In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be covering Johannes Roberts’ videogame adaptation, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City!
The Resident Evil franchise is the undisputed king of the survival horror genre. Sure, the overarching plot of these games makes less sense the more you think about them, but in a series that has always tried to emulate the cheesy thrills of midnight B-movies, this isn’t really an issue. Unfortunately, the lack of a straightforward narrative became a problem when the franchise’s massive popularity led to a high-profile adaptation on the big screen.
After all, the first few Resident Evil games cared more about setting up a chilling premise rather than telling a fully-fledged story. While they weren’t exactly devoid of narrative, these games relied more on epistolary storytelling techniques like ominous notes and spooky diaries to set up their horrific plots rather than developing three-dimensional characters and meaningful dialogue.
So when the time came to make the first official RE film, it’s easy to understand why Paul W.S. Anderson decided to use the franchise’s batshit crazy mythology as a mere jumping off point to produce his own particular brand of action/horror hybrids instead of actually trying to adapt the games. While this approach didn’t exactly please long-time fans, it obviously connected with mainstream audiences, as Anderson’s RE movies have grossed over a billion dollars at the box office since 2002.
Of course, you can’t keep a good zombie down, and with the game series getting back on track as a survival horror juggernaut during the mid 2010s, it makes sense that Hollywood would decide to revisit the Spencer mansion with a brand new movie. While this proposed reboot was originally meant to be produced by James Wan, with Greg Russo penning a script inspired by Resident Evil 7, both creators wounded up exiting the project due to their commitment with the Mortal Kombat reboot.
Screen Gems would eventually choose Johannes Roberts to write and direct the picture based on his experience on 47 Meters Down and the criminally underrated The Strangers: Prey at Night. This fresh take on the Umbrella saga would be an attempt to bring the series back to its roots, with Roberts deciding on making it a late-90s period piece and grounding the story in traditional horror, forgoing the blockbuster action of previous films,
When the first trailer dropped last year, fans were surprised with how much Welcome to Raccoon City actually looked and felt like Resident Evil and not just some random zombie flick that happened to feature a couple of familiar characters and locations. Understandably, expectations were high when the film finally came out in November of 2021.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
The Resident Evil films were never critical darlings, but Welcome to Raccoon City’s disappointing 31% on Rotten Tomatoes also came bundled with the most disappointing financial return in the entire franchise, making a mere $41.8 million on a $25 million budget. Other than the obvious lack of Milla Jovovich’s star power, critics attributed this disappointing reception to a less-than-memorable cast and an overcrowded script.
The RE games have always been light on plot, but Roberts’ choice to rush through both the first and second game all at once means that little time is spent dwelling on the interesting bits of either experience, with the film stumbling its way through familiar story beats and locations without giving the audience any time to breathe. This approach also ruined any chance of a proper Nemesis adaptation in the future, though that’s more of a personal nitpick.
The script’s not the only problem, however, as the flick’s reduced production value meant that Welcome to Raccoon City couldn’t properly convey much of the apocalyptic sci-fi excesses that made the original games so much fun in the first place. The cheap CGI is especially noticeable in the latter half of the picture, and it feels like a lot of content was cut from the story simply due to a lack of budget. The end result is a film that feels much smaller than the games it’s based on.
The movie also underwent a number of reshoots during the pandemic, which means that much of the experience feels inexplicably choppy and over-edited. It seems like several story elements have been reshuffled and compressed in order to make the movie flow faster. While this ultimately helps with the pacing, it harms the overall storytelling when we’re not allowed to focus on individual moments.
Ultimately, I think the biggest problem here is that the film takes itself just a tad bit too seriously. A bit of Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson inspired camp would have gone a long way in livening up this gloomy experience that doesn’t quite have the heart to back up its retro thrills.
THE SILVER LINING
Welcome to Raccoon City may not be the perfect Biohazard adaptation that fans were hoping for, but it’s certainly an entertaining 90s throwback with plenty of undead thrills. There’s also enough love for the source material to make it worth sitting through a couple of lifeless scenes in order to reach the undead action. In fact, I’d argue that the reboot is better than most of the RE films that preceded it, though that might be an empty bit of praise depending on how much you enjoy those movies.
Regardless, the overall atmosphere here is impeccable, with Roberts making an effort to faithfully translate memorable elements from the games into the story without it ever feeling like empty fan-service. In fact, Capcom was reported to have lent the production some of their original blueprints for both the Spencer Mansion and the Raccoon City Police Department, adding to the film’s pedigree. While this attention to detail doesn’t excuse the movie’s storytelling blemishes, it certainly adds to the experience.
Of course, a zombie flick is only as good as its depiction of the living dead, and the practical effects on display here are phenomenal. While it’s a shame that so many of these gnarly flesh-eaters are replaced by CGI creatures in the latter half of the flick, I love the sickly look of the infected and how the makeup progresses from the early stages of the virus up to the macabre final forms. I also particularly enjoyed the iconic introduction to the first zombie, which was painstakingly recreated from the first game.
This might be a point of contention among fans, but I also really like the comical depiction of Leon in this film. Avan Jogia offers up a charming performance as a rookie cop who’s way out of his league but ultimately rises to the challenge by the end of the flick. While this incarnation of the character certainly isn’t a bad enough dude to rescue the president’s daughter, Leon’s recharacterization made him more relatable, with Roberts even claiming that this change was inspired by Kurt Russel in Big Trouble in Little China.
Again, this may not be the ideal RE adaptation (I’d still love to see some studio tackle George Romero’s unproduced take on the film), but there’s still a lot to love about Welcome to Raccoon City if you agree to take its cheesy thrills in stride. It certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel when it comes to zombie movies, but there’s plenty of fun to be had here if you’re the kind of person who might enjoy watching a flaming zombie casually walk into a police department to the tune of Jennifer Paige’s Crush.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.