First, the back-story: once upon a time there was an E-e-e-e-evil Corporation that was designing biological weapons for the big, bad, impotent Guv'mint. Their pet project, called the T-Virus, brought the dead back to life. That's right: it's a bio-weapon which, if used, would re-animate your dead enemies and turn them into unstoppable opponents — and it would do the same for any innocent non-combatants in the zone of infection, not to mention any of your own soldiers that got injured or killed in the fighting. Some would find this a foolish and untenable solution for fighting a war, but I think the idea has Paul Wolfowitz's name written all over it...
Now then, the E-e-e-e-evil Corporation that was designing this ludicrous superweapon put its super-secret headquarters deep underground beneath a major city, in a complex called "the Hive". Again, this is a questionable idea, but it's not impossible to see how the plan could be justified — at least on paper. One day, there was an "accident" (which turns out to have been no accident at all, but that's beside my main point). The T-Virus was released in the complex. The Hive's built-in defense mechanisms immediately kicked in and killed everyone in the facility. On learning of the disaster, the Corporation sent a special paramilitary team in to see what could be salvaged before the complex shut itself down completely. That's right, too: even after extreme measures had been taken, the Hive was set to remain open for a few hours. Because you know: even though everyone's dead inside and there's a life-threatening... hell, world-threatening virus inside, you wouldn't want to do anything hasty.
To make a very long story short, the lab workers didn't stay dead, and the paramilitary team ended up food either for hungry zombies, or for some of the other genetically-modified critters that had been left behind in the labs. Only two people managed to get back out — one of whom was partly responsible for the virus being released in the first place, though she had amnesia and didn't realize that until... umm... oh, forget it. You've probably already seen the original Resident Evil, on video if not on the Big Screen, so I don't need to go into too much detail. Certainly Resident Evil killed more of my brain cells than I have devoted to remembering it, but it really doesn't matter: it's the sequel I'm concerned with, and in those few moments of Resident Evil: Apocalypse that have any coherence at all, there is little continuity with the original movie.
As dumb as the setup of Resident Evil may have looked in retrospect, the setup for the sequel is worse. The Umbrella Corporation, the above-mentioned E-e-e-e-evil entity that makes MicrosoftTM look like the Salvation Army, has decided to investigate things for itself. Knowing that the T-Virus has been let loose, and that the Hive complex has been sealed off, they decide to do what any heavily-bureaucratic organization full of pointy-haired managers would do: they open up the complex to see for themselves. And naturally, the T-Virus gets out and starts infecting the city above.
Umbrella, being much more powerful than any mere Guv'mint, immediately institutes martial law. Within moments of the outbreak, they've built massive walls around the city... probably by right-clicking on the map and expending some points; who can tell? I've never seen a bloated and over-powerful defense contractor do anything that quickly or efficiently. But I digress: when signs of the outbreak reach as far as the borders, Umbrella guards are ordered by the E-e-e-e-evil German-accented Leader Guy to open fire if the fleeing crowds don't turn around within five seconds. Just to show everyone in the audience how truly E-e-e-e-evil the Umbrella Corporation is, even though the crowd does begin to move away within five seconds, the guards start shooting them anyway.
Now, about this epidemic: we're led to believe that the virus is spread through the air, which is a nightmarish thought. When the Hive is opened, the Umbrella personnel have little detectors which monitor the concentration of virus in the air. They must be remarkable pieces of equipment to be able to do that with such precision, but what's even more remarkable is that the T-virus concentration in the air: it's so great that the machines' readings go nearly off the scale. However, after the initial infections, the virus seems to be spread only through direct contact with infected hosts. Romero fans know what I'm talking about here: you gotta get bit. Not bled upon, not slobbered over, not breathed on, not bathed in a mist of puréed viscera after you lob a grenade into a streetful of zombies... no; it's only the bite that passes the infection. I can't think why a virus which spreads itself so lethally by aerosol would suddenly change to a far less efficient vector, but there you have it: nobody in the main part of the movie, and certainly no one in the principal cast, contracts the virus from the environment, no matter how close they get to the zombie hordes.
This kind of inconsistency is found in many other zombie movies besides this one, so I might be willing to overlook it... were it not for the movie's treatment of the zombies themselves: they're in this movie simply as decoration. As background. As fifth business. They're not even important enough even to be considered peripheral to the story for half its duration. Usually the walking dead play a much more significant role in movies in which they appear, especially in movies with the word "Evil" in the title; but here, they're an afterthought. It's almost a shock when they pop up en masse at the climax of the picture, since by that time we've almost forgotten the movie has zombies in it. Even when we see them, we don't see much of them. The way they're shot and lit, they look less like mobs of flesh-eating ghouls and more like a crowd of disappointed moviegoers stomping to the box office to get their money back.
The original Resident Evil had ended with the gunslinging, ass-kicking heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) escaping from the Hive, only to be captured by Umbrella operatives and taken off for vile experiments. Her fellow survivor Matt had also been dragged off, with the Umbrella team leader calling out instructions that he should be taken into the so-called "Nemesis project". All this is recapitulated in the opening frames of the sequel, as is Alice's awakening alone in the abandoned laboratories some time later. Alice makes her way out into the streets of Raccoon City, where she finds only devastation.
There are several problems with this setup as the end of one movie and the beginning of another. The first is that the best possible sequel to the first film, incorporating the same opening scene, had already been made: it's Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. You'd have to accept that Alice has somehow morphed into a gormless young man; but Resident Evil: Apocalypse asks us to believe far more ridiculous transformations... and besides, 28 Days Later is a much better movie than either Resident Evil installments.
But let's not think about better films. Sticking strictly to the context of Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the next problem we run into is this: the way the opening is written and filmed, it completely ruins the "surprise" that's supposed to be revealed in the last act.
Another strange thing about the opening of the sequel is that Alice apparently wakes up a mere 13 hours after the end of the first film (we're also informed that Alice's waking up alone in the lab wasn't an accident, as we'd been led to believe. She was purposely revived and set loose by Evil German Guy, for reasons that will be made clear [but not believable] later). Perhaps it's the legacy of 28 Days Later, or perhaps its the fact that Alice initially looks and acts like she's been out of action much longer... but somehow 13 hours seems a much shorter time than we would have expected. When we find out what else has been done to her, it will make 13 hours seem even more ridiculous.
During those 13 hours, Umbrella had been busy evacuating its key personnel from the infected zone. Among these evacuees is Dr. Ashford, a wheelchair-bound English scientist who was largely responsible for developing the T-Virus. The corporation had failed to rescue Ashford's young daughter, however; on the way from her school, the black luxury SUV carrying her and her Umbrella escorts had been plowed into by a dump truck. That truck, in the meantime, just kept on going without even a hesitation, although the virus outbreak and the subsequent breakdown of the social order hadn't really got started yet. Fate is as stupid as everybody else in this universe.
Ashford refuses to leave the base outside Raccoon City without his daughter. Now, by the time the final evacuation begins, it's after sunset, though Umbrella came for Ashford and his daughter in the early, early morning... the agents of this god-like corporation had all day to figure out what happened and collect little Angela (who is miraculously unharmed from the crash). They haven't done so; make of that what you will. Anyway, by this time, the virus (still airborne) has made it to the gate at the perimeter of the city, so the whole city has been sealed off. Though it's now impossible that Angela will be rescued, Ashford still insists on staying behind.
On the other side of the wall, in the quarantine zone, city law enforcement personnel and panicked civilians are in for a nasty shock. As if it wasn't bad enough that the living dead are rampaging through the city, now Umbrella is threatening to kill anyone who tries to leave. Among the dumbstruck citizens facing Umbrella's machine guns is a young woman named Jill Valentine: once she was the most promising member of the elite rescue team that got sent down into the Hive in Episode One. For reasons that are never explained — they may be clearer in the video game — she'd been disgraced and kicked out of law enforcement. Now, from the look of her, she's turned into the world's most heavily-armed mall slut. But when duty calls, she knows what she has to do: she shows up at police headquarters and starts shooting people in the head.
Normally, when a mall slut shows up at the police station in the middle of a crisis and starts shooting people, you'd think the natural reaction for the police would be to shoot first and ask questions later; but in this universe, the cops recognize her right away and hold their fire.
I'm not sure where Valentine got her knowledge about the zombies and their weaknesses. It wasn't from her training, since her ex-colleagues went down cold into the Hive, and subsequently... er... went down cold. Still, in spite of her apparent advantage, all Valentine's training and firepower are useless when confronted with the Might of Umbrella. Soon she, her policeman friend who's been bitten by a zombie, and an annoying TV anchorwoman are left to their own devices on the chaotic streets of Raccoon City.
Have you ever noticed the tendency of radios and televisions in movies to always tune themselves in to the exact program the main characters need at exactly the right moment? Well, Resident Evil: Apocalypse gives us something even more miraculous: back behind the quarantine barrier, Dr. Ashford is able to use his computer/video setup to tune in on the protagonists of the movie, wherever — and even whoever — they happen to be. All he does is, say, set the system to find his daughter, and presto! There's her location on the video screen. And since he's going to need someone's help to rescue her, he just looks up the other characters in his convenient copy of the script and voilà ! There are Jill and her companions, making their way to the city cathedral. He intends to make contact with them, and trade his guidance in finding a safe way out of the city for their help in rescuing Angela.
Amazing as it may seem, in a movie full of jaw-dropping improbabilities, only one other person has sought refuge in the spiritual heart of Raccoon City, and he's a non-character who serves as bait for another monster attack. In this scene, the Lickers from the video game and the first installment make a brief reappearance. It's not explained why they're here (and only here -- you'd think the city would be crawling with them); it's not even explained what they are and where they come from. They were in the original video game, so you must either accept them or go screw. At this point, the movie makes one half-hearted concession to reality, as our heros run out of ammunition during the Licker attack. Just when you think the flick is about to return to the universe we know, it decides to throw all logic and plausibility out the window — no, excuse me: in the window, because here comes Milla-on-a-motorcycle straight through the stained glass.
I'll admit a cathedral is a pretty good place for a deus ex machina. And a motorcycle is one hell of a machina. But what on earth would persuade Alice to crash her bike into a church? There's only one reasonable explanation: Resident Evil: Apocalypse is so astonishingly un-original that even its characters know the script by heart. It's a theory borne out by the rest of the movie... no matter what the situation, each of the main characters seems to know what's going to happen and what to do about it.
Having made her miraculous appearance, Alice then proceeds to start her motorcycle in the direction of one of the Lickers, back-flip off the moving bike, land on her feet, draw two pistols, wait for the bike to hit the Licker and carry it up into the air, and then shoot out the gas tank, which explodes.
And then things start to get really silly.
By the way, this is Jill's way of thanking Alice ex machina for saving everybody's lives in such a spectacular way: "Who the fuck are you?!"
Alice, Jill and the expendables exit the church. Oddly enough, there are no zombies waiting for them, so they decide to make their escape... through a graveyard.
The following scene has drawn some criticism, since a graveyard seems like an awful place to go when you're on the run from the living dead. Actually, the real problem with this scene goes much deeper — literally. We're expected to believe that the T-Virus has saturated the environment to such an extent that it's first either worked its way up from the Hive or down through the earth from above, then penetrated all that earth, the concrete grave liners and the tightly-sealed coffins, then infested all the rotting bodies to the extent that they all burst from their graves like over-enthusiastic disciples of Pai Mei. Dead people can get sick from this virus, and yet our heroes aren't infected yet.
I may have forgotten to mention the Obligatory Male Hero who's been introduced earlier. He's part of an Umbrella security team that got stranded and abandoned in the quarantine zone. We can tell he's the Obligatory Male Hero because 1.) he defies orders and endangers the mission in a failed effort to save a single civilian; and 2.) he earns his credentials as a hero by jumping out of a helicopter on a tether, drawing two pistols, firing said pistols in free-fall and hitting his clustered targets with pin-point accuracy, and finally reaching the end of the tether and landing on his feet with no loss of balance. He's a perfect match for Alice, in other words. Once he becomes the Obligatory Male Hero, he spends the rest of the film killing his former Umbrella co-workers with relish. I haven't noticed anyone complaining about this, but I found it appalling: sure, we've been led to think of the Umbrella security guards as E-e-e-evil non-persons, since they were willing to open fire on the defenseless crowds; but to see this guy, our hero, joking to his new friends as he gleefully slaughters people doing the same job he was doing only an hour or two ago... it makes my skin crawl.
Eventually, under the watchful video-eye of Dr. Ashford, the team of survivors makes it to little Angela's last known location. Here, they have to deal with zombie kids who appear and disappear with impunity, as well as sticky red zombie dogs who look like they've eaten all the Smuckers out of the cafeteria pantry. Not to worry, though: as always, the heroes behave as though they're completely familiar with the script, or at least the usual action film clichés.
There is one other thing that complicates the rescue mission a bit. Shortly after quarantine is imposed, the E-e-e-e-evil German-accented scientist wakes up another of his experiments: Nemesis, a seven-foot-tall, nearly-invulnerable Frankenstein's monster with a rocket launcher and a chain gun. Alice, for some reason, seems to know all about him and can even sense his presence... though her strategy for fighting this colossal mass of gristle-with-a-bazooka is to run straight at it, shooting it with two little handguns. Again, not to worry: Nemesis only looks impressive until you see him in action. When he faces the heroine, the mighty bioweapon turns all thumbs. In spite of firing thousands of rounds in her direction, Nemesis doesn't even nick Alice. Not even by accident. Nemesis even gives up at the crucial moment: perhaps he's demoralized when he discovers city garbage bins can withstand direct hits from RPGs.
It turns out that the whole reason why the E-e-e-evil Guy let Alice out, and then let Nemesis out, was to see what happened when these two T-Virus-engineered superwarriors fought each other. Everything, including Dr. Ashford's hunt for his daughter, has been manipulated by Umbrella to lead up to the confrontation. Of all the silly aspects of this idea, probably the silliest is how eager Umbrella is to test its hyperexpensive projects in uncontrolled experiments. It all becomes even more ludicrous when we discover that there's actually a cure (or at least a therapy) for the T-Virus! So basically Umbrella wants to kill everybody in Raccoon City — needlessly — just to test its two competing bioweapons projects, in highly theatrical but scientifically useless conditions, at the conclusion of which one or both bioweapons will end up destroyed. Not re-engineered, not fixed up and tested again, but destroyed. I'm sorry; I don't see how this megacorporation ever got or kept its power if it's this staggeringly inefficient.
No points, by the way, for guessing that Nemesis has a surprise [sic] secret [sic] identity. This is the bit that was revealed in the opening seconds of the film. No points, either, for guessing that this secret identity will have some ramifications for the surprise [sic] twist [sic] climax. I'd be happy to award extra points, though, to anyone who can explain to me how Nemesis could be created...
(I should just stop the sentence here, but I won't...)
...ahem, how Nemesis could be created, trained and outfitted in 13 hours. Oh: and during those 13 hours, he had his memory wiped out just enough that he could be sent out to kill Alice, but not enough so that he wouldn't regain his humanity for the Big Confrontation.
Have I said enough? Have I said too much? Have I revealed too many secrets, or let the Licker out of the bag? That would be unfortunate, since liquor in a bag is necessary if you want to make Resident Evil: Apocalypse an enjoyable experience. It's not that I mind a little creative incoherence. It's not that I can't enjoy some dumb fun now and again. But when the lights come back up in the theatre, I want to be left with the sense that it was somehow worth watching... that all the money that went into the experience, from the millions of dollars that it took to make the film to the hard-earned eight bucks that got me my ticket, wasn't just piddled away.
So where are we at the end of the movie?
Well, we've got Alice waking up naked in a lab, and apparently escaping. We've got an Umbrella Mad Scientist with a foreign accent who appears, in a shocking [sic] twist [sic], to have let her out on purpose. We have the setup for disaster resulting from the E-e-e-evil Corporation's insane desire to do product testing with a body count. In other words, we're more or less exactly where we started. Which, when you think about it (and this is more than the writer and director seem to have done), is really where the first film left off. Ninety minutes and several million dead people later, we've gone nowhere.
And while we're on the subject of futility, there's one other aspect of the ending which makes my blood boil. When our survivors attempt to convey the story of what really happened in Raccoon City, their efforts are dismissed as a hoax, and they themselves are hounded by the media and law enforcement. Some critics have protested that this is the dumbest development yet. They find it impossible to believe that such clear, blatant evidence could be ignored or glossed over by the Guv'mint and the E-e-e-evil Corporation. They insist that live testimony from the doomed people in Raccoon City — the bloggers and the callers and the TV reporters who would have sent the news worldwide before the catastrophe silenced them — would have been too overwhelming to silence or spin.
And yet, this is the one aspect of a horribly foolish movie that I do find believable (WARNING: Liberal political rant ahead!). Have you never heard of a Government-sponsored corporate enterprise that went horribly wrong, leading to disaster and considerable loss of life, that was passed off by the Powers That Be as a "catastrophic success"? And did a surprising percentage of the population buy it? How many people flinched when its rationale changed again and again, in spite of all the irrefutable evidence? And how many reasonable people have been subjected to merciless and unwarranted attacks for suggesting that there may have been (and still might be) a better way to do what needed to be done?
I pay every bit as much attention to inconsistencies in politics as I do to inconsistencies in bad movies, and when I can no longer tell the one from the other I get extremely angry. And while I normally hate to mix politics with Bad Movie reviews, sometimes the parallels are just too strong to avoid. The US is stuck in a bad script right now, a script in which far too many good people are being treated as expendable extras; and I urge my American readers to help make sure we don't get a sequel. Otherwise, we face the nightmarish possibility of four more years with...