WARNING: SPOILERS! It's kind of hard to keep the endings of "Resident Evil" and "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" under wraps when reviewing the third film in the series. (Not that it matters, though, since if you have not seen the first two then I'd encourage you to skip them and just jump into "Resident Evil: Extinction.")
Conventional wisdom dictates that sequels are never as good as the original. The question of a sequel being better than the film that spawned it is almost never even considered. Often we're dealing with a paradigm-shifting film like "The Matrix" or "Star Wars" that blows minds and sends shockwaves through the industry.
The idea with sequels is generally to take whatever it was about the first film that was so wonderful and successful and just do it again. Of course it's never as magical as the first time. New riffs off the first melody can be attempted but in the end it's just the same song.
Something different happened in the case of the "Resident Evil" series, though. With the first film there was absolutely nothing groundbreaking about it. It's a pretty by the numbers, predictable, moderately watchable action/horror zombie picture. The story focuses on a group that has been dispatched to go into a top secret, massive underground laboratory called "the hive" owned by the malevolent, all-powerful Umbrella Corporation. A biological weapon called the T-virus has been unleashed in the futuristic facility, turning all the employees into zombies and also creating various monsters. The team must contain the virus, survive, and ultimately escape the hive.
It's certainly not a bad film but it really does not have much going for it. No interesting characters, no engaging plot, horrific acting, an absence of memorable action sequences - everything you'd expect from the director of "Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon," "Soldier," and "Alien Vs. Predator."
The sequel, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," is a significant improvement but still not a film I could recommend with very much enthusiasm. The premise is somewhat more interesting than its predecessor. Instead of the action being confined to a high-tech underground lab, the virus has been unleashed into the city above. The Umbrella Corporation has sealed off the entire city to try and contain the virus and plenty of people are trapped inside. Returning from the first film is Alice (Milla Jovovich.) This time around Alice is a little different, though. She has been experimented on by the Umbrella Corporation. From there the film is quite a mess, lacking any kind of coherent plot or narrative. Different groups run around the city, encountering various monsters, trying to find a young girl whose father - an Umbrella Corporation scientist - has promised an evacuation helicopter if they find her.
I do not have too much experience with the "Resident Evil" video game series upon which these films are based. I played "Resident Evil 2" for the original Playstation years ago and found the controls too unwieldy for my tastes. Of the "Resident Evil" films, though, this second one really sticks to the source material if not in plot but in style. The film is seriously like a video game. Characters just run around shooting at random monsters and zombies. This works as a video game but not as a film. It's like watching somebody play one of the "Resident Evil" video games. Yeah, I might enjoy that for five, maybe ten minutes but after awhile it gets old.
Aside from the enhanced and more interesting setting, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" improves over "Resident Evil" in the characteristic that will ultimately lead to the success of "Resident Evil: Extinction." In "Apocalypse" we get the beginnings of the transformation of Alice into a genetically-enhanced fighting machine. Whereas most film sequels take good ideas that gradually degenerate into clichéd ideas, sometimes - not very often, but sometimes - as films get made they discover new ideas. The films start down a path and stumble upon something that has the potential for greatness.
Now we have not quite hit the greatness level with "Resident Evil: Extinction" but we're definitely in the decent, worth-watching category. From the beginning the "Resident Evil" series has needed a reason for existing. It needs to have its own take or twist on the zombie picture. And by "Extinction" it's found it. In the third film Alice has evolved and continues to evolve. What "Resident Evil: Extinction" does is it takes the badass, superhuman gunfighter/martial artist and sticks her into the zombie picture, basically the perfect place for her. In a zombie picture you've got a great excuse that fits in perfectly with the plot for being able to provide an endless army of people for the hero to kill. So with "Extinction" we finally get the kind of hand-to-hand combat and/or bullet ballets of a "300," a "Matrix" or a "Shoot 'Em Up." (Be sure and note "the kind of" - the action sequences of "Resident Evil: Extinction" are pretty good, though not quite great.)
We also get a much more interesting set-up and a plot that goes from Point A to B and works. The T-Virus has spread beyond Raccoon City and has infected the entire world, infecting almost all forms of life, transforming much of the planet into barren wasteland. Alice travels through the southwestern United States scrounging for food and gas and occasionally running into less-than-friendly fellow survivors. She eventually encounters a caravan of survivors who are seeking safety. She first meets them as they are struggling to live through an attack by a flock of infected crows. (Actually groups of crows are called "murders." How cool is that?) The attack pushes her to use her rapidly developing psionic powers, an act that pinpoints her on the Umbrella Corporation's radar - they have been seeking her since she might hold the possibility for a cure for the T-Virus. And so Alice joins the caravan of survivors as she is hunted by the Umbrella Corporation.
I certainly won't give away the ending of "Resident Evil: Extinction" but it won't be any surprise to say that a follow-up is all but guaranteed. And I'm glad to report that it appears as though the filmmakers have also figured out what they have stumbled upon. It's great to watch the superhuman Alice kill zombies and fight monsters. And while it was a leap of faith to see the sequels to the first two films, unless they really bungle it then the next "Resident Evil" has quite the potential.
As promised last week, here is the Fall Movie preview. Looking at the releases up until Thanksgiving.
I don't have a particularly good feeling about the reunion of Ben Stiller and the Farrelly brothers nine years after their 1998 breakthrough "There's Something About Mary." "The Heartbreak Kid" follows the story of a man who meets the woman of his dreams while on the worst honeymoon imaginable: the honeymoon in which you realize the woman you've just married is suddenly a totally different person. I just do not go for the ultra-embarrassment comedies. This week's other option is the dark fantasy "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" which might be a tolerable alternative.
This weekend boasts quite a line-up of high potential pictures. There's the crime drama "We Own the Night" starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. It's been getting comparisons to "The Departed" in style and substance, though I doubt it will be in quality. Some genres lead themselves to sequels. The historical costume drama is not one of them. Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, and Clive Owen star in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," the sequel to 1998's "Elizabeth." I'm quite eager to see this one. Also opening is the George Clooney legal thriller "Michael Clayton." I've seen the trailers and I'm not quite sure about it. A film that will probably be a bit lower on the radar is "Control," a film about Ian Curtis, lead singer of the new wave band Joy Division. Not only are we finally getting a film about the band but it's the feature debut of none other than Anton Corbijn, one of the best music video directors ever.
There's a variety of different entertainment options this weekend. There's the horror film "30 Days of Night" about a group of vampires that descend upon an Alaskan town. I was a bit skeptical - I've seen the trailer three or four times and the premise did not knock my socks off - then I discovered who the director was: David Slade whose previous film, the unique indie thriller "Hard Candy," was a real knockout. Then there's the timely thriller "Rendition" starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Alan Arkin. The film tackles the messy subject of the torture tactics of many interrogations in our current political age. Also opening are two serious dramas. First, "Things We Lost in the Fire" starring Halle Berry and and Benicio Del Toro. Second, "Reservation Road," starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. Neither film's premise elicits a mad dash to buy tickets but we'll see as their release draws closer. Also coming out is Ben Affleck's directorial debut, a detective drama called "Gone Baby Gone" in which the actor returns to the streets of Boston - the setting that won him his Oscar for "Good Will Hunting." And finally there's "The Comebacks," a parody of the inspirational sports movie. Two words: Absolutely Not. The director's previous film ("The Hot Chick") and his role as producer and writer of another Rob Schneider film ("The Animal") should be all the warning we need.
This week has two options. There's the dramedy "Dan in Real Life" starring Steve Carrell and Dane Cook. It's a movie about a single dad advice columnist (Carrell) who falls for the girlfriend (Juliette Binoche, what the hell is she doing in a movie like this?) of his brother (Cook.) I think I'll be seeing "Saw IV" instead. I'm hoping for a return to the style of "Saw II," which I found much superior to the third installment. I get the impression that that's what it will be like - focusing on a group of people wandering through a bunch of Jigsaw's death traps.
Two very different must-see films arrive this weekend. You've got the based-on-real-life crime drama "American Gangster" starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott, and written by Steven Zaillian - quite a team. It'll be a real treat to see Washington and Crowe together. We're also finally going to get the computer animated "Bee Movie," starring Jerry Seinfeld as a bee thrilled to escape the hive. It sounds a little similar to 1998's "Antz" - which would be a good thing in my book. We'll just ignore "Martian Child," another one of those films that makes you smack your forehead and anger when you discover John Cusack is starring in it. Why can't the man just make movies like "High Fidelity"?
The premise seems incredibly dumb and it sounds like a rip-off of the "Santa Clause" films but the holiday family film "Fred Claus" does have two things going for it: Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn. It could work. (Though my hopes aren't high.) There's another timely, liberal politics thriller coming out also. This one's by Robert Redford. It's called "Lions for Lambs" and stars Tom Cruise, Redford, and Meryl Streep as investigators of two injured soldiers in Afghanistan. The film this week that really draws my attention, though, is the new Coen brothers film, "No Country for Old Men," starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays a hunter who discovers heroin and $2 million in cash amongst a bunch of dead bodies while hunting by the Rio Grande. Finally those in the cult of "Donnie Darko" should take note: director Richard Kelly's follow up, "Southland Tales," also opens this weekend.
The picture to see this weekend is "Beowulf," the Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary-scripted, motion-capture computer-animated adaptation of the classic poem. Also opening is the lively children's picture "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" and "Love in the Time of Cholera," starring Javier Bardem and based off the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
Opening on Thanksgiving are the half-animated-half-real-life Disneyesque picture "Enchanted" and the Stephen King horror film "The Mist." "Enchanted," almost "Shrek"-like in its send up of fairy tales looks like fun. Also opening on Thanksgiving is the musical drama "August Rush" which features young actor Freddie Highmore (of "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") as a musical prodigy in search of his birth parents. I'm most looking forward, though, to the action flick "Hitman," starring Timothy Olyphant as a master assassin and the Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There," directed by indie master director Todd Haynes. (See "Far From Heaven" if you haven't already.)
So, in summary, the films I'm definitely going to see, of which many you can expect reviews: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "Control," "Saw IV," "American Gangster," "Bee Movie," "No Country for Old Men," "Beowulf," "Hitman," and "I'm Not There."