“Based on a video game.” Are there five words more reviled in the realm of cinema? Only two such films have topped 60% among Rotten Tomatoes critics while 11 of them have hit the 10% mark or lower. Not one has cracked the half-billion hallmark at the global box office. So few unlocked achievements, so many respawns. Oftentimes, the only thing less fun than watching someone else play video games is watching someone else make a video game movie. This month, we’ll find out if the latest Mortal Kombat film is boss level or a misfire along the lines of Leeroy Jenkins. In the meantime, Game On looks at some of the more interesting, inspiring or, yes, insufferable video-game movies. Good, bad, average. It’s all about the experience points.
She rolls a gurney down an immaculate white corridor, picking up speed and panting as she gets closer to the door before a large blade falls from the ceiling and splits the gurney in half.
Alice leaps back in shock, shrinking down with trembling hands moving to cover her face. And that will always surprise me.
I don’t know if people hate video-game movies for what they are or enjoy them for the titles on which they’re based. Or vice versa. Or neither. Or both. Given that the “Best of Video-Game Movies” lists and “Worst of Video-Game Movies” lists often overlap, it’s fair to say we might all be confused about what makes a movie adaptation of a video game “good.”
Adaptations are difficult. Most often, the war wages between readers and viewers. Bookworms always quip that the movie version is inferior. Ultimately, books, movies and video games all let us experience stories in different ways.
The Resident Evil franchise suffers when it asks its audience to suspend disbelief as if they were playing a video game instead of watching a movie. But it succeeds so brilliantly in giving us Alice, who never appears in the games.
To be fair, I don’t think much actually happens in Extinction (the original franchise’s third installment) when it comes to plot, so I understand that it may not be toward the top of lists even for fans of this series. It’s a great avenue to showcase more jaw-dropping outfits and settings, and Mad Max aficionados will certainly love it for the visual aesthetics, but Extinction is a good argument that Resident Evil is more action than horror, more bang than suspense. Its primary plot drive is to get the group to Alaska, where a supposed colony is free of infection after the events of Apocalypse (the second film) lead to a global pandemic, but most of the momentum feels disjointed from that aim. Charming characters fall too soon. Potentially sticky situations are too quickly resolved.
The more interesting plotline is the attempt of Dr. Isaacs to clone Alice and deciding it’s of paramount importance to recapture her (even though at the end of Apocalypse it was all part of the plan to let her escape, but … I digress). The two lines intersect in Las Vegas as the convoy attempts to refuel for the trip to Alaska and Isaacs arrives with a plan to ensnare Alice. But it feels like all the characters are pushed to this point instead of letting tension naturally build and move them. Extinction is an in-between sort of movie, designed more to get us to the next one than to be something on its own.
Regardless, something substantial is here, and it goes back to who Alice is and where I think Extinction is Alice’s best movie.
Alice is a superhuman machine. And she’s not.
As with all good corporations, the film’s Umbrella Corporation sees Alice as the former. She is a tool to be used and exploited to advance the corporation’s goals just as much as the masses of faceless foot soldiers the company is willing to sacrifice. Umbrella is, at its best, an amoral entity that makes purely utilitarian choices to protect itself. It will seal a building and kill everyone inside or nuke an entire city to prevent the spread of a virus. But it has no qualms about capitalizing on scientific, altruistic research for profit-driven military aims, employing its own paramilitary forces or choosing to clone someone over and over again while unceremoniously disposing of the failures.
For anyone who has felt more like a number at work than like a person, the treatment of Alice will have echoes. Umbrella’s only objection to hunting her down is that the mission doesn’t pass a sort of cost-benefit analysis unless they are absolutely certain the person they are hunting is actually her.
Certain that it is a benefit, Isaacs leverages all the technology at his disposal to take explicit control over Alice’s body, putting Extinction firmly into the women-as-incubators theme alongside its worker exploitation. When Alice is revealed to be more useful than anticipated, it isn’t Alice that Umbrella necessarily wants. It’s her blood. Alice is simply a different type of machine now, a vessel that protects something more valuable to them.
Despite these superhuman abilities, Alice is one of the most human characters in a franchise dominated by two-dimensional cutouts and characters dominated by fear. Action and horror films seem to exclusively demand from their heroes a sort of stoicism or badassery, with compassion being rare and fear even more so.
But Alice is scared. Her clone reacts to a falling blade as she would because Alice’s very essence is aware of the far-reaching capabilities and nonexistent moral compass of Umbrella, her former employer. Even with this fear, Alice is the one pushing survivors to be compassionate to one another, to reach out to some hope, to look for ways to survive despite everything. It is she who is first to forgive and to assume the best in others. It is she who is willing to put herself in harm’s way with a very real grasp that it could mean her death. It is she who trusts in the humanity of her peers despite experiences that would have her act otherwise.
So when she sees that she’s being cloned, she does not fall into existential rage, wondering who is the real Alice or if her identity is meaningful — because she knows the nucleus of who she is does not change despite whatever Umbrella does to her. Instead, she seizes the means of clone production and uses the tools to damage Umbrella’s house — building her own clone army to take into the interlude between the third and fourth films.
The Resident Evil franchise is one made for consumption. Extinction’s visuals call to mind those post-apocalyptic films where there is nothing for miles and miles and humanity seems to be in a wide spot of physical and emotional emptiness. The lead, however, isn’t some genetically perfect being hellbent on avenging herself. She is an imperfect human with power thrust upon her, choosing to embody the definition of bravery — to act in the face of fear.