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Thriller Thursday - Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Now this is what I’d wanted all along!

But the weird thing is…well, wait a sec, let me find a better way to say this: critics definitely weren’t fans but more of the audience liked it than didn’t…barely. And I have to admit, I’m kind of lost as to why. Well…maybe not. Sigh, okay, I’m gonna have to explain myself and as such, we have our return to the ‘In Defense Of…’ column to the website. Before I get to that though, we have the synopsis to take care of:

Raccoon City is doomed. Umbrella Pharmaceuticals is moving, taking jobs and the town’s economy with it…but things are worse than that. A disease is spreading among the populace and some are finding it more than a coincidence that Umbrella is choosing this particular time to leave. Based on the hit Capcom game series, can a small number of survivors get to the bottom of this conspiracy before the entire town is destroyed by this plague? And what connection do each of the survivors have to this plot that unfolds before them?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City’s plot is an intertwining of the first two games in the series in what is almost a literal translation. While fans of the games won’t find much in the way of surprises here, the main thing we have to consider here is the execution. Does the film tell its story well? As I alluded to earlier, if we believe a certain produce-based review aggregator, then only 30% of critics and 66% of the audience seemed to think so. Not a passing grade by any metric to say the least. And I certainly don’t want to come off as megalomaniacal and say that they’re wrong and I’m right, but I feel like in the proper context, this movie can be, and is, a pretty enjoyable piece of horror escapism and, at the very least, a hell of a lot better than anything produced by the Milla Jovovich-led series.

The first thing that springs immediately to mind: they actually adhere to the story of the games! In fact, I have to admit that I actually really enjoyed the structure of the film, running the events of the first two games in parallel. Serving as both a cinematic gimmick as well as helping the audience keep track of how events are playing out, a ticking clock is added in interstitials. While it accomplishes its gimmick well, it also helps those that have played the games to merge the two games in their mind and the nostalgia kick that this ends up providing was certainly unexpected…but really rather fun!

In that vein, the production and set design clearly worked hand in hand with Capcom in replicating Raccoon City for the big screen. The Spencer Mansion and the Raccoon City Police Department are the two noticeable standouts, mainly because we spend the bulk of the film in these two locations, but that shouldn’t trivialize the accomplishment here. Those involved did a fantastic job and again, it really helps to immerse those of us that have played the two games this was based on.

While writer/director Johannes Roberts’ direction is generally fine, you know, nothing that’s gonna shake Hollywood to its core or anything, I have to say that there is one sequence of the film that really stands out, not only for being visually striking but also conveying the panic inherent in a couple of the games’ principles: ammo management and not always knowing where the next zombie is coming from! We find ourselves with Chris Redfield (Robbie Amell, who’s pretty good in the role) in a darkened room in the Spencer Mansion as the power has been cut. With no source of lighting, this sequence is mostly lit by the gun flash as he takes out zombie after zombie…but as any player knows, his ammo is eventually going to run out. And it does. From here, some ambient lighting allows us to see events as Chris is forced to switch to his knife in what begins to look like a losing battle. Of course, I won’t spoil how it all plays out, but visually this was really unique and deserves some attention and praise. In terms of allowing the audience to feel what the characters on screen are going through, well, anyone that’s played either the original games or the recent remakes knows EXACTLY how this kind of sequence feels, having lived it before. Being able to strike that kind of note with his audience certainly warrants a feather in Roberts’ cap.

Like any movie though, it’s not all good, and there are a few things here that I can certainly see would turn some against the film. First and most noticeable to me was the use of profanity in the dialogue. This is readily apparent in the opening moments of the film with Claire hitching a ride from a certain ill-fated semi-truck driver and while it relents a little, that’s just it, it only eases up on the usage a little. Look, I’m no prude and I certainly don’t object to the use of that language, as I’m sure it’s surfaced here in the reviews as well as nearly daily use in my normal day to day life. But profanity in language is like spices in cooking: used correctly and you enhance the flavor and take the dish to new levels, use too much and you’ve ruined the whole damn thing. Those first five to ten minutes certainly risk ruining the whole thing. Now I don’t know if I just got used to it or if it did moderate some, but it does become less irritating as the film goes on. Still, it kind of feels like Roberts’ here is a teenager or something, shoehorning it in to try and sound cool…and failing utterly.

Another problem the film runs into are its CGI effects. Some scenes and characters end up looking more like coming from a film from, say, The Asylum than a polished Hollywood studio like Sony. However, I’m not sure that’s too much of a dealbreaker given two things. First, it does harken back to the roots of the series, the first couple of games. I mean, doesn’t it seem like it’s a little bit right that some of the more extreme creatures SHOULD look at little too CG? Sure, it can take you out of the cinematic experience, but for those that played the games, there might just be that little kick of an unintentional nostalgia trip. And that’s pretty much how it struck me, not a fan while watching it, but now that I look back on it, maybe I wouldn’t want it any other way. Second, given how the games themselves are rooted in exploitation horror films (or B-Movies), shouldn’t the film itself have a little B-Movie flavor? Of course, your milage is going to vary on this point, but it is something to be aware of going into the movie. If you’re looking for a more cinematic experience, this wavering in quality is likely to be jarring.

Next comes a criticism wrapped in complements, because in all honesty, the cast is generally fine. I already mentioned Robbie Amell as Chris Redfield does a fine job as do the other main cast members: Kaya Scodelario as Claire Redfield, Hannah John-Kamen as Jill Valentine, Tom Hopper as Albert Wesker, Avan Jogia as Leon Kennedy, Donal Logue as Chief Irons and Neal McDonough as Dr. William Birkin. Special notes go out to Hopper for actually making Wesker a bit sympathetic and not as black and white as he is in the games and for Logue and McDonough as the more established names in the cast that do their best to have a scenery chewing contest that the audience does benefit from! My only beef here is with when Claire and Leon are together…the film falls into the trap that a lot of movies are falling into these days when trying to create a strong female character: they do so at the expense of whatever man just happens to be in the same ZIP code as them. Mind you, this isn’t a criticism of the actors in those roles per se, in fact, the mere fact that it’s as irritating as it is may actually be a complement to their acting, but first off, portraying Leon to be, well, kind of an idiot throughout the entire film is grating and more than a little bit of a disrespect to the character. No, he’s not going to be the super-badass that he becomes in the later games…and sure he’s going to make mistakes…being a rookie and all, but come on. This portrayal is almost Clouseau-ian in nature. Again, no slight to Jogia, he did his job in selling it. But this sets the stage for Claire to bail him out time and again in typical badass fashion that doesn’t necessarily feel earned.

One criticism I thought of as I was writing this: I mentioned the ‘ticking clock’ mechanic used for the film and that I felt it worked. However, it’s also worth noting that portions of the film do occur in flashback in order to provide some backstory to events as they unfold. While I had no issues with it, I can certainly see how this kind of time-jumping could muddle the narrative. Like I said, I don’t see this as an issue because in some ways, it also harkens back to a mechanic in the games where you find scattered notes, diaries and other such items that help to fill in the backstory…and there’s no cinematic equivalent to having audiences read passages of text…no good ones anyway.

Lastly comes the question of faithfulness. I supposed some could argue that the movie is so faithful to the first two games that any and all surprises are eliminated. I didn’t find this to be entirely true, as anyone that’s played through the first two games will still be able to enjoy the film as certain aspects of each game had to be eliminated for the sake of time and narrative flow. And, like I said in the beginning, it’s all about how it’s executed. While his delivery was flawed in some moments, I felt that Johannes Roberts got more things right than he got wrong. The film instead is an example of a reboot done right, especially given that the old version of the franchise started to lose its way almost right out of the gate in the first film. If anything, another classic criticism levied at adapted media might apply here: the film only appeals to existing fans of the original material. I don’t feel this to be the case, but I can concede the fact that fans of the games are likely to get a little more out of the film than a member of the general audience.

TLDR: Though there are some notable flaws, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a good reboot that faithfully adapts the first two games of the series. Fans of the games might enjoy it more, but there’s plenty of blood, guts and zombies to satisfy any horror fan…and that earns it our Happy Cat rating!

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