Horror fans like to mutate the genre into all kinds of subgenres, and I don’t just mean things like “survival horror” or “haunted house movies” or “horror involving people in rabbit suits.” I also mean the quirky hybrid genres, my favorite being “sci fi horror” or “cosmic horror,” as it is occasionally called by those of us who have old books we don’t read on our bookshelves. One hybrid genre that ruled the budgetary roost during the last decade or so has been the action horror film, fearlessly led by two franchises: the Underworld films and the Resident Evil films. Yes, they really have been around that long; “Resident Evil” came out in 2002 and “Underworld” followed the next year. Both franchises released films in 2016, but only one had the decency to make it the last movie…for the moment.
Our old friend Alice (Mila Jovovich, as always) has a knack for surrounding herself with the right kind of people. Biking out of the bombed out remains of Washington D. C., she finds herself in the presence of the Umbrella Corporation AI the Red Queen (Ever Anderson, Jovovich’s daughter) who suggests she sneak into Umbrella HQ under the ruins of Raccoon City, locate an anti-virus that will wipe out all the infected–including Alice herself–and release it, thereby saving the final few thousand uninfected humans left on earth. And she’s gotta do it in 48 hours for…some reason. To heighten suspense, I suppose.
Unfortunately for Alice, she’s also sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, in this case the hard place is our other old friend Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, also returning), who is sitting in the Hive and sorting paper clips, and our other other old friend Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen, also also returning), who is pursuing Alice in a so-cool-it-must-be-a-toy battle tank, which is itself being pursued by a sea of extra sprinting after the machine while wearing corpse makeup. You can kind of imagine what happens next.
Look, there’s not a lot of point in discussing the plot of a Resident Evil film. I actually have a soft spot for the series because it’s so gleefully about sticking Jovovich in tight outfits and watching her shoot increasingly oversized guns and beat the snot out of mutated Rottweilers. Usually people show up, kick things in slow motion, then scream and bleed and explode for 98 minutes. It’s fun. This film tries to tie everything convoluted that the series has been for the last 15–sorry Alice, not 10–years, and it tries to do it in a clever way. It works, in a practical sense, but it also gives the movie a heaviness that threatens to drags the actors down. The two exceptions are Jovovich, who always looks like she’s having a blast, and Glen, whose Dr. Isaacs probably has the most depth of all the characters, and he manages to jump from stoic to zealot to epicurean with ease. He also pronounces it “ruh-COON city,” so that’s nice.
As far as the feel goes, the film probably has the most distinct look of any of the Resident Evil movies, thanks in part to its lower budget. I have to say this for franchise writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson: no matter how many movies he makes or how big a budget he gets, he never quite loses his guerrilla style (he photographed the majority of this film himself with handheld cameras). If anything, he has become more aggressively stylish with age. When he’s gritty, he’s film school gritty; when he’s slick, he’s splashy slick. The result is that Anderson comes across as a low rent version of George Miller. In fact, the entire first third of the film trims the budget by appearing as a Mad Max style road adventure, and it actually works.
Both Resident Evil and Underworld, as franchises, have long been a bit of a tickler for the sticklier of horror fans: Are these things genuinely horror, or are they merely Ritalin deprived action flicks with bad lighting and Halloween costumes? In a way, “The Final Chapter” tries to tilt things more in the horror direction, which is fine atmospherically, but leaves us a little in the lurch action-wise. There are quite a few jump scares, maybe more than in the average Resident Evil entry, and the film is very dark, but that’s not a plus. I mean it literally; the film is poorly lit, something which gives it atmosphere in the earlier, daytime scenes, but leaves the audience a kind of blind in the later, nighttime scenes. Occasionally it works in the film’s favor–a later scene is punctuated by splintered spikes of light from flashlights that fail to illuminate an overlong corridor in the Hive–but for the most part, it’s just confusing. Which does matter in a Resident Evil film, since they’re all about the fighting. Luckily, a fun scene with Alice defending herself while tied up and upside down happens during the day; later sequences are harder to see, and the choreography is accordingly lazy.
Of course, the film is also dark, and this time I mean metaphorically. We are dealing with extinction in pretty broad strokes, for one thing. None of this “we can rebuild society” crap. Nope. The only reason we’re trying to stop Umbrella is for revenge. Also, the slight chance of rebuilding society. But mostly revenge.
There’s also a traitor in the ranks of Alice’s allies, which could give the proceedings a nihilistic tone, if anyone on screen bothered to stop and think about it; regardless, none of them are safe from the various traps of the Umbrella Corporation or its zombie hordes–survivors are dropped down dark holes, chopped up by propellers and unceremoniously eaten. Not that that matters too much either. The other characters largely serve as meat shields to get Alice to her goal. In fact, if there was any chance for depth in the series, it would be if Alice paused and pondered about survivor’s guilt. But, nope. She’s just as stiff upper lipped as ever.
“Sometimes I feel like this has been my whole life,” Alice says at one point. “Running. Killing.” Well, yes. Technically, it has.