Friday, October 05, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction (Russel Mulcahy, 2007)

Resident evil: exhaustion

Sitting through Paul W. S. Anderson's latest produced script for the big screen (helmed by Highlander and prolific music-video director Russell Mulcahy) the thought went through my head that I was tired; no, I was out-and-out sick of this sort of fare. The promotional copy of Resident Evil: Extinction promised this would be the last of a trilogy of movies based on the video game; I clutched at that promise like a man in the desert would his canteen of water. Ninety minutes of crap is easier to bear when it's supposed to be for the last time.

Meanwhile, I still had to sit through the movie. Alice (Milla Jovovich), The Umbrella Corporation's greatest creation, survived the nuking of Raccoon City (long story, see previous pic), but so, unfortunately, did the virus; it's broken out all over the world and brought the human population to the brink of extinction (Hence the title--get it? Get it?). Alice has been avoiding Umbrella's spy satellites by keeping to herself in the desert; meanwhile, a convoy of survivors lead by one Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) has been making their way across said arid landscape. Alice and Claire's paths converge on the nearest available Umbrella facility, where a fenced-off compound (surrounded by thousands of zombies, and you can be sure they aren't there out of sheer curiosity) encloses a wooden shack and a helicopter--one large enough to carry Clair's people to Alaska, where the virus appears to have failed to penetrate (don't ask me how, or why, or even if it's true).

The scenario borrows from a number of movies, of course (I can't think of a recent science-fiction / fantasy flick that doesn't filch from older, better pictures). Band of survivors crossing a desert against marauding crazies is George Miller's The Road Warrior (1981), and in fact the movie was to be shot in Australia, had to cut back costs, and settled for Mexico instead (it's cut-rate Road Warrior); the idea of a fenced-off entrance to an underground facility, the fencing surrounded by zombies, is lifted wholesale from George Romero's Day of the Dead (1981); a sequence involving flocks of zombie crows massing to attack was purloined from Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, The Birds (easily one of the greatest 'man vs. nature' films ever made).

Maybe the best, most unimpeachable rationale for justifying theft of a story element or image from a previous movie is in acknowledging the theft, then playing with one's familiarity with the original--make it better, if at all possible; I don't see that happening here. The Road Warrior premise (band of brothers crossing desert) becomes a lot of dull exposition between people that you know will be zombie fodder anyway (no, it does not help that said cardboard cut-outs look like ramp models (Jovovich, Larter, Ashanti in a throwaway role are especially fine)).

The truck they drive looks wimpy compared to the spiky, formidably armored Mack Miller used (the zombies here manage to tear off the window gratings like so much Christmas wrapper). The one explicit homage to Miller that they do--a glance between Jovovich and one of the better-looking hunks driving to his doom--is so blatant and shallowly conceived (the moviemakers seem to want--oldest cliché in the book--a 'what might have been' attraction to sprout between the two) that I find myself laughing instead of tearing up (in Road Warrior the look was one of unspoken defiance, capping a skillfully woven plot sub-thread about one man having something to prove to another).

Romero's underground facility had the benefit of a production budget slashed in half (Romero refused to accept more money to make an R-rated film (Day of the Dead was released unrated)) and recognizably subterranean locations to create a genuine sense of claustrophobia (Mulcahy's underground lab is brightly lit and sumptuously appointed; the strongest emotion it arouses is dismay at the electricity and housecleaning bills); more, Romero (despite his reputation as a mere goremaster) is such a swift, skillful sketcher of human relationships that he's able to create a tangible atmosphere of antagonism between the scientists and military officers trapped in the complex (Mulcahy kills most of them off before Alice gets there, sidestepping the issue entirely).

The reference to Hitchcock is easily the most offensive, though. Hitchcock's bird attacks were always prefaced by precisely staged and timed and edited sequences that were often more effective than the attack itself--I'm thinking in particular of Tippi Hedren waiting outside a schoolyard while birds gather in the playground behind her. The shots start out slow, establishing a familiar, quotidian world (woman, playground, bird); enter the first crow, a seemingly innocuous enough occurrence. By the time the fifth or six crow lands the danger has been well established, and Hitchcock stretches the sequence out with all the skill of a master interrogator (you find yourself wanting to yell at the woman to please turn around).

Mulcahy, on the other hand, seems to be working under the misbegotten notion that if you cut your footage fast and layer it with loud music and use jarring, mostly handheld camera angles you're creating suspense. Not really; you're just trying to stir the audience up directly, handing over to them all the visual and aural cues that danger is forthcoming when you should be working against the sense of danger, presenting a serene, everyday scene that the audience knows will erupt at any moment.

Anyway, the scene does turn ugly, but not in a good way. The bird attack itself is confusingly shot and edited, the victims' reactions mostly unintelligent (you can't help but think "they actually deserve to be pecked to death"). Mulcahy lets the scene go on and on and on--when Jovovich finally appears you cry out in relief, not from tension but sheer boredom.

Jovovich is a terrific, physically eloquent actress (she's at her best in Michael Winterbottom's wonderful The Claim (2000)), and it's difficult to begrudge her the modest financial success that these Resident Evil movies offer, but enough's enough; when will she stop doing this kind of crap and try something daring and worthwhile again? It's fun playing with zombies in the desert for oh, say, the first five minutes; after that it's time to drop the corpse and move on.

First published in Businessworld, 09/2807)


John Santos said...

It sounds like they tried to redo Hitchcock via video game aesthetics. The Birds largely worked for me because it jumped from the subjective view to the objective, god/bird-like view. It truly emphasized the limitations of subjectivity when viewed in the context of other subjective views happening alongside each other. The use of shaky camera, loud music, and the emphasis on the impending danger rather than on the serenity of normalcy in this Resident Evil sounds like a recreation of the video game experience (i.e. you expect bad guys to come rushing out and try to kill your character). As you've pointed out, this technique only creates confusion when you have more than one subjective view to depict using a single frame, as is in cinema.

Is it a crime to prefer Jovovich in Besson's The Messenger? She was incredibly expressive in that movie. Over the top, but pretty good nonetheless.

Noel Vera said...

See, my biggest problem with The Messenger is that after Falconetti, all other acting seems pale and wan in comparison. Bresson and Rivette have equally valid takes, but they didn't do it I submit, through the acting (well Bresson through non-acting).

That said, I enjoyed that movie. I thought it was an oversized, overproduced ramp show, main theme medieval chic, and Jovovich knew of Falconetti, and that the main emotion that shone through in her performance was fear--the fear that she was going to stink, or be hugely inadequate to the comparison. Which she was. But that fear, that was interesting.

Good stuff re: The Birds. I think it's a great Hitchcock, exceptional in his work in that it suggests the supernatural (with no rational explanation behind the suggestion), it's his most extensive use of SFX, and it's his one epic--a whole town, not just a single protagonist.

Noel Vera said...

Hoffman as the Evil Dreyerian Monk is a hoot, too.