Considering how liberally many video games lift their ideas from movies, I suppose it should come as no surprise that, when experiencing a drought of creative inspiration, the movies return the favor by lifting ideas from video games. It's a self-perpetuating cycle of cinematic cannibalism. The history of the films-based-on-games genre has not been particularly distinguished, with most falling to hack directors working from incompetent scripts and tiny budgets (see: the complete works of Boll, Uwe). Somehow, Paul W.S. Anderson seems to have had the best run at it, making unexpected hits out of game-based pictures 'Mortal Kombat', 'Alien vs. Predator', and of course 'Resident Evil'. None of these are good movies, per se (in fact, 'AVP' is pretty damn awful), but they're all slick and efficient, relatively coherent, and pander to horror and action junkies successfully enough to turn a profit.
'Resident Evil' began life as a survival horror game for the first Playstation console whose original title in Japan was 'Biohazard'. When importing the game to North America, apparently someone at the Capcom corporation with a limited vocabulary assumed that "biohazard" was a Japanese word and changed it to 'Resident Evil', a meaningless phrase that doesn't make much linguistic sense but sounds cool enough. Borrowing extensively from George Romero's famous 'Living Dead' movies, the game involved a paramilitary squad exploring a large mansion and the secret underground laboratory beneath it while fending off hordes of flesh-eating zombies. It was an extremely fun actioner with clever puzzles and mazes, a very moody atmosphere, and even some legitimate scares (anyone who's played the game will admit to jumping out of their chair after first encountering the zombie dogs). It was a massive hit and spawned a string of follow-ups that have extended to several subsequent game consoles.
Enter director Anderson, who hadn't made a profitable picture since 'Mortal Kombat' and was eager to return to the game-movie genre. Casting a pair of hot babes (Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez) and working loosely from the structure of the game, Anderson crafted a gloriously silly fright flick with exciting action sequences and plenty of juicy gore. High art this ain't, but the result is a lot of fun.
The stunningly beautiful Jovovich stars as a mysterious woman who wakes up sprawled in a shower with no idea who she is or why she's there. The character doesn't even have a name in this first movie, but it's no spoiler to reveal that she's called Alice in the sequels. With barely enough time to put on a sexy red dress and combat boots (an outfit that would soon become iconic), poor Alice is almost immediately swept up by a team of badass commandoes, who inform her that she's a highly-skilled security operative and drag her along on their mission to infiltrate "The Hive", the secret high-tech research station beneath the mansion where she awoke. Once inside, they discover the aftermath of a horrible genetic experiment gone awry that turned everyone inside the facility into undead brain-munchers intent on ripping the squad limb from limb. In other words, just a typical Monday at the office.
As Alice recovers bits and pieces of her memory, the audience learns the backstory of the corrupt Umbrella Corporation and her role in their plans, a clever narrative device that provides a convenient excuse to explain the plot. It also allows the main character to develop new skills and combat techniques along the way, mirroring the progression of the game. Refreshing for the genre, none of the characters are bumbling idiots going places they shouldn't go or doing stupid things that get them killed. They're all competent and motivated individuals, and they mostly remain collected and focused on their tasks even as members of team are quickly killed off by the lab's computer defenses or the freaky monsters roaming the halls.
Anderson directs with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of pretension. Although the lumbering zombies owe plenty of debt to the rules of George Romero's universe, 'Resident Evil' doesn't pretend to offer any important social commentary. This is a movie about a hot chick who kicks zombie ass, end of story. The movie has sleek visuals, impressive production design, very effective makeup and gore effects, some particularly inventive death scenes (the elevator sequence and laser grid are rightly fan favorites), and an unsettling musical score by Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson. Milla is also considerate enough to offer fans a glimpse of side-boob action at the beginning, plus a little something more if you look closely at the end, and honestly that's exactly what a movie like this needs.
The picture turns a little dopey with the introduction of a mutated, tongue-lashing monster called a "Licker." That's taken straight from the game, but the CGI is poor and the idea frankly should have been scrapped. On the other hand, Anderson remembered the zombie dogs, and they work great. 'Resident Evil' isn't the type of movie to watch with critical film aficionado standards. It's a guilty pleasure, but it's a pleasure all the same.
The HD DVD: Vital Disc Stats
The North American rights to 'Resident Evil' are held by Sony, who have released it exclusively on Blu-ray here. However, a company called Constantin Film holds the distribution rights in Germany, and have released it and the second film on both Blu-ray and HD DVD in that country. The HD DVD has no region coding and will function fine in an American HD DVD player.
The disc starts with an anti-piracy ad and trailer before the main menu, which are annoying but can thankfully be skipped. All of the disc's menus are in German, but aren't difficult to navigate. Unfortunately, the HD DVD has no pop-up menus available during the feature.
Despite its low budget, 'Resident Evil' has pretty stylish photography, emphasizing the sleek, metallic interiors of the high-tech laboratory sets. This 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer, presented in the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is very similar in quality to the AVC MPEG-4 transfer on the domestic Blu-ray. The picture is sharp and detailed, with vivid colors (especially reds and blues), rich black levels, and excellent shadow detail. The improvement over standard DVD is immediately apparent during the security camera footage at the beginning of the film. The small text overlays are mostly illegible on DVD but perfectly crisp and clear here.
Being a horror movie, the photography is naturally a little grainy, but not overwhelmingly so. The HD DVD does look a bit grainier than the Blu-ray, yet the grain remains well-compressed without turning noisy until the deliberately stylized ending. There's a shot at the 5:23 mark where the grain freezes in its tracks for a few seconds, but that has been part of every previous edition of the movie and appears to be an artifact of the production (the shot must have been artificially frozen to extend the beat), not a digital compression problem. One of the movie's final sequences features super-hot contrasts and an extreme amount of grain and noise, but the effect there is clearly intentional. This disc looks pretty good indeed.
Important Notice: This German 'Resident Evil' disc is one of the first HD DVDs to be flagged with an Image Constraint Token. If your HD DVD player is connected by HDMI to your display, there should be no issue in viewing the movie at its full 1080p resolution. Unfortunately, viewers connected by Component Video will find the image downconverted to 480p Standard Definition. This is extremely disappointing, to say the least.
Whereas the domestic Blu-ray provides the movie's English-language soundtrack in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1, the German HD DVD uses a DTS-HD High Resolution encoding. DTS-HD HR is not a lossless format, but at least in this case the results are nearly indistinguishable, which is to say that they're both very nice.
The 'Resident Evil' soundtrack is extremely loud and aggressive, with throbbing bass and jolting stinger scares. The surround channels are used creatively, notably when the Red Queen computer's dialogue cycles from speaker to speaker around the soundstage. At least for the first half hour or so, sound effects are all crisply recorded and the score is delivered with excellent fidelity. Around the time of the first major gun battle, however, things start to turn muddy. After that point, the mix keeps piling on masses of noise, each competing in loudness against the rest, and the effect is a lot of aural overkill. Don't get me wrong, this is still a very satisfying and entertaining track, but clarity isn't always its strong point.
Unlike some import HD DVDs from Europe (the problem seems to be confined to releases from Studio Canal), 'Resident Evil' has no issues with increased pitch.
Optional German subtitles can be disabled in the main menu.
The German HD DVD includes most of the bonus features from the original DVD release of the film, plus one from the later Deluxe Edition. All of the supplements default to German subtitles that can be turned off by the remote.
'Resident Evil' may not appeal to the film snob side of many viewers, but sometimes you just want to watch a hot chick killing zombies for 100 minutes. To that end, the movie is great fun. The German import HD DVD has very good picture and sound. Dual-format owners will probably be better off buying the domestic Blu-ray release, which has slightly better picture, a lot more supplements, and is less expensive. However, this disc does still come recommended for 'Resident Evil' fans currently only supporting HD DVD.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.