousands of zombies, and you can be sure they aren't there out of sheer curiosity) encloses a wooden shack and a helicopter--one large enough to carry Clair's people to Alaska, where the virus appears to have failed to penetrate (don't ask me how, or why, or even if it's true).

The scenario borrows from a number of movies, of course (I can't think of a recent science-fiction / fantasy flick that doesn't filch from older, better pictures). Band of survivors crossing a desert against marauding crazies is George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981), and in fact the movie was to be shot in Australia, had to cut back costs, and settled for Mexico instead (it's cut-rate Road Warrior); the idea of a fenced-off entrance to an underground facility, the fencing surrounded by zombies, is lifted wholesale from George Romero's Day of the Dead (1981); a sequence involving flocks of zombie crows massing to attack was purloined from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, The Birds (easily one of the greatest 'man vs. nature' films ever made).

Maybe the best, most unimpeachable rationale for justifying theft of a story element or image from a previous movie is in acknowledging the theft, then playing with one's familiarity with the original--make it better, if at all possible; I don't see that happening here. The Road Warrior premise (band of brothers crossing desert) becomes a lot of dull exposition between people that you know will be zombie fodder anyway (no, it does not help that said cardboard cut-outs look like ramp models (Jovovich, Larter, Ashanti in a throwaway role are especially fine)).

The truck they drive looks wimpy compared to the spiky, formidably armored Mack Miller used (it doesn't help that the zombies here manage to tear off the window gratings like so much Christmas wrapper). The one explicit homage to Miller that they do--a glance between Jovovich and one of the better-looking hunks while driving to his doom--is so blatant and shallowly conceived (the moviemakers seem to want--oldest cliché in the book--a 'what might have been' attraction to sprout between the two) that I find myself laughing instead of tearing up (in Road Warrior the look was one of unspoken defiance, climax to a skillfully woven plot sub-thread, about one man having something to prove to another).

Romero's underground facility had the benefit of a production budget slashed in half (Romero refused to take more money to make an R-rated film) and recognizably subterranean locations to create a genuine sense of claustrophobia (Mulcahy's underground lab is so brightly lit and sumptuously appointed the strongest emotion it arouses is dismay at the electric and housecleaning bills); more, Romero (despite his reputation as a goremaster) does such swift, skillful sketches of human relationships that he's able to create a thick atmosphere of antagonism between the scientists and military officers trapped in the complexj (Mulcahy has most of them killed off before Alice gets there, sidestepping the issue entirely).

The reference to Hitchcock is easily the most offensive, though. Hitchcock's bird attacks were always prefaced by sequences so precisely staged and timed and edited they were often more effective than the attack itself--I'm thinking of Tippi Hedren waiting outside a schoolyard while birds gather in the playground behind her. The shots start out slow, establishing a familiar, quotidian world (woman, playground, bird); enter the first crow, a seemingly innocuous enough occurrence. By the time the fifth or six crow lands the danger has been well established, and Hitchcock stretches the sequence out with all the skill of a master interrogator (you find yourself wanting to yell at the woman to please turn around).

Mulcahy, on the other hand, seems to be working under the misbegotten notion that if you cut your footage fast and layer it with loud music and use jarring, mostly handheld camera angles you're creating suspense. Not really; you're just trying to stir up the audience directly, giving them all the visual and aural cues that danger is forthcoming when what you should be doing (what Hitchcock always did) is work against the sense of danger, present a serene, everyday scene that the audience knows will erupt in violence at any moment.

Anyway, the scene does turn ugly--but not in a good way. The bird attack itself is confusingly shot and edited, and the victims' reactions mostly unintelligent (you almost think "they deserve to be pecked to death"). Mulcahy lets the scene go on and on and on--when Jovovich finally appears you cry out in relief, not from tension but sheer boredom.

Jovovich is a terrific, physically eloquent actress (you see her at her best in Michael Winterbottom's wonderful The Claim (2000)), and it's difficult to begrudge her the mdest financial success that these Resident Evil" movies offer, but enough's enough; when will she stop doing this kind of crap and try something daring and worthwhile again? It's fun playing with zombies in the desert for oh, say, the first five minutes; after that it's time to drop the corpse and move on.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 09/28/07.
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October 5, 2007