Love or loathe it, the Resident Evil movie franchise is a rare example of a video game series that's actually made a name for itself in Hollywood.
It has succeeded where Prince of Persia, Doom, Tomb Raider and countless others have failed. It is the exception that proves the rule, if you will.
There are four Resident Evil films released to date, and each one has performed better (commercially) than the one before it. At the Box Office alone they have generated a combined amount of almost $676m, and that’s on a budget of around $190m. Unsurprisingly, a fifth one is due out in September next year.
The man behind them blockbusters is Paul WS Anderson. The husband of model-cum-movie star Milla Jovovich and the director of films including Aliens vs Predator, Event Horizon, Death Race, Mortal Kombat and the upcoming Three Musketeers starring Orlando Bloom.
In the Resident Evil film universe he acts as producer and writer. He also directed the first and fourth films in the series and is also going to be behind the camera for the fifth.
We ask him about what is it that has made Resident Evil a success at the cinema, and to give his thoughts on Capcom’s now 15-year old series.
So Capcom is celebrating 15 years of Resident Evil and I believe it's almost ten years since you started working on the movie franchise.
Yes, we were shooting in 2001 and prepping in 2000. So yeah it has actually been over ten years. We are just about to shoot the fifth movie, so that’s five movies in 12 years. Not bad.
Particularly for a movie based on a game franchise.
It has definitely been the most successful by now, both in terms of the amount of movies we have made and the amount of people who have gone to see them. It has easily generated billions of dollars as a film franchise.
What inspired you to do it?
I disappeared into my apartment in Hollywood and no one saw me for about four weeks. I emerged, and this is a true story, with a rather long beard and wild staring, crazy, bloodshot eyes. What had happened is that I had played Resident Evil 1,2 and 3 back-to-back, and it took me three to four weeks to get through them all. That was it. I had become obsessed with them. I called my producing partner Jeremy Bolt and said we have to turn this into a movie.
I was a big fan of the zombie movies when they were fashionable in the ‘80s, you know Romero, Lucio Fulci, and such like, and it occurred to me that no-one had made a zombie movie for a long time, like ten years. So it was about time people had zombies rampaging around again.
The game was tapping into that already, quite often I feel that the world of video games is ahead of the world of feature films. It’s like video game manufacturers have their fingers on the pulse of modern culture a little better than filmmakers do.
Also, clearly, the creators of Resident Evil or, rather, Biohazard, were heavily influenced by the movies they had seen when they were growing up, which were the same movies I had seen. For example, there’s a lot of John Carpenter in Resident Evil 2. Like the police station, you can’t help but think of early Carpenter movies and Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween. In Resident Evil there is a lot of Carpenter and Romero and Lucio Fulci. And when I met the creators of the game, they are the same age as me, we are all from the same generation, and we have the same influences. I love both the game for what it was and I also loved what the game had been inspired by.
The Resident Evil movies don’t follow the same plot as the games. However, there are characters and sometimes entire sequences that have been lifted from the game franchise. Why do it this way?
One of the strengths of the Resident Evil franchise is that it doesn't repeat itself too much, each instalment of the game tended to tell a different story and sometimes had a different set of characters. As successful as the first game was, and as tempting as I am sure it was to have exactly the same characters come back, in Resident Evil 2 they changed it up. They set it in Raccoon City rather than a mansion, and they had an entirely different set of characters. And I thought that was very inspiring. And I wanted to approach the movie franchise in the same way they approach the video game franchise. I wanted our movies to exist in the same universe but tell slightly different stories.
On top of that, when you are making a movie that has to be suspenseful and scary and surprising, it is very difficult to do that if the audience already knows what is going to happen. It is really difficult.
Imagine before you sit down to watch Alien, you know exactly which characters will die, how they will die and in what order. Some hardcore fans say to me ‘Why don’t you do a direct adaptation of the video game?’ Well that is the reason why. Because it is not going to be surprising, it is not going to be shocking, a direct adaptation is not going to make me leap out of my seat when the dog jumps through the window, because I know it is coming. So we are trying to tell a fresh story so we can take people by surprise and give them the shocks and thrills you come to the cinema for.
Furthermore, as a filmmaker I have a responsibility to tell a story that appeals not just to fans but also to people who don’t know Resident Evil. Obviously if you are going to make a successful film you need to reach an audience beyond just the people who play the game. And again, telling fresh stories is the way to do that.
Also, game narratives and movie narratives are very different, and there are numerous websites and YouTube videos devoted to bad lines in video games. Even the most hardcore fan in the world is not going to really argue that the dialogue in the first Resident Evil game should have been adapted into the film. “You, master of unlocking.” It is awful. Really? Is that what you want in your movie? That kind of dialogue? I don’t think so.
Also a game which is built around puzzles and unlocking things is interesting when you play it, it isn’t interesting when you’re watching it.
Those are the main reasons why the film franchise has deviated from the narrative of the game franchise. But it has stayed true to Resident Evil. In all the sequences we have quoted from, the sets we have recreated, the costumes, the characters who have made an appearance, we have really tried to stay true to the spirit and the world of the video game, while also giving something fresh. I know that is something that upsets some hardcore fans. But I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say, and if we had really upset so many people and fucked it up so badly, we wouldn’t have done billions of dollars of business.
And done five movies.
No. And you can fool people once, you know. I was excited to see the Tomb Raider movie the first time it came out. I saw it, it wasn’t very good, I wasn’t very excited to go and see the second film, I felt that the first Tomb Raider movie promised a lot but didn’t deliver. People didn’t go back for the second one and it did substantially less business, and even though it starred Angelina Jolie there were no more movies. I think with Resident Evil it is very telling that each movie has done better than the one before. It is a franchise that doesn’t disappoint. It delivers and people enjoy them, which is why they come back for more.