Resident Evil: Afterlife
Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Resident Evil: Extinction
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
When artists set out to make a film, write a novel, or create any other type of art, they have to ask themselves what they want to accomplish in their work and what the work is going to do for the audience. Writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson seems to enjoy playing around in the Resident Evil world so much that in Resident Evil: Afterlife he forgot to find an incentive for viewers to go there with him. He pops in for a visit, does whatever he feels like doing, and heads out, making sure the door is left open for a return. I say with no sarcasm that Anderson probably had a heck of a time making this film. I'm sure anybody would. However, from a viewer’s perspective the resulting effect is that of watching a kid play aimlessly in a sandbox.
In the Resident Evil films, an evil super-corporation called Umbrella has accidentally (but without regret) turned 99% of the world’s population into zombies. In the first installment, we watched Alice, a former Umbrella security agent, try to escape one of the company’s underground laboratories, and in the next two we watched her try to bring Umbrella down. In this one, she continues trying to bring them down. Then she goes looking for survivors and finds herself in escape mode again, this time caught in a Los Angeles prison. She is faced with the usual foes: zombies, mutants, super-mutants, and mutant dogs. No telekinetic powers this time, though, so she’s going to have to stick to her guns, her wits, her blades, and her ability to perform near-supernatural acrobatic feats. Even though this is the fourth film of the franchise, you can probably jump on without having seen the others and be perfectly prepared to follow the events.
Anderson, who has written all of the Resident Evil films but who has directed only this one and the first, has made it clear throughout the series that he’s not interested in exploring the ideas inherent a plot such as this, however plentiful and potentially rewarding they may be. He just wants to show us some cool action. This is a valid route for a film to take, but there is nothing to keep us engaged during the stretches between action scenes. The characters don’t develop in any way that doesn’t involve a twist for the sake of a twist, they aren’t presented with any moral dilemmas, and they are never presented with a problem more relatable than the fact that their lives are in danger. If the film had action in sufficient quantity and quality, this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, there are too many moments where the characters do nothing other than try to figure out how to get from point A to point B, without enough spectacular things happening along the way. During these downtimes, there are occasional jump scares provided courtesy of face-tentacle mutants, but when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
There is another problem the film would have had to overcome even if the story and pacing had been better executed, though. That problem is the infrequence with which the action we do get is entertaining. Anderson creates a handful of dynamic monsters, but instead of providing creative action, he is more focused on shooting these scenes with what he clearly thinks are extremely entertaining camera tricks. This is where it becomes most obvious that he is having fun with the movie, but it is also where some of the film's biggest problems lie, as these tricks serve no other purpose than for him to show us what his camera can do. The first such trick involves a revolving freeze-frame at the exact moment of impact during a plane crash. In no way does it effect one’s understanding of the film. The most maddening use of these techniques occurs during a fight that pits Alice and another main character against a giant mutant with an enormous hammer. Almost the entire scene is shot in slow motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s between swings, kicks, and gunshots; even if it’s just two characters running across the room, Anderson’s going to show it to us at a fraction of its original speed. He is trying to apply the dramatic effect created by slow motion to the whole scene, not realizing that doing so completely dilutes the technique -- and becomes irritating. The filmmaker's playfulness sacrifices whatever intensity could otherwise have been found in the events.
Furthermore, Anderson is occasionally bested by his desire to present scenes simply because he thinks they are cool. At one point, he gives Alice the chance to do the classic “freefall backwards and shoot guns up at something” action shot, even though there’s nothing left for her to shoot at and, even if there had been a threat, the only thing she could possibly be hitting is the ceiling of the room she jumped out of. Near the end, there is a scene involving a man in sunglasses dressed in black, long-hanging clothes, dodging bullets at super-speed while the camera occasionally slows to bullet time to show them passing by his body. I’ll give Anderson the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t consciously thinking of The Matrix when he filmed the scene, but regardless, it is so similar to that film that it is painful -- and made even worse by the fact that The Matrix at this point is over a decade old. I think the director was so excited about the things he got to do that he never gave himself the chance to consider how they will play out.
After watching Resident Evil: Afterlife, I found myself wondering, What was this movie about? I can tell you what the characters did. I can tell you (mostly) why they did the things they did. But I don’t see an overarching point to the events. If the action had been better and had not been filmed in such a showy manner, that question would never have come to mind. It is clear that Anderson was just trying to create a fun movie here. For that, there can be no criticism. However, what the film amounts to is ninety minutes of watching him have fun with some realistic toy monsters and a really expensive camera that has a slow motion function. It's like visiting the kid who only lets you watch him play with his toys; he's having such a great time that he doesn't even realize how bored you are.