The problem with movies based on video games is simple: In order for the movie to succeed, it has to appeal to both the hardcore gamers who made the franchise popular, but also to viewers who aren’t gamers at all. Few genre movies have pulled this off, and many, such as the 1994 Street Fighter, have failed laughably. For this reason alone, the 2002 film Resident Evil is a low-key triumph. Here’s why it’s worth another look.
If someone tells you that the Resident Evil films are shlocky horror-action flicks barely better than the Underworld series, it’s possible you’re actually hearing a compliment in disguise. Like Underworld, the first Resident Evil wasn’t trying to achieve some kind of cinematic prestige or garner love from film critics. It was trying to create an action vehicle for Milla Jovovich, who in the sci-fi community was already beloved for her role in The Fifth Element. In retrospect, no one can possibly claim that either The Fifth Element or Resident Evil are amazing, socially relevant films.
But Resident Evil did change the game for what a zombie movie could be. Unlike most mega-popular zombie movies of the time, Resident Evil suggested that a zombie franchise could have a contemporary hero — in this case, Jovovich’s Alice — and that the hero’s story could eclipse the story of how the zombie apocalypse came about.
Anyone who played a Resident Evil game expected a certain amount of gunplay. What audiences didn’t expect was for Milla Jovovich to briefly redefine the way we could perceive sci-fi zombie slayers. You can’t exactly prove that Resident Evil established the zeitgeist to accept something like The Walking Dead, but it’s hard to imagine the latter getting popular in 2010 if Resident Evil hadn’t been successful eight years earlier.
Action movie powerhouse James Cameron has cited the first Resident Evil as a “guilty pleasure,” and it's easy to see why. Like his film Aliens, the tension comes from cramped spaces, and a protagonist forced to take the lead while unraveling mysteries about her own past. Resident Evil’s story is quite different from Aliens, but the themes are similar. In both movies greedy corporate interests create monsters, and those monsters nearly destroy the world.
In fact, if there’s one reason to revisit Resident Evil, it’s this: As early 2002 action movies go, this one is slickly anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian. It makes you wonder what would happen if a giant corporation like Amazon or Google was making bioweapons and conducting gross genetic experiments.
It’s not remotely subtle, and it’s far from the smartest film you’ve ever seen. But it briefly eclipsed its video game origins and became the action blockbuster of the moment. You don’t have to love everything about it but, if you love horror and sci-fi thrillers, the first Resident Evil deserves your respect.
Resident Evil is streaming on Hulu until January 31, 2022.