That venerable horror subgenre, the zombie movie — immortalized by George A. Romero in his “Living Dead” trilogy — gets a malnourished rebirth in “Resident Evil,” the long-in-development screen adaptation of the hugely popular videogame franchise. (To date, there have been three game sequels, action figures and a series of books.) Despite a promising setup, pic never really goes anywhere, instead immersing viewers in a kinetic onslaught of flesh (namely, that of Milla Jovovich) and flesh-eaters (most of the rest of the cast). Game’s fervent fans have created a groundswell of anticipation for pic, which may lead to respectable openings Stateside and abroad, but video looks to follow quickly for this undead retread.
Co-written and directed by the young British director Paul Anderson (who, apparently to avoid confusion with Paul Thomas Anderson, now calls himself Paul W.S. Anderson), German-shot and financed pic works as a prequel to the games, although it uses many of the games’ popular zombie characters (with such indelible names as the Licker, the Crows and the Zombie Dogs).
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Short prologue is set inside the sprawling underground research labs of Umbrella Corp., known as the Hive. Umbrella appears to be an all-purpose household company but is actually the front for a top-secret military technology and genetic experimentation operation. (It’s a subject fit for Romero, and he did write the first script and had been set to direct.)
Anderson (who directed the videogame adaptation “Mortal Kombat”) maps out the Hive’s infrastructure, satirizing the security paranoia. The Hive’s security is regulated by an artificially intelligent computer called the Red Queen (one of a series of Lewis Carroll allusions); 10 minutes in, the Red Queen locks down the Hive and begins a series of defensive measures (including releasing poisonous gas into densely populated workspaces). A deadly virus was released into the Hive’s ventilation system, and the Red Queen, who behaves like a menstruating Hal 9000, will do anything, ANYTHING to keep it contained.
Enter some soldiers, including One (Colin Salmon) and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), dispatched to shut the Red Queen down. They’re accompanied by Alice (Jovovich), a soldier with a temporary memory loss, and by Matt (Eric Mabius), who claims to be a cop.
They shut the Red Queen down, but in doing so the Hive’s passageways are unlocked, giving free reign to hundreds of contaminated workers who, as a result of their exposure to the virus, are now very undead.
The manic zombie mayhem that ensues — unfolding “High Noon”-style in real time — is in many ways a scene-for-scene copy of Romero’s 1985 “Day of the Dead.” But, unlike Romero, Anderson fails to situate “Resident Evil” zombies within any larger social context.
Anderson’s script lines up all the elements for a B-movie quickie: the multiethnic cast, the chicks who kick ass and the traitor-in-our-midst scenario. But Anderson is too set on making an A-picture here, focusing on a series of exhaustingly routine big-action set pieces. Like the recent “Queen of the Damned,” “Resident Evil” seems conceived more out of a desire to provide lip service to fans of the underlying source material than to make compelling entertainment. Anderson’s zombie shenanigans are as empty as “Queen of the Damned’s” vampire theatrics.
Nonetheless, Anderson’s surface effects are occasionally admirable. Pic relies more on prosthetic makeup and animatronic f/x than on digital technology, giving pic’s zombies and other assorted monsters a more organic sense of form and movement.
And there are times where “Resident Evil” can’t help being funny, as when Jovovich slo-mo drop-kicks a rabid zombie Doberman. Jovovich is the big surprise here. Her Alice is hardly the plum part Sigourney Weaver had in the “Alien” films, but Jovovich convinces you that she could pull off a Weaveresque turn if given the raw materials, and Anderson’s camera caresses her every athletic-balletic movement.
Pic is reasonably accomplished technically, though Richard Bridgland’s production design is standard-issue futuristic grunge, recalling similar futurescapes from Anderson’s own “Soldier” and “Event Horizon,” as well as last summer’s “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.”