Level One: Intro
The Resident Evil movies depict a cruel global corporation whose profit-driven development of biological warfare results in the collapse of civilization. Zombies, due to the T virus, take over the world.
‘We have seen it all before’
You roll your eyes and not without justification. These movies are derivative, clichéd, and painfully one dimensional. Epitomising what has ‘gone wrong’ with mass culture and, indeed, the passive ignorant masses. They are relentless in their commercial, cathartic, fast-paced, and fragmented character. Of course, all the films received largely negative responses from the critics but at the same time the series is very commercially successful.
Deciding whether or not they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is potentially therefore, a hindering red-herring. The much more interesting question is:
‘what do these movies say about us?’
Given every image, sequence, action or word costs capital and care to create, it is full-hardy, even arrogant, to ignore their popularity or dismiss the experiences of millions of viewers. The Resident Evil franchise is in many ways a fascinating product, reflection and comment on contemporary society.
If you are outraged at the thought of films like these been afforded such critique, then this article is not written for you. Stop reading and continue to retreat into the illusion of your sophisticated middle class bubble. But if, like franchise’s central protagonist, Alice, there is no escaping the world, however distorted and soulless, hopefully these reflections will prove thought-provoking in their topical relevance. Anxiety over agency, the subject and the observer, mass culture, globalisation, commercialism and a terrifying alienating modern world – sound familiar?
Level Two: Reveling in the Rubble
Resident Evil is a powerful postmodern expression of a fragmented corporate world on the brink of destruction. The hardship and loss of a post-apocalyptic nightmare is standard in its violent portrayal of social anxiety, distrust in modernity and a fear of the other. The Umbrella Corporation’s global tyranny very clearly emphasises a contemporary horror of a world under siege by commercial interests, computers and machines. The ruined and desecrated cities, with recognisable iconic landscapes destroyed and violated, are potent in their destructive symbolism.
Based on the popular survival horror series of the same name created by Shinji Mikami in 1996, Resident Evil is the most successful example of the transition of a computer game into a film. The franchise revels in its distinct cult origins and embraces the resulting creative opportunities with a meta-confidence. They do exactly what it says on the tin – they are literally computer games where zombies are killed manically.
Their aesthetic relishes in spectacle and artifice; multiple and layered ‘gazes’ and shifting perspectives. The film score moves away from John Williams-esque distinctive leitmotifs and grand orchestral lyrical melodies – it is instead drawn from energetic and aggressive dance music (clearly influenced by the Matrix). Its commodity and soulless nature is emphasised by the fact it is an extremely commercial venture.
There is little narrative stability to glue the small ‘level like’ action sequences, as there is a distinct shift from traditional modes of story-telling. The films are divided in to almost self-contained challenges. Time is often suspended and yet the pace racing, relentless. Camera angles are clichéd, repetitive, fragmented and choppy. Characters reveal little depth in motivation or indeed character, and often appear with virtually no back story and disappear with equal abruptness. Dialogue is almost completely absent and when it does feature, trite, laboured, economical and, again, clichéd. In one sense these films are childishly simple and yet they are simultaneously contradictory and complex. This confusion is shared by the characters themselves from Alice’s and Claire’s periods of amnesia to the Alice clone sequences and the virtual cities. They are ‘post’ in every sense – post-modern, post-narrative, post-feminist and post-apocalyptic. Not only are we literally faced with the world as we know it reduced to rubble but that we revel in the desecration and desolation – all our fears regarding form or aestheticism without substance are manipulated as we enjoy the ridiculous visual spectacles.
Notably the threat to civilization is not super-natural or extra-terrestrial but instead the ‘other’ is from within the very core of society – it is the product of progress and globalisation. This earthliness is emphasised right at the beginning of the series by the underground research centre, the Hive, in which the deadly virus is manufactured. The deformed human zombies’ primitive deadly impulses arouse associations with a ‘zombie-like’ soulless mass who have become grotesque and have turn inwards on each other. The mob is unorganised and individualised but the zombies lack individuality. The mass produced clones of Alice, the resuscitation of previous characters and the ‘spider’ controlled personalities, adds to this anxiety over subjectivity – framed by a double-edged fearful representation of the working class, physically decomposing or breaking apart, as the product of society, and yet the source of its potential destruction. The way in which the virus is created by capitalism but then spreads quickly and uncontrollably through the population, whenever people come in to contact with each other, ghoulishly parodies the potency of working class rebellion. Once infected, it is near, although not completely, impossible to go back to being ordinary.
But the anxiety does not stop there. The concept of a nation is on the whole absent – there is no organised response but instead individualism, anarchy and chaos. Likewise, all the films are littered with references to and imagery of borders in the context of the inability to contain the virus in a global world. The surviving characters are not trying to find civilization but instead running away to seek safety. The attempt to find a utopia, a place without infection, is revealed to be a deadly trap. Indeed in the Afterlife, Alice initially attempts to stay ‘of the grid’ but is constantly drawn back. There is no place outside of society.
Level Three: Subversive Female Action Hero?
It is Resident Evil’s treatise of gender that really makes it stand out. The ‘hero’ of the five action movies (to date) released under the title, is distinctive as a female action lead (Milla Jovovich) whose authority, power and stature remains fairly uncompromised. It is always clear that she is in charge (of those she is rescuing), with greater capabilities and mental strength. She is never softened or developed in to a character with vulnerabilities. On top this, the multi-million dollar franchise is dominated by seemingly subversive female representations. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, with not only numerous interactions between women in which they never talk about men but in that some of the films’ critical relationships are about trust, gaining respect and domination between powerful ‘alpha’ females – whether they are fighting on the same side or not. For example, the ‘boss’ sequence where Alice and Claire take on the Axeman (Resident Evil: Afterlife 2010) is extra-ordinary in its rare portrayal of two women fighting side by side (without the aid of men) and in so far as it marks the development of the characters’ relationship, which had begun with Claire’s mistrust, suspicion of and competition with Alice. Or the, albeit very coded, homoerotic love/hate interaction between Alice and Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), a character which was originally written by Anderson for a male actor and is indeed the most clearly coded “masculine’ females. The final fight sequence at the end of Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) is quite remarkable in that the ‘baddies’, two women (Rain and Jill), take on the ‘goodies’, two men and a women, during which Rain fights and defeats the men singlehandedly. Whilst Alice does have love interests – very little is time spent on them and they often die. Throughout these films women are not just central but they give out orders, they discuss strategy, they struggle with each other for power (a power not necessarily defined by sexuality), they are strong, brave and athletic, and they do a lot of ‘kickass’ cool fighting.
Level Four: Objectification
Despite this subversive quality, the films also offer a tired patriarchal objectification and sexualisation of its women – all of whom, even Rain, are very traditionally alluring with bodies which the camera frequently enjoys panning over meticulously. Their costumes are tight fitting and figure hugging. Their bodies curvy (with exaggerated hips, thin waists, bulging cleavage and long legs at times enhanced artificially by heels), and their faces beautiful (full lipped and lined with styled hair). Jill’s body suit’s (second outfit) tantalising plunging neck line revealing the teasing hint of carefully sculptured (and pushed up) breasts seems pointed in its unnecessary impracticality. Alice frequently dons a sexy ‘dominatrix’ outfit and is often, gratuitously if not completely inexplicably, naked (or at least part naked with a titillating scanty cloth covering her vagina). Characters are often introduced by the camera panning up from, for example, their legs.
But why shouldn’t they be sexy? Male action heros like James Bond, are quite clearly constructed as sexually desirable. It is also not as though male heros are ‘real’ in terms of their bodies either. The common exaggerated muscles which their costumes are designed to show-off and nudity are clearly a part of a fantasy and very unreal objectified masculine sexuality. And of course, Resident Evil, almost by definition, is not ‘real’ in any sense of the word – not just in its homage to it computer game origin but in its limited plot, science fiction twists and hyper aestheticism. Of course, it is the terms and the way in which the women are objectified which are problematic and ultimately uphold the prevailing patriarchal control, discipline and containment of the female body. Male action heroes’, including the male characters in Residence Evil, unreality ironically evokes something very human in the face of a fragmented machine world. They are sexy because they are animal-like – muscular, hairy, sweating and big.
In contrast, none of these women’s physiques are subversive or reflect realism in terms of the physical ability they display. In this sense, they are very different to their male counterparts – they display no bulging muscles and are relatively small. The problem of this smallness extends beyond the action hero context but replicates a common 20th Century idea that women particularly middle class women, are smaller and more delicate than men despite the fact women actually on average have higher body fat and in reality very often bigger, although not necessarily heavier, than men in many ways. Yet our Resident Evil women are young, thin, air-brushed (not a wrinkle or spot in sight) and beautiful. Despite, the post-apocalypse nightmare of a collapsing human civilisation terrorised by zombies, the women in Resident Evil all have time to carefully shave/wax their bodies. Of course, these constructions have class and racial dimensions – as the thin and delicate ‘unnatural’ precise female evokes a woman who does not use her body (doesn’t do housework / physical activity etc…). The women are sexy because they are aloof, perfect, artificial, unnatural (indeed many are strong, including Alice, because they have been genetically enhanced) and whose aesthetic is much less add odds with the aesthetic of artifice, lack of individuality, precision and inhumanity presented by the Umbrella Corporation. They may be strong and powerful but they don’t look strong and powerful – or at least their aesthetic is constructed in line with patriarchal notions of female sexual power. The high heels represent an aesthetic –which is marked by the fact they inhibits movement, make women walk differently (and damagingly) and creates a leg shape that is not at all natural – that is in contradiction with the film’s physicality.
Alice’s character may have transgressed her gender norm in many ways, but possibly the most crucial aspect, she is entirely conventional. Similarly, the fact that Alice is not completely a full agent over her destiny is problematic. There are numerous scenes throughout the sequence in which is imprisoned, contained, experimented upon and controlled by men with power. Most notably her powers are ‘given’ and ‘taken’ away (through a violent penetrative act of an injection) and at the end of Retribution she is referred to ‘as the weapon’. Not the hero, not the leader to the wilder of the weapon but the weapon itself to be used by others.
Level Five: Race & Class
The way in which race is dealt with in the film is just shocking – in that there just are virtually no non-white characters. With regards to the very few exceptions, the films tick the box of making sure that the black characters die first. There is an arguable exception of the basketball player, Luther (who survives a little longer), but he is stereotypically strong and athletic. It is an odd coincidence that Rain is also condifed as being working class and latino. Likewise, its reactionary class presentation is best illustrated by the codified working class family who lure Alice into a trap by asking for help (Resident Evil: Extinction 2007). The films are essentially elitist – marked most notably by humanities last stand taken by a few ‘superhuman’ individuals. And of course it is not just because Alice is genetically mutated that she can become so powerful, but she is ‘the one only’ whose genetic code has been able to bond with the T-virus.
Level Six: Conclusion
It is perhaps, unfair however, to attack the franchise based on a criteria that it does not pretend at all to fulfill. Afterall, as stated, they movies of ‘types’. We as an consumer audience have expectations of female protagonists and would find it hard to a) accept a lead female character that was not conventionally beautiful and b) understand female sexuality in a different way (e.g. a woman who was presented differently to this norm would not necessarily been seen as desirable). There is no getting away from it, they are ultimately aggressively hero-normative, reactionary and predictable. Yet, as we await Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, we can also acknowledge that Resident Evil offers us a chilling insight in to our contemporary society – our prejudices, our anxieties, our hopes and most definitely, our fears.