The Resident Evil franchise is enormous, exceeded only by titans like Star Wars or the Marvel universe...
...The once singular video game format has grown into a multimedia powerhouse that is woven into nearly every form of media, including toys, comics, trading cards, novels, clothing and of course, film. While it’s become one of the most financially successful film franchises internationally, criticism from fans goes all the way back to the first film, directed by famed Mortal Kombat (1995) director, Paul W.S. Anderson. The general fan consensus was that Resident Evil (2002) strayed too far away from the source material and transformed the game’s slow, eerie atmosphere into a loud, post Matrix action romp. The next two films had similar results, with high box office earnings alongside fan disappointment. By the time the fourth film in the series, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) was released, most fans were jaded and stopped caring about the films altogether. Afterlife is now celebrating its ten-year anniversary, and as a massive fan of the franchise myself, I think it’s prime time the film gets proper recognition, and maybe not in the way you think. Whether you fall in line with disenchanted lot of fans, or simply never got around to seeing it, there are several reasons why Afterlife was a positive turning point for the series and why it’s worth your time.
In order to really break this down, we need to first examine how I used to think. To be frank, I once fell under the umbrella of fans who did not like the first few Resident Evil films. It wasn’t until I was much older that I went back and watched them with a newfound appreciation for the modern action/horror B movie. Of course, not all of them are created equal, but in my mid 20’s I grew out of a very pretentious film mindset that saw major studio action films as mass marketed trash. I used to be ashamed of the films I loved as a kid, because they didn’t fit the adult, intellectual artist mold that I felt I needed to fit into. I remember a specific trip to the theater where a trailer for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) played and because the person next to me irritatingly groaned with elitist bravado, I too, mimicked his reaction. Not only was I suppressing excitability over the trailer, but by that point, I actually believed the cynicism as my own. As I grew as a person and endured a host of life experiences, I noticed I was making fewer and fewer apologies for the things I liked, and it felt great. It dawned on me that I could have my copies of Death Race (2008) and Donnie Darko (2001) on the same shelf. The term, “guilty pleasure” simply didn’t apply to me anymore. I highly attribute this change of perspective to one particular evening, when I took my then-girlfriend’s little brother to see Afterlife on opening night. We had a blast. For one, I was able to see his pre-cynical excitement of being a kid, just enjoying a fun movie, and two, I’d permitted myself to be entertained, without snobbish pretentions attached. In a 1995 Charlie Rose interview with Batman Forever (1995) filmmaker, Joel Schumacher, he uses the analogy that sometimes big studio action films are like Big Macs. You don’t want to eat them every day, but sometimes, a Big Mac hits the spot and is meant to be enjoyed.
Afterlife isn’t my favorite film in the series, but there is a special shift that occurs between Resident Evil Extinction (2007) and Afterlife that (in my opinion) abolishes any fan centric sins the previous films may have committed. The first three films were definitely fantastical in terms of an exaggerated reality, but for the most part, (excluding Alice literally pushing back an explosion in Extinction) they were rooted in a reality we were somewhat familiar with and played by the laws of physics. Afterlife, however, cranks things up to 11 and enters superhero movie territory, in terms of its fantastical action eccentrics. Within the first 20 minutes, we witness Alice and her army of clones diving into a deep underground base, while dual wielding pistols, and landing without a scratch. My argument is not that this sequence and many that follow it are entertaining, (although they are) but rather that these over-the-top moments are so far removed from the tone of the games that it’s near impossible to compare the two mediums. To many, this is a clear criticism implying the lack of faithfulness to the games, but once you accept the fact that they’re radically different, you can judge them based on their own merits. I view the films and games as separate entities, but of the same DNA. They don’t mesh canonically in any way, but they act as parallel universes. Because Afterlife was so bombastically over-the-top, it severed any tonal link to the games. The first two films largely take place in the same locations as the first two games. Afterlife succeeds in uniqueness because it’s not interested in putting you in familiar territory or telling you a story you’ve already played through. Afterlife is a globe-trotting affair that manages to go beyond the scope of many of the games. I’ve always adored Anderson’s enthusiasm for film and willingness to take risks. Instead of focusing on how limiting working on an established franchise can be, Anderson steps outside of the sandbox they gave him to play in. Recognizing these little revelations has helped me, as a fan, accept the fact that Anderson’s Resident Evil universe was never meant to perfectly mirror the games. Much like the Star Wars expanded universe offers many “what if?” stories that are non-canon, the Resident Evil films also give us a fun, new experience that differs from the games. If you’re willing to shift your perspective a little, it’s not hard to see the two parallel universes as complimentary.
The Resident Evil films are not for everyone. They’re loud, often silly, and have tonally distanced themselves from the main canon. It’s not an easy sell to most diehard fans. That being said, our biases have a big effect on how we assess quality. Whether we judge ourselves for enjoying a “Big Mac” movie, or have a hard time separating the different incarnations of our favorite franchises, we should allow room to take a step back, drop the fear of ostracization from our peers and judge a film within its secular realm. Once we break the chains that bind and bully us into submissive thinking about what dictates art, we can ascend from hiding our so-called guilty pleasures. Not everyone has this plight, and I don’t mean to insult the integrity of anyone’s taste, but it’s something I dealt with that deserves discussion.
Seeing Resident Evil: Afterlife ten years ago reminded me why I love film. It might sound strange to put it that way, and I probably would’ve come to this realization eventually, but it helped me stop caring about what films I should like and start paying attention to what I do like. It’s made the last decade much more enjoyable as a fan of film. Now that the film series has wrapped up, concluding with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016) there’s never been a better time to revisit Afterlife. I rank each film quite differently from each other, and I’ll save that for another day, but consider giving this one another shot. It may not have the same profound impact it had on me, but I guarantee, if you allow yourself, you’ll have a great time watching it.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth