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Movie Review: April 2017

Resident Evil: A Study of Formula and Subversion

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Capcom Entertainment, January 2017

Disclaimer: I’m not a gamer. I’m not a fan of zombie films, and I’m not even really a fan of mindless action franchises unless there’s something else going on to hold my attention.

I adore the Resident Evil movies.

With the release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the sixth and supposedly last of the franchise (The T-virus and Hive both get destroyed here, and the evil Dr. Isaacs is killed—and so is his clone, because of course there’s a clone—so I’ll take them at their word. A lovely thank you message from Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson at the start of the movie brought a bit of a tear to my eye.), I have an opportunity to look at the entire series and try to explain exactly why I love them.

In a way, these movies are incredibly easy to review. Did you like the ones that came before? Then you will probably like the new one. Did you not like the others? Then save your twelve bucks for something else. I’ve found I’ve had a hard time explaining to people who don’t like them what the big deal is.

This is an epic saga, complete with a long introduction catching us up on all that went before, glossing over the parts where things don’t hang together all that well. (Wait, why did Umbrella Corp invent the T-virus? We get different reasons. Is Alice their experiment or their weapon? Is she a victim or the primary research subject? Doesn’t really matter! Who’s a clone? Anyone we want to be!) The later ones haven’t matched the claustrophobic intensity of the first, but they all have their charms. I can never remember the titles, so I describe them by setting: The first one is the first one, the second one is the one in Raccoon City, the third one is the one with the desert convoy, the fourth is the one with the airplane and the prison in L.A., the fifth one is the base in Siberia, and the sixth is the last. See what I mean? So much easier than the official titles. (To anyone planning a series and struggling to come up with a title convention: You might keep this lesson in mind.)

These films don’t really have plots. Instead, they’re a series of set pieces. Rube Goldberg mousetraps, often clever and spectacular. (That frakking laser room that was used to such horrifying effect in the first film has appeared periodically throughout, and every time I see it, it’s like the bad guy jumping out from nowhere one more time.) Often set to thumping techno music, the action sequences have much in common with slickly-produced music videos. These films are as artful as they are goofy. Likeable ensemble casts of characters, an internal mythology that, if not consistent, is at least recognizable, and frequent call-backs to its video game origins, with animated wire-frame modeling of various maze-like settings and a definite structuring of the story according to progressively tougher bad guys and boss levels—whatever the pieces and parts, this franchise has always had an excellent grasp of what makes it appealing, and delivers with admirable consistency.

The reason these films don’t just feel like watching someone else play a video game: Alice.

Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, is the main character of all the movies and the glue that holds them together. Moreover, she is at once an embodiment and a deconstruction of the trope of the fetishized action heroine.

Let me explain.

There’s a point, a kind of uncanny valley of kick-ass characters, where a certain kind of main character stops being about a powerful woman and starts being all about sexy eye candy for straight men. She can be both at once, but beyond a certain point there’s no doubt what her primary design specification is. The outfits get tighter, the heels get higher, the cleavage more pronounced. She’s no longer an athlete, but a pin-up. There’s a moment in the late ’90s and early ’00s when this character superseded the kind of woman action hero we’d seen a lot of during the ’80s and ’90s, the Ellen Ripleys and Xenas.

Trinity in The Matrix (1999) solidified for me the moment the “kick-ass heroine” slipped from a model of empowerment to a fetishized figure tailor-made to appeal to twenty-something gamer guys, as much a construct as Kelly LeBrock’s character in Weird Science. What’s more, The Matrix explicitly states that Trinity’s reason for existing is to be Neo’s girlfriend. That’s her destiny. After svelte, devoted black catsuit-wearing Trinity, we get sexy Lara Croft in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2001), sexy catsuit-wearing Selene in Underworld (2003), and in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie. The trend continues to this day, easily identified by movie posters that insist on depicting their powerful women ass-out, with that come-hither over-the-shoulder look. These might be powerful badass women characters, but they primarily exist to satisfy the straight male gaze.

Alice fits this formula. She is indisputably sexy. We first see her in an iconic red cocktail dress, cut just so to allow for those awesome high kicks. She rarely appears in anything that isn’t form-fitting. When she’s not in something form-fitting, it’s because she’s nearly naked, wearing two sheets of paper masquerading as a hospital gown or floating in glowing medical vats.

But Alice is also a critique of this formula. Because Alice, within the mythology of the story, is literally a construct. She’s been poked, prodded, manipulated, injected with T-virus and other nano-whatevers, un-injected, given special powers, cloned ad-infinitum to serve as the subject of endless experiments. She’s powerful and sexy, because she was made to be that way, and the films are happy to point that out.

Through it all, however, her mind remains her own. She has depth and a mission to go with the style, and the thing I’ve always loved about her the most is her compassion. She’s not a lone wolf battling solo through a harsh world. In every movie, she gathers together a little tribe of survivors and her primary motivation is to take care of them. To make sure they survive. That she fails so often doesn’t deter her at all. She is always kind to children. None of her charges is ever a burden. She inspires them to reach their own limits of über-competence. When her peeps re-appear in later films, she’s happy to see them. Unless they return as evil Umbrella Corp clones, in which case Alice reacts with sadness and anger. That she isn’t fully human weighs on her, but it doesn’t stop her from acting human, and using her powers to help as many people as she can.

Finally, my biggest argument that the Resident Evil movies subvert the trope of the fetishized kick-ass heroine: Every single film in the series easily passes the Bechdel Test. (Reminder: This is the test named for writer and artist Alison Bechdel that asks if a movie 1) has more than one woman character, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men.) The test isn’t a measure of quality: It’s a demonstration of how little consideration most movies give to women as anything other than plot devices or accessories.

The Resident Evil movies have lots of other women characters. The one who appears most frequently is Claire Redfield, played by Ali Larter. Alice is an amazing, sexualized, catsuit-wearing superbeing. Claire is totally normal. No superpowers. No sexy outfits. Most of the time, she looks really tired. Her skills are at the level of a normal, if extremely competent, leader. She’s there to show us what an actual badass woman hero looks like. And she and Alice work together like peanut butter and chocolate.

An action movie can have more than one kind of woman character! They can be awesome in different ways! Maybe the greatest demonstration of this is in #5, Retribution, in the final battle on the Siberian ice where the women fighters outnumber the men. The scene has five women—Alice, Rain (an evil clone of a character who appeared in the first movie, played by the amazing Michelle Rodriguez), Jill Valentine, Ada Wong, and Becky, the deaf child Alice finds herself protecting this go-around. They all have different reasons for being there, they’re arrayed on different sides of the fight, and it’s great. (Especially after a delightful earlier scene, when yet another clone of Rain, this one presented as a typical suburban mom, argues with Alice about why she can’t use a gun: “You don’t understand, I marched against the NRA.” Alice puts a machine gun in her hand, aims, makes her fire, and tiredly declares, “Congratulations, you’re officially a badass.” It’s almost meta, a wry observation of how by some standards one would believe it takes a little more than a machine gun to transform an ordinary woman into a “strong woman characterTM”).

As the Resident Evil series has progressed, the infected, the T-virus zombies, become less and less important. In each successive film, they occupy less film time, as the real villains are revealed: the scientists and corporate masters of the Umbrella Corporation. The zombies are a McGuffin, the cannon fodder for the earlier levels of the game. They’re creepiest and scariest in the first movie when they’re still a mystery, when they attack our band of heroes one-by-one and no one knows what’s happening. After that, they move in hordes, and battling them is perfunctory. The zombies aren’t the point of the story—they’re a symptom of a deeper conflict. The action set pieces throughout the various Resident Evil movies may not cohere in a thing that looks like a plot, but they do all illustrate the same theme: the megacorp that sees people not even as product, but as raw material. The Umbrella Corporation is Philip Morris covering up memos revealing that they know very well that smoking kills people, the Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal, India, that killed from 4,000 to 16,000 (depending on who you ask) and injured half a million, and a thousand other fatal corporate disasters. These films know what’s really dangerous.

It’s not enough for Alice to fight zombies. She has to get to the heart of Umbrella Corp. and discover all its secrets. And in The Final Chapter, she does. She confronts the evil Dr. Isaacs (Game of Thrones alum Iain Glen, who is clearly delighted to be chewing as much scenery as he does in these films) and meets her progenitor, because yes, this entire time, our Alice has been a clone, made from Alicia, the sickly daughter of Umbrella Corp’s former leader. Alicia is in a wheelchair now, dying, and has another reveal: The Red Queen, the evil child AI directing Umbrella Corp and Alice’s nemesis from Day One, was made from a brain scan of Alicia herself as a child. Now, on the cusp of total human extinction, the Red Queen has had a change of heart. “The Holy Trinity of bitches,” Isaacs calls them, when the three are finally brought together. One person in three forms, complete with Alice’s Christ-like sacrifice, dying so that the world might live. They are also the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, the trinity of woman-centric pagan belief. The symbolism isn’t at all subtle, but if you’re not expecting it, if you’re expecting dumb mindless action fun, the meaning, the metaphoric divinity of our hero, might just slip past you.

The Final Chapter pulls a punch at the end and doesn’t let Alice die. It totally earned that ending and I would have gone there. But in hindsight, Alice’s doppelgängers, Alicia and the Red Queen, already made that sacrifice. And disproved their own assertion that they’re not as good a person as Alice.

Alice’s compassion, the relationships she develops, the number of other kick-ass women surrounding her: All this has kept me coming back to these movies. She’s a kick-ass woman character whose kick-ass-ness hasn’t made her cold and unapproachable, as so many stories and movies seem to think a woman who can flying-kick bad guys’ heads off while simultaneously firing two Uzis and spitting throwing knives must be. She has the altruism of Superman. She’s a protector because she wants to use her abilities to help others.

In the end, it may be a good thing The Final Chapter didn’t leave her dead, as the ultimate martyr. When we last see her, she’s motorcycling off to New York City, to rescue as many people as she can from the last remaining monsters. It’s her calling, and she’s pleased to answer it.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio advice show. Her newest novel is a planetary adventure, Martians Abroad. Bannerless, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, will be released by John Joseph Adams Books in July 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.