The zombie-killing genre is a persistent force in the realm of video games. Whether they favor classic shoot ‘em ups, survival-horror, or role playing, the last decade’s list of zombie-related titles has offered something to all varieties of players. But one specific title has stood somewhat as the root of this success. A necrotic nightmare of politics, mutated fiends, and honest frights, the Resident Evil series is a familiar name for most gamers. Twenty years of survival-horror have led to the creation of associated toys, comic books, and novels. But it is the Resident Evil films which, for better or worse, have revolutionized the way that people think about the entirety of the franchise.
Film adaptations of popular video games were in no way instigated by Resident Evil, though. This cinematic category had been developing for nearly a decade before the first installment in this series was released in 2002. But this series accomplished something that few adaptations could; it launched a continuously successful existence of its own. Many will watch films such as Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and Street Fighter only to incur a sense of disappointment, as they see their beloved video games butchered on the big screen. But what was it that Resident Evil was able to overcome? In short, the Resident Evil films live on only because they honor their source material without fearing familiar experimentation.
The cinematic spark of the films is not that they are live-action remakes of the games. Instead, they are inspired by playable experiences; the films are actually enhanced by their differences. The central protagonist of the movies is a woman known as Alice Abernathy, a character that is completely absent from any of the games. Yet, she embodies the classic characterization that creates an iconic Resident Evil heroine; she is a strong, often independent woman with skills and experiences that set her beyond the norm. The series would be hardly recognizable without its Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, but it is Alice, portrayed by Milla Jovovich, who is the centerpiece for each of the theatrical posters. Only the most radical of fans will find it difficult to find the same level of fascination with Alice’s mysterious past and kick-butt attitude that they find any of their beloved characters. Objectively, some of the most under-performing on-screen characters and elements are pulled directly from the games’ list. Many will note Resident Evil: Extinction’s treatment of Albert Wesker, a villain who is notorious for posing a persistent threat to the games’ protagonists, as being disappointing in comparison to the original. Even after being re-casted and redesigned in Resident Evil: Retribution this character was not able to achieve the same popularity as in the games.
Even the central plot elements of the games can afford to be twisted. After the climactic finale of Resident Evil: Apocalypse the films truly begin to diverge from their source material. The remainder of the cinematic sequels are set in a post-apocalyptic world where the few humans left are only trying to survive the ever-present threat of a zombie horde. However, the large majority of the games are set during isolated incidents, in an otherwise familiar world. To be sure, there is no escape from the nightmare when Alice escapes Raccoon City as there is when Leon Kennedy completes his odyssey in Resident Evil: 4. The complicated and situation-specific nature of each entry in the game series is not something that can easily be transferred to a film. Doing this allows for the movies to simplify the series’ plot into an action-driven narrative of bullets, zombified foes, and one-liners. It is a style that recent games, such as the infamously criticized Resident Evil 5, have adopted, meeting a mixed array of reviews in the process. But this shift in tone is exactly what an entire genre of moviegoers has been paying to watch for decades. The reason that this is acceptable is that the films do not strip the series of its essence. Regardless of setting, there exists a quality to Resident Evil that is iconic and universal: it is infamous for its ability to create an undeniably haunting thematic experience.
Surroundings in the game are hardly dull or uninteresting; even when the frights are simple, depths are developed to be complex. Many fans will remember cautiously moving their character across the ambiance of the early titles’ nearly silent, claustrophobic corridors, only to find that silence becomes violated by the piercing surprise of an unseen enemy. The films build upon this trend by delivering an environment that truly creates an experience inspired by the series, even when the scenery is unfamiliar to players. The streets of Raccoon City in Resident Evil: Apocalypse feel desperate as they are overrun by hordes of undead, militant groups, and the threats of the monstrously encroaching Nemesis, an enemy that is just as menacing in the film as it is in the titular Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. The desolate desert of Resident Evil: Extinction’s Nevada is a lonely encounter that is contrasted by deceptively progressive lab facilities, conveying a sense of solemn emptiness not unlike that seen in the hallways of Spencer Mansion during the original Resident Evil.
Despite varying degrees of faithfulness to the source material, the success of Resident Evil’s cinematic exploits has picked up a massive following of movie fans and longtime players of the series alike. Ultimately, the films’ commercial victory makes one thing certain: Movies and video games are two different worlds with specific criteria of their own. This is what the Resident Evil films are most aware of. They do not attempt to become literal depictions of the games; they respect familiar audiences, but they make no effort to pander to them; they are independent experiences of their own that can offer an exciting evening to anybody, regardless of brand recognition.