Hollywood has struggled turning video games into viable movie franchises for the better part of 30 years, and it’s a little ironic that Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil would be the one to break the mold, spawning a six-film series that earned over $1.2 billion at the box office.
Removing the active element when transplanting console properties to the big screen as passive experiences instantly eliminates the very thing that makes them so popular in the first place, so we regularly see filmmakers double down on fan service and Easter Eggs to overcompensate. While that’s all well and good, it can often make the lore impenetrable to newcomers, who end up being hit with a barrage of images, references and plot points that mean nothing to anyone outside of the diehards.
The closest comparison we can make to Johannes Roberts’ Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is this year’s Mortal Kombat reboot, because the fans are going to love it. The 1990s-set horror is a treasure trove of goodies and nods towards the first two Capcom classics, but anyone outside of the target audience is going to struggle desperately to find anything to like, never mind enjoy.
It should be pointed out that this writer has never played a Resident Evil game and thus has a knowledge of the mythology that could generously be described as painfully lacking. However, the entire point of creating a broad genre film based on a recognizable IP is to hit that sweet spot between awareness and introduction, but there’s barely anything in Welcome to Raccoon City designed to appeal to anyone who hasn’t sampled the first two games.
It’s a glaring misstep for Roberts to put the blinkers on, and while you can’t fault his craftsmanship or obvious appreciation for all things Resident Evil, large swathes of the movie are going to have the uninitiated wondering what the hell is exactly going on, why it all matters, and why it’s so painfully dull for almost all of its 107 minutes.
That’s not to say Raccoon City is a disaster from start to finish, and it actually starts off quite strong. We meet young Chris and Claire Redfield at the titular orphanage, long before they grow into the highly photogenic Kaya Scodelario and Robbie Amell. The atmospheric prologue generates plenty of eerie intention, introduces the always-welcome Neil McDonough as obvious antagonist William Birkin, and features some spine-tingling practical effects and jump scares.
From there, we fast forward to 1998, with Scodelario’s Claire on her way back to Raccoon City, acting on a tip passed on by a conspiracy theorist that the Umbrella Corporation is up to something shifty. Riding back into town on a big rig, there’s some welcome period trappings tinged with an aesthetic straight out of the 1970s, but once the crux of the plot is set in motion, it’s back to achingly formulaic territory.
It would be doing one-dimensional a disservice to describe the rest of the characters as such, which is a shame, because they’re all played by talented stars. Scodelario is the vengeful heroine seeking to right a wrong from the past, Amell’s Chris is the clean-cut hero, Hannah John-Kamen’s Jill Valentine is the badass loose cannon, Tom Hopper’s Albert Wesker is the cocky alpha male, Avan Jogia’s Leon S. Kennedy is the rookie cop, Donal Logue is the mustachioed Chief Brian Irons who yells a lot, and Chad Rook is also there as Richard Aiken.
If these names mean nothing to you, then you’re not going to care about any of these people. The actors do the best they can with the material, which is an especially difficult task when the script has you telegraphing lines of dialogue before they’re even spoken, and you’ll be struggling to invest in their plights, fates or inevitable demises unless you’ve been shoveling down mouthfuls of Memberberries before taking your seat in the theater.
Welcome to Raccoon City is supposed to be a horror movie, but it’s not scary. It’s definitely R-rated, and gorehounds should be left suitably satiated, but most of the frights are taken straight from page 1 of the genre playbook. Flickering lights? Check. Stabs of orchestral music? You bet. Something’s behind them and they haven’t noticed yet? Oh, yeah. Matters aren’t helped by CGI that can often be so iffy, you wonder if the post-production team were actively seeking to recreate the PS1 visuals down to a tee. Suspension of disbelief is always key to things like this, but it’s hard when most of the gloopy zombies don’t look remotely convincing even by the standards of a glorified $40 million B-movie.
On the plus side, McDonough is having a blast chowing down on the scenery, even if he too suffers from the insistence that all franchise-orientated fare must be defined by an effects-heavy climactic showdown. Jogia does well with an underwritten archetype, and Hopper brings his natural charm to an obvious arc, while Amell and John-Kamen acquit themselves admirably as action heroes when the undead sh*t hits the fan.
In essence, what we have is a video game adaptation designed solely and exclusively to appeal to those familiar with the video games, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a massive detriment to the overall piece. A 1990s-set R-rated horror packed full of fast-rising talents and esteemed character actors battling an evil pharmaceutical corporation that’s genetically engineering zombies has the potential to be a ton of fun, but the rampant and unwavering desire to lean into the Resident Evil mythology ultimately kneecaps any chances Welcome to Raccoon City has of breaking out from the pack and capturing the attention of anyone outside the designated target zone.
Add on another star, or perhaps even two, if you're a fan of the games, but Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City will struggle to win over those who aren't familiar with the franchise.