Constantin Film/Buena Vista .
R4 . COLOR . 97 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
Be thankful that they didn’t have the urge to make feature films out of video games back in the days of Pong. Because if someone had come up with the idea, within no time you’d have been sitting down in the cinema to watch Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez playing a pair of stick-like Pong bats, relentlessly moving up and down the sides of the screen tossing a white dot between them in search of more points and that elusive victory. The film would have been in black and white (of course), and the music would probably have been by Aphex Twin (whose records arguably sound like a game of Pong played on a high-speed train anyway). The film probably would have flopped, but you can bet that white dot would have kicked visual butt in 3D.
Ever wondered what those cameras in lifts are for?
But fortunately, it’s only in recent times that the let’s-make-a-movie-out-of-this-movie-like-video-game craze has taken hold (and no, Tron doesn’t count!) And it’s no secret that most movies made of video games are, well, not especially good. Super Mario Brothers will haunt Samantha Mathis forever. Christopher Lambert will look at Mortal Kombat and think “there should be only one” (unfortunately, there was a sequel, with another on the way this year). But occasionally - very occasionally - a video game makes the transition to feature film and manages to stand tall on its own. Final Fantasy arguably did, though it baffled some with its out-there plot. And now Resident Evil, based on The Game Formerly Known As Biohazard (which was, ironically, itself based on a movie - Night Of The Living Dead), makes the journey from gamer fantasy to popcorn fodder. And surprisingly, it very nearly pulls it off.
The plot is straightforward. In a secret underground biological research facility, the unseen eye of Authority decides to gas the entire population when a mystery virus is released. A crack team sent in to clean up discovers Alice (Milla Jovovich), who’s just woken up with no idea where she is or how she got there. As the story unfolds, Alice starts to get pieces of her memory back, jogged by such helpful things as hordes of virus-ravaged undead, decaying killer dogs and a computer system with the voice of a polite English schoolgirl but a less-than-charming fondness for slicing crack troops into 47 pieces with a lattice-like laser. Can she save the day, and herself, before time runs out and she’s locked in the bunker with only zombies for company? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing’s for certain, Alice is a lot better at this stuff than even she remembers.
Drawing on inspirations as diverse as the Alien movies and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (really!), this fairly basic story is handled with great visual flair and plenty of kinetic energy by writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (yes folks, the very same man that brought you the aforementioned Mortal Kombat, as well as the much more recommendable and deliciously creepy Event Horizon). But for all the high-tech eye candy, riotous action sequences and super-snappy editing, Anderson’s screenplay never really kicks into second gear, missing out on many opportunities to take the story to another level. Some key plot devices - the petulant “Red Queen” computer or the vicious virus-ravaged dogs, for example - are introduced, do their job and are out of the picture without so much as a thankyou note, let alone much of a challenge to our heroine. There’s little emotional centre here - not surprisingly - but there’s also very little in the way of true involvement with the characters, something not helped by the chaotic action set-pieces and rapid-fire pace of the film.
What you’re basically left with is a big, loud, dumb popcorn horror-action flick. And as that, for the most part it works stupendously well. There’s just the nagging feeling throughout that something’s missing, and the answer to that one doesn’t really hit you until the very end (a spot-on clever ending which apparently was a last-minute inclusion). The movie takes itself just that little bit too seriously to be a fun action romp, yet never lives up to that seriousness enough to make it truly satisfying as science fiction. But as an aural and visual fun park ride, it’s well worth wrapping your head around for an hour and a half.
Produced (in Berlin!) by a bunch of independent companies and licensed to Buena Vista for this territory, we can’t be sure exactly who’s responsible for having this video transfer of Resident Evil done (in the US, it’s a Columbia Tristar title). But regardless, it’s a very nice transfer indeed, coping spectacularly well with the full-throttle visuals and some intense bouts of solid colour. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is razor-sharp (but not overtly edge-enhanced) and shadow detail, all-important in a film like this, is first-rate. There’s only a little bit of grain on occasion, to remind you that you’re watching good old-fashioned film.
Of slight concern on our review player (a Sony NS300) was the occasional occurrence of frame-skipping, almost unnoticeable but definitely there and definitely reproducible. A quick comparison between our notes and a bitrate graph for the disc revealed that these occurrences always happened at points when the encoding bitrate was extremely high, rising above 10Mbit/sec (this happens regularly throughout). That may or may not be coincidence; these frame-skips (similar to the solitary one seen on the Lantana discs) also happen when playing the disc back on a DVD-ROM setup, so we can be pretty sure it’s not the Sony player’s fault.
The layer change interrupts the film quite late, around the 73 minute mark. Unless you’ve got a player with seamless layer changes, you’ll notice this clunkily-placed switch.
Watch out for your neighbours. They’re going to hate you like they’ve never hated you before after you’ve played this one back at the volume it deserves. The movie’s theatrical 5.1 audio mix is supplied here as Dolby Digital 5.1 by default, but you’ve also got the choice of DTS - a very suitable inclusion for a movie of this type, something for which Buena Vista deserve some applause. And if you can play back DTS, that’s the track of choice here; it’s mastered spectacularly loud, for one thing, and also (typically for the format) offers louder surrounds and much more aggressive bottom end.
This is a soundtrack that sounds truly spectacular in either format; do make sure, though, that you disable your player’s audio dynamic range control for this one; we found that otherwise the loud action sequences’ myriad effects almost completely drown out the dialogue. Surround activity throughout is merciless and the subwoofer never gets a rest; if you want to show your system off, here’s a good place to start.
The music score is co-composed by Marilyn Manson, who borrows heavily from both his mentor Trent Reznor and the sparse industrial rhythms favoured by Adrian Sherwood; it’s the perfect score for a film of this type, and it’s also mixed in full 5.1 surround (what a pity there’s no isolated score track here).
One small complaint: as with other recent Buena Vista titles, selecting the DTS track has to be done via the menu system, a tedious process made even more drawn-out by a redundant “warning” screen asking, effectively, “are you sure?” It’s not needed.
A good batch of extras are included here - the very same extras that are found on the Columbia Tristar region 1 release, except they don’t get a DTS audio track on theirs. Feel good, PAL people! The disc’s menus are nicely animated (in 16:9) but annoyingly repetitive and time-consuming after a while.
A dog that, unfortunately, hasn't yet seen "The Matrix".
Audio Commentary: This is the highlight of the extras package - a commentary from director Anderson, producer Jeremy Bolt, lead zombie-squisher Milla (“YO-VO-VICH”, she repeatedly points out!) and her co-star Michelle Rodriguez. Recorded before the film’s theatrical premiere, the commentary finds Anderson sitting down to offer some insight on the movie, only to have every attempt to do so completely obliterated by the Milla & Michelle Show. They trade in-jokes, they talk about trivial stuff, they send each other up, parody Milla’s other job as a L'oreal spokesmodel and generally run riot enough to cause Buena Vista to precede the commentary with a disclaimer. Anderson eventually gets into the swing of things as well, and producer Bolt gets particularly excited at his many cameo appearances. This is one of the funniest and most entertaining commentary tracks we’ve heard in years, and is an easy listen for all but the technical boffins who want to know how the thing was actually made. Unfortunately, though Anderson refers on more than one occasion during this commentary to another that’s been done by special effects person Richard Yuricich, that commentary is nowhere to be found on this disc (nor is it on the region 1 version).
Featurettes: A generous 47 minutes’ worth of viewing across five featurettes, the longest of which is The Making of Resident Evil. That one’s essentially your standard EPK-style promo fluff with a little bit of added substance, a theme continued throughout the other, shorter featurettes here, which cover the music score (including an interview with a decidedly pale-looking Marilyn Manson), the costumes, the set design and finally a minute’s worth of the makeup tests for the zombies (which, incidentally, are never referred to as “zombies” in the film itself). All up these are watchable enough, but not as in-depth as fans might have wished; all are in 4:3 format with letterboxed footage from the movie.
Music Video: The video clip for My Plague by Slipknot, the original killer clowns of metal, letterboxed in a 4:3 frame with stereo sound.
Biographies: Five filmographies (not biographies), for director and the four principal cast members.
Flawed but fun and visually stunning, Resident Evil never quite lives up to the promise of its concept, perhaps because it strives too hard to be faithful to the video game on which it’s based. Anderson (no, he’s not the Magnolia one!) is at his usual flamboyant best when it comes to the look and feel of the film, and the cast are obviously having a terrific time; as long as you aren’t expecting Orwellian cleverness, you’ll have a good, loud, fun time with this one.
Buena Vista’s DVD offers a superb picture (though with some minor problems) and system-challenging audio, with all the extras from the US release - and impressive DTS sound as the hard-to-pass-up clincher.