As I observed a couple months back, the relationship between video games and films is an awkward one; most cinematic adaptations of games feel like a letdown to gamers and cinema audiences alike, while video games continue to emulate popular movies more and more. A big reason for this discrepancy lies with the essential difference between the mediums: films are generally passive experiences, while games are more immediate and personal. Even when a game has characters, narrative, and events set in stone, the interactivity of games allows the player a large degree of investment in the experience thanks to the illusion of control.
Good films, like any form of storytelling, do their part to engage an audience with a suspension of disbelief that allows the viewer to feel an equal footing with the characters. That, of course, requires those characters to be relatable and well-drawn enough to care about. This leaves film adaptations of video games with a fatal flaw right from the start, as most video game protagonists are left deliberately thin and generic, the better for a wide variety of players to fill the void with themselves. In fact, most games made in the last several years encourage players to design their own avatars to resemble themselves or whomever they wish. This creates a catch-22 for video game movies: some change too much about the premise and the characters that the fanbase is thrown off and the material is too diluted, whereas others make such a direct translation that it leaves the film feeling empty, like a copy of a copy.
One filmmaker who’s circumvented this problem is Paul W.S. Anderson. A glance at his CV proves that Anderson is a fan of video game material; with Mortal Kombat, Monster Hunter, and even Alien vs. Predator and his Death Race remake, the director shows a particular knack for adapting video game structure into his films. Yet it’s his Resident Evil franchise of six films (of which Anderson directed all but two) that remain the highest achievements to date in merging video game material with the cinematic medium.
One of the main reasons the Resident Evil films work so well on their own is due to Anderson’s refusal to be slavishly devoted to the source material. His first Resident Evil movie, released in 2002, was likely expected by fans to follow the blueprint laid out by the first “Resident Evil”game, where a team of special law enforcement agents investigate a spooky old mansion filled with zombies and various other creatures. While the film does contain a team of elite mercenaries investigating a claustrophobic space that’s become zombie-ridden thanks to the outbreak of the Umbrella Corporation’s experimental “T-Virus,” the team are quickly whittled down to just a few members, none of whom are the main character. There is a spooky mansion in the film but it’s only onscreen briefly, and none of the game’s characters make an appearance. An adaptation of a massively popular IP playing so fast and loose with its source material is virtually unheard of now—even back in 2002, when intensely faithful film adaptations were being made from the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” books, this was uncommon.
While Anderson directed every entry in the Resident Evil series excepting 2004’s Apocalypse and 2007’s Extinction (which were helmed by Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy, respectively), he wrote every single installment, which allows for a consistency of tone and structure that mirrors the way video game franchises operate. For instance, game series like “Super Mario,” “Doom” and “Final Fantasy” all vary in aesthetic from entry to entry, but at their core utilize the same type of game mechanic—platformer, shooter, and RPG, in those respective examples. Likewise, the Resident Evil films each have their own aesthetic approaches that recall other genre classics: the first movie is like The Andromeda Strain blended with Alien, the second is a riff on Escape From New York, the third recalls Mad Max 2, and so on. Yet all of them are action-horror movies at heart, with each entry giving the protagonists a simple, concrete goal: escape the facility, acquire the object, reach the destination, etc. The mutation from what Alfred Hitchcock once called “MacGuffins” to more video game-esque objectives is a topic for another time, and while Anderson’s work undeniably helped contribute to that change in cinematic tropes, his films were amongst the earliest to employ it in the most unadorned fashion. To wit, nearly every one of Anderson’s movies after Resident Evil (even his version of The Three Musketeers) makes use of an on-screen map of the story’s geography. More than just a throwback to something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Anderson explained in 2017 how his use of a map presents “geographic clarity” to the audience in the same way a map or HUD lays out the game’s geography for the player.
This aspect of the audience-as-player is key to Anderson and Resident Evil’s successful marriage of video game and cinema. The major innovation Anderson adds to the Resident mythos is the character of Alice, played in every film by Milla Jovovich. Although the character is a literary reference on the surface—to make the allusion to the works of Lewis Carroll even more explicit, Anderson calls the first film’s A.I. antagonist “The Red Queen”—her actual purpose is to function as a blank slate proxy character for the audience, a “player character” in essence. Sure, there are numerous examples of films featuring protagonists who are out of their depth and need the world around them to be explained as a way of easily solving the problem of exposition, but Alice isn’t just new to the outbreak of the T-Virus—she’s also an amnesiac. While her arc over the course of the first film concerns recovering some of her memories, they’re only a couple memories pertaining to the outbreak at hand. In other words, Alice is not a character with a richly detailed backstory, but rather someone whose history and knowledge is expressly on par with the audience’s.
As the Resident Evil series continues, Anderson keeps the experience of the films on an even playing field via the Alice character. While several major characters from the game series make appearances in various entries, the films assume the audience has no prior knowledge of them. Each installment begins with Jovovich as Alice recapping the prior films’ events, moments that feel less like a film series burdened with continuity than a game giving the player the essentials of what they need to know. Thanks to the evil Umbrella Corporation (who created the T-Virus) continually experimenting on Alice—giving her new powers, clones of herself, and other attributes—she discovers her abilities at the same time the audience does, such moments reminiscent of a tutorial level in a game. This approach means the Resident Evil series is particularly terrible at continuity—in a way, it’s almost an anti-MCU, because those paying attention are not only unrewarded for it, but left confused as to how the big picture might reconcile itself (which makes it an anti-Fast & Furious, too, since that franchise revels in attempting to balance the scales of its narrative’s increasing improbabilities). In order to continually bring on new players, game series make a habit of remixing their narratives without relying on strict continuity between entries, and Anderson has the Resident Evil films follow suit.
Of course, this means the Resident Evil films contain considerable flaws if taken solely as cinema. For one thing, their repetitive nature and constant ret-conning of characters (not to mention some characters unceremoniously disappearing) can seem obnoxious, especially those with any emotional investment. This is one franchise that has every installment end on a cliffhanger only for those cliffhangers to either be obscurely resolved or even brushed aside at the beginning of the next film. Yet it comes from source material where such aspects are features, not bugs, with narrative streamlining a way to get a player up to speed and into the heart of the action. Any fan of video games in general, not just the “Resident Evil” games, can see the way Anderson structures the films much like a game, with Alice often entering specific areas or rooms that she needs to clear of enemies before she can progress. While this approach lacks the subtle nuance that differentiates the average action film from a video game, Anderson’s blatant melding of game and movie gives each Resident Evil entry a pulse and an ethos that most other video game movie adaptations fail to achieve. Look no further than Sony’s reboot of the film franchise last year, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, a reboot that was explicitly intended to mirror the games more closely; it has its moments but feels far more rote than any of Anderson’s movies. It presents the same story and characters from the games while taking away the engaging interactivity, something Anderson was quite aware of when he made his films.
The sly irony of 2017’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that it ends with Alice finally gaining a history and identity—her victory, becoming a fully fledged character, means the series must end because she’s leaving the “player” behind, and the game is now over. The fact that The Final Chapter feels as fulfilling as it does speaks to how effectively and cleverly Anderson merged the two mediums, providing a superior template for video game movies to follow. Or perhaps I should say, a superior HUD navigation map.