When we last left the Resident Evil universe, the intrepid, superhuman Alice (Milla Jovovich) threatened to band together an army of her own clones and come after the board of the insidious Umbrella Corporation. And so she does at the beginning of Resident Evil: Afterlife, raiding the vast superstructure that is Umbrella’s headquarters buried deep beneath the streets of Tokyo. That such a structure could ever exist under Tokyo – or any city, for that matter – seriously stretches the limits of suspension of disbelief, but never mind. During this raid, we see lots of things flying around the screen in slow motion, including guns, bodies, debris, and fireballs; this, we eventually discover, is a visual technique used all throughout the film. Believe me when I say that this gets old very, very quickly.
This fourth installment of the hugely popular Resident Evil franchise, based on the video game of the same name, marks Paul W.S. Anderson’s debut into the unstoppable world of 3D cinema, a distinction made possible through his friendship with James Cameron and the Fusion Camera System he developed for Avatar. We’re talking about some amazing 3D, here. Was there no way to put it to better use? Afterlife plays less like a thrilling adventure and more like instant replay on steroids, each action scene (and there are a lot of them) slowed to an agonizing pace. Every kick, stab, blow to the head, and airborne weapon seems caught in an inescapable time warp, as if Anderson was literally trying to analyze the smallest details of every shot. On the basis of this film, he would be a good candidate for the host of an after-game sports highlight show.
The plot: Eighteen months after the events of Resident Evil: Extinction, Alice flies up to Alaska, where a transmission promising a safe haven for the uninfected had been emanating. Already there, she assumes, are a small band of survivors that flew away via helicopter. Upon arriving, she finds absolutely nothing … except for a now feral Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), who has a strange metal spider-like mechanism affixed to her chest. Claire, you may or may not recall, led the survivors at the end of the previous film. Alice removes the mechanism, only to learn that Claire doesn’t remember her, nor does she remember anything else, including her own name. The specifics of this are left a little obscure, although Alice freely speculates that the mechanism had been pumping Claire’s body full of an amnesia-inducing drug. I guess she was right; little by little, Claire’s memory returns.
The two fly down the western seaboard to the smoldering remains of Los Angeles. They land on the roof of a former maximum security prison, which is now completely surrounded by mutated zombies. Inside, they find a new group of survivors, one of which is an imprisoned military officer named Chris (Wentworth Miller). No adequate reason is given for why he was locked up, save for a few vague references to him having killed people. If you’re intimately familiar with the video game series, then you already know something else about Chris. If, like me, you have never played the games and don’t plan on playing them anytime soon, then you may actually be surprised by who he turns out to be. In any case, I have a problem with film adaptations that make no effort to explain characters or situations known only to diehard fans. If you can’t go into these movies cold and still get something out of them, then you’re being unfairly treated.
What, for example, am I to make of the inexplicable appearance of a gigantic hooded brute wielding a makeshift axe twice as big as a normal person? I’ve since learned from internet research that this character is known as The Executioner, but sitting in the theater, I had no idea who or what he was, nor could I account for how he came to be in Los Angeles. Watching this scene, watching this whole movie, is a little like entering a conversation when it’s halfway finished – you’re being fed details, but you’re missing vital bits of information, including context, intent, and meaning.
All leads up to an inevitable confrontation, which in this case involves Albert Wesker, the chairman of Umbrella. He’s played by Shawn Roberts, whose low, monotone voice, stony expression, and dark-suit-and-sunglasses getup suggests he was channeling Hugo Weaving from The Matrix. There’s even a point at which he dodges bullets in invisible bursts of speed; when caught in grip of the film’s slow motion, we can clearly see the bullets as they whiz past his face, leaving behind a trail of rippled air. Couple that with scenes in an underground cave that play like a cheap imitation of The Descent and elements from every zombie movie from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later – this movie doesn’t merely exist in a closed fanboy universe, it’s also a rip off. Resident Evil: Afterlife will almost certainly not be the last film of the series, but with any luck, it will be the last to be so blissfully unmindful of movie audiences.