What Went Right: Resident Evil Part I
By Shalimar Sahota
September 11, 2012

Fun fact: There are now more Resident Evil movies than Die Hards.

“Adapting videogames into movies is a tricky business to get right,” says writer, director and producer Paul W.S. Anderson. He has directed three Resident Evil films as well as having written and produced all five (this includes the upcoming Resident Evil: Retribution). Films based on videogames tend to be cursed with a fair amount of negativity, including a somewhat automatic stigma that just because it’s based on a game means that it’s going to be awful. Critical reviews for the Resident Evil films would back up that theory, yet they have all turned in a profit, with the worldwide gross of each film bringing in more than the last. Anderson must be doing something right. I mean, who would have guessed that this franchise would spawn five films?

There will be a few spoilers within so if you haven’t seen any of the Resident Evil films, or played any of the games… well… I’m surprised you read this far.

Capcom’s Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan) was released on the Sony PlayStation back in 1996. The creation of developer Shinji Mikami, he described how he wanted to create something akin to an amusement park’s haunted house, and recalling George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, decided to go with zombies. The game involved players controlling Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, members of the Raccoon City Police Department’s S.T.A.R.S. team, investigating strange murder cases. Their search finds them trapped inside a mansion, looking for the rest of their team whilst trying to survive against numerous creatures, the result of an experiment by the Umbrella Corporation and their T-Virus. A landmark game, it popularized the survival horror sub-genre and expanded the story with sequels.

By the time the first film was released in March 2002, with the exception of a few spin-offs, there were four canonical Resident Evil games that had been released; Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Resident Evil Code Veronica. They had sold a combined total of 16 million copies worldwide. Whereas other videogame based movies have fallen by the wayside (though Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider do currently have a reboot in the works), one of the reasons that Resident Evil lends itself so well to a big screen adaptation is largely because the games themselves were inspired by movies. They’re essentially the gaming equivalent of B-movies.

The first Resident Evil film was greenlit in 1999, with a significant amount of its budget coming from Constantin Film, headed by producer Bernd Eichinger. Capcom had some say into what was in the film, but no real control. Given the game’s roots, who better to write and direct the film than George A. Romero? His script revolved around the mansion incident from the first game, with Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine as lead characters. However, according to Romero, Eichinger was not keen on his script, and after a couple of drafts, he was fired from the project. It also turned out that Romero based his script on watching a video playthrough of the first game. Eichinger then brought in Paul W.S. Anderson. He had adapted the Mortal Kombat videogame into a hit back in 1995. He also revealed that he grew up watching the movies that influenced the games, and that he had played through all the Resident Evil games. He wrote, directed and produced the film through his production company Impact Pictures, along with his producing partner Jeremy Bolt.

Anderson decided to make the film a prequel to the first game, explaining how the zombie outbreak begins at a secret underground laboratory called The Hive, controlled by the Umbrella Corporation. One of their experiments is the T-Virus, initially created to extend life. Unfortunately one of the side-effects is that it brings the dead back to life. After one of the vials containing the virus is leaked into the atmosphere, The Hive’s artificially intelligent security system, the Red Queen, contains the threat by sealing the laboratory and killing everyone within. Later, a “not-so-special” military unit working for Umbrella breaks into The Hive to find out what happened. On their way they find a security guard, Alice (Milla Jovovich), who has lost her memory.

Apart from the creatures, it was an unusual and risky move to not feature any of the characters from the world of the videogames. Milla Jovovich’s Alice was created specifically for the film. Following on from the dog kicking action she undertakes, she has since remained as a lead character in all the sequels. In an interview, Anderson said, “To be scary you have to be unpredictable, and that’s why I felt completely free to reinvent the story and use my own set of fresh characters…the suspense dynamic of who is going to live, who is going to die and what people’s allegiances are, was only going to work with new characters.” While one could argue that the appeal of seeing a movie-tie in would be a recognizable story and characters, Anderson’s “unpredictable” approach made just as much sense. Why make a film that follows the story of the game so closely only for the players to know exactly what will happen? Now try and imagine the reaction if someone were to adapt a book the same way and not include any of the characters.

The film did incorporate a few notable motifs, be it the way the Licker creature is introduced, characters running out of ammo, and an underground train finale clearly inspired by the conclusion of the game Resident Evil 2. Towards the end of the shoot it was picked up for distribution by Sony’s Screen Gems, who has since distributed all the Resident Evil films.

The film ended with one of the best teases you could possibly give to any fan of the videogames, closing with a shot that shows Alice arming herself in a desolate and ruined road in Raccoon City. If Anderson wanted to bring audiences back for a sequel, then this shot successfully accomplished that task. Subsequently each film has ended with a pullback shot that teases audiences as to what they can expect in the next installment.

Resident Evil ended up costing $33 million. Released in the US in March 2002, reviews were not good. It opened to $17.7 million and finished its run with $40 million. However, a worldwide total of $102 million put the film in profit. It also managed to help revitalize zombie movies. The following year saw 28 Days Later, while the year after that saw the Dawn of the Dead remake, Shaun of the Dead and another Resident Evil film.

By the time the sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse was released, the franchise hadn’t just picked up fans from the first film, but those that were discovering the games for the first time. An exclusive deal between Capcom and Nintendo saw the original Resident Evil game remade for Nintendo’s Gamecube console, with all new graphics, as well as additional gameplay and story elements. It was released in North America in April 2002, not long after the first film was released, and became a critical and financial success. Capcom later followed this up with the new prequel Resident Evil: Zero, which was released a few months later in November. Throughout 2003, Capcom re-released straight ports of Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Resident Evil: Code Veronica X on the Gamecube console, which brought a whole new generation of fans to the survival horror franchise.

Now, greenlighting a sequel to a critically mauled film isn’t always the best idea. If the first one wasn’t so well received, then what are the chances that even half the audience will return for a sequel? While worldwide takings made Resident Evil a hit, it also turned out to be very popular on DVD. For Resident Evil: Apocalypse Anderson stuck around as producer and writer, but went off to work on Alien vs. Predator, so directing duties went to Alexander Witt (his first and only directorial feature). With a larger production budget of $45 million, the action was no longer confined to an underground laboratory. The story has Umbrella reopen The Hive to find out what went on down there. Obviously a bad idea for T-virus escapes and ends up seeping through Raccoon City.

Interestingly Apocalypse is the only film in the series where the storyline adheres to that of the videogames, taking place during the timeline of the second and third Resident Evil games. A lot of elements have been carried over. Not just creatures and characters (the film introduces Jill Valentine, played by Sienna Guillory, and Carlos Olivera, played by Oded Fehr), but locations, dialogue and scenarios too. It isn’t simply about adding visual iconography, but trying to replicate the experience as well. For example, in the game Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, as players control Jill Valentine, they have to be quick to avoid or subdue the hugely overpowering Nemesis monster. In the film, Alice’s first encounter with the Nemesis highlights the pure terror that comes across when faced with the unstoppable monster. Also from the same game, the film includes the destruction of Raccoon City. The opening cut scene from Resident Evil: Code Veronica is incorporated too, where Claire Redfield avoids machinegun fire from a helicopter. That this action is performed in the film by Alice helps establish her as a more prominent character.

One of the producers on Apocalypse, Don Carmody, wanted to change the look of the Nemesis for the film, feeling that it could have been improved upon. “It drove me insane that the Nemesis had to look like that,” said Carmody. “I could have made it a much scarier monster but [the game designers] insisted he look like that.” Knowing that it would attract fans of the games, they didn’t screw around with the look of the Nemesis. Fans may regard the film as a more authentic adaptation because of how closely the characters resemble their videogame counterparts.

During the commentary on Apocalypse, Anderson explained some of the hurdles when it comes to adapting a videogame, saying, “People that run the studios are just older, they don’t get it. They don’t understand fast cutting and they don’t understand the rapid movements and they have problems with the narrative. Sometimes we’ve definitely fought in our movies not to try and over-explain things too much. Because there’s often a studio push to, ‘I have to understand this, I have to understand that’, and we’re like, ‘No, you know what, the audience this is aimed at, they get it. Unfortunately they’re just a bit faster and a bit cleverer than you are.’”

Resident Evil: Apocalypse opened in September 2004 (since Apocalypse each Resident Evil film has opened in September). It was critically derided. On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, out of all the films it has the lowest score, with a 21% fresh rating from critics. That didn’t stop the film grossing $23 million on its opening weekend. Dropping quickly, it finished its domestic run with $51.2 million. Add in international takings and the film had managed a worldwide total of $129.3 million. Resident Evil was now a successful film franchise.