Say what you will about Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil” movies, because most people already have. The lucrative, outlandish, nonsensical action-horror franchise has made over a billion dollars, entertained audiences all over the world, ticked off film critics, and infuriated die-hard fans of the games, which Anderson didn’t so much adapt as throw in a blender. Although Anderson directed only four entries in the series, his maximalist imprimatur is all over that movie franchise, and it’s time, apparently, for a change.
“Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” starts all over again, ignoring the events of the previous films and getting back to the basics of the original “Resident Evil” and “Resident Evil 2” games. The first was a haunted-house riff, where a group of special agents investigate a mysterious mansion full of zombies and other unspeakable horrors. The second was a hybrid of “Dawn of the Dead” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” with cops in a small town fighting armies of the undead, with a little bit of “The Terminator” thrown in, because everyone loves boss battles.
Those are two great tastes, and they taste surprisingly bad together. “Welcome to Raccoon City” overstuffs itself with so many characters and plot points that nothing has room to develop. The pretty-good cast gets buried alive in a rushed and ill-conceived screenplay, and it doesn’t help that the film is murkily photographed and tonally dreary.
Kaya Scodelario (“Crawl”) stars as Claire Redfield, an orphan from Raccoon City, a town run by the gigantic Umbrella Corporation, which may have been using Claire’s orphanage for twisted experiments. Claire ran away years ago, but now she’s back to reunite with her estranged police-officer brother Chris (Robbie Amell, “Upload”) and to pull the plug on Umbrella, which has been poisoning the city’s water supply for years.
Yes, everyone in Raccoon City seems to be losing their hair and crying blood, and somehow Chris hasn’t noticed. Then again, nobody in the Raccoon City Police Department seems to be infected, for reasons which are hastily broached yet make no actual sense. Instead of investigating their corporate overlords, the cops at the RPD (which really should be the “RCPD,” but that’s just splitting hairs) are too busy checking out mysterious mansions in the middle of the night and, at the first sign of the zombie apocalypse, abandoning their posts altogether.
The rest of the actors are pretty much just zombie food unless you recognize them from the games. Leon Kennedy (Avan Jogia, “Zombieland: Double Tap”) is the hapless rookie on the force, Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”) is a sandwich-loving badass, and Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper, “The Umbrella Academy”) is totally not going to turn out to be a bad guy, we swear. There’s also a mad scientist named Birkin played by Neal McDonough (“Apex”) and a police chief named Irons played by Donal Logue, who is pretty much just doing Harvey Bullock from “Gotham” again.
“Welcome to Raccoon City” was written and directed by Johannes Roberts, the director of the impressively atmospheric and uncomplicated “47 Meters Down” movies. He appears to have taken most of his storytelling cues here from John Carpenter films, right down to the iconic Albertus font in all the title cards. The score by Mark Korven (“The Lighthouse”) initially evokes badass memories of “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Fog,” but it lacks the tonal modulation actually necessary to tell this story, instead of just reminding us of better ones.
The cinematography by Maxime Alexandre (“Come Play”) is dim and monotonous, and the editing by Dev Singh (“Spiral: From the Book of Saw”) struggles to keep suspense alive between all the competing storylines. Heck, it often struggles to make shots of the main cast and the monsters they’re fighting feel like they’re in the same room.
Everyone involved in “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” has done good work before, which raises the question of whether the material is the actual problem here. The original two “Resident Evil” games were clumsily told stories with awkward characterizations and infamously bad dialogue. Although that cheesiness is part of their charm, the genuine horror of the games emerges from the players’ firsthand experience of the terrors involved. It’s the player who has to survive a tight hallway filled with the undead while their ammo runs out, not the farcically-written people on-screen.
“Welcome to Raccoon City” isn’t concerned with firsthand experiences of terror; it’s got too much plot to get through instead. Cramming the events of the first and second games together over the course of the same evening does neither any favors. The unforgettable first appearance of a zombie in the original “Resident Evil” loses all of its power when it comes halfway through the film, after the characters from “Resident Evil 2” have been fighting the undead for about half an hour. And the life-threatening events of “Resident Evil 2” aren’t exactly improved by occasionally cutting away to a hasty rendition of “Resident Evil 1,” where people are solving puzzles using piano keys.
It’s only when Roberts’ film strips away all the weird artifice that this film has any sort of weight or significance. Early attempts to equate the cartoonish supervillainy of the Umbrella Corporation with real-life corporate evils dramatized in films like “A Civil Action” and “Dark Waters” almost inject this new “Resident Evil” franchise with a fresh relevance, but these ideas are quickly jettisoned in favor of chaotically edited action and the shouting of generic dialogue.
All we can do in the end is give endless amounts of credit to the cast members who manage to stand out in this gloomy quagmire. One can easily imagine Scodelario, John-Kamen, Jogia, and Logue carrying an ongoing horror movie franchise, serious or silly, and if the film is successful enough to spawn a sequel, maybe those whose characters survive will have a better script to work with next time.
It’s possible that die-hard fans of the game, long denied anything resembling an accurate translation of “Resident Evil” on the big screen, will appreciate this film’s attempts to be faithful to the original. But it doesn’t matter how faithful you are to the source material if you’re not telling the story well. “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” doesn’t do its own thing, and it does the old thing very badly.
Also, there are no raccoons. There are a couple of pictures, but no actual raccoons, living, dead, or undead. What. A. Waste.
“Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” opens in US theaters Nov. 24.