Zombies in an airport. Fair enough. Resident Evil Degeneration, a feature-length C.G.I. action horror that came out in 2008, was, as far as I can tell, the first movie to fill a departure lounge with the permanently undeparted. Three years later, we would be treated to the refined pleasures of Quarantine 2: Terminal. Two years after that we would get Warm Bodies, in which a brain-eating Nicholas Hoult shambled around an airport, seeking, through the power of love, no less, to jump-start his heart. And that’s the problem. Airports have always belonged to that other undying, often brain-eating, genre: the romantic comedy. To glimpse an airport in a movie is to be reminded of the last-minute sprint: the panting attempt to lunge through the turbulence of life, to claim the baggage of one’s errors, and to catch true love before it takes off.
Love, however, is not in the air in Degeneration. True, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield—the heroes of Resident Evil 2—are reunited, but, to be honest, there was never much of a spark there; they seem destined for each other but not for romance, doomed to live out the A and B scenarios of a shared but passionless ride. Resident Evil has little time for love, and, watching Degeneration, I kept thinking of Hugh Grant’s voice-over at the start of Love Actually, as the camera shambles hungrily around Heathrow. “Love actually is all around,” he says. It’s a nice thought, but this wasn’t Heathrow; it was Harvardville, the site of a bioterrorist attack, and Leon and Claire had work to do. The next ninety minutes would resound not with kisses, near misses, and reconciliation; but with explosions, gunfire, and mutation. The T-virus actually was all around.
Two more C.G.I. movies followed: Resident Evil Damnation, in 2012, and Resident Evil Vendetta, in 2017. Though none of them beat with what we would call drama—or, in fact, with the slightest connection to reality—they all carry a strain of inventiveness. Damnation took place in the fictional Eastern Slav Republic, with resistance fighters wielding bio-organic weapons against the government. It may have ended up with the country’s president engaging in cartwheeling hand-to-hand combat with Ada Wong, smashing up a perfectly nice office in the process, along with Leon Kennedy churning up the morning streets in a tank, like Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, and shelling a Tyrant’s head into pulp, but its premise was nonetheless intriguing. If you’ve played a Resident Evil game, you must have wondered how all those zombies, lickers, and half-peeled dogs would do in a warzone. Here’s your chance.
Vendetta is the weakest of the three, but the first ten minutes are worth your time. I spotted Takashi Shimizu’s name in the credits (who directed Ju-on: The Grudge, and its mouldering American remake), as an executive producer, and I wonder if the opening is all him. Behold Chris Redfield, smothered in the promising shadows of a mansion, complete with polished wood, split staircase, and curtains set to auto-sway. It’s the only tense scene in the movie, and I recommend you duck out the moment Chris unsheathes his knife and launches into choppy martial arts with a besuited gentleman in leather gloves. If you decide to stick around, be warned: you’re in for a New York freeway chase, with Leon driving a licensed Ducati motorbike (the camera slurs into slow motion and drools over the branding), at which point the film’s budget seems to have run thin, leaving the tarmac without any texture, as though the city council had laid the road with rubber.
Indeed, there is something synthetic and bouncy not just in that set piece but stretching out and covering the whole series. The action sequences have the stunted feel of extended cutscenes, often boiling down to bare-knuckle slugfests in which two warm bodies attempt to batter a basic pulse into the movie. Of course, if you’re a fanatic of the games, your fingers will twitch whenever a character races away from harm, say, as you half expect a button prompt to pop up and strobe with nervous frenzy. Likewise, every time the camera holds a hero in its crosshairs and pulls slowly back, you crave the fade-in of a HUD and the handing over of control.
This is not to say that these films are bereft of cinematic flourishes. At the end of Degeneration, an explosion blooms from the bottom of a silo, rippling upwards and resembling, for a second, the orange eye of William Birkin. It’s a neat wink to the fans, but these flickers are rare, and they arrive between stodgy lumps of backstory; characters are thrown together for no clear reason but filling in the gaps between games. The BBFC awarded each movie a “15” certificate, for its gruesome violence, but I think they should all begin with a far more blood-cooling warning, one of those parental disclaimers: “This film contains scenes of explicit contrivance and lore.”
Now we have Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, a Netflix series of four episodes, each around twenty-five minutes long. This, I reckon, is the ideal medium for a Resident Evil story. For one thing, it comes with its own quick time events built in; the serial watcher is just as primed to hit button prompts in a panic, the difference being that they read “next episode.” In truth, Infinite Darkness feels less like a TV show and more like a chopped-up movie, which is good news: the others needed hacking into chunks, the better to curb the mood, which spikes restlessly into action like a fever. As with the movies, it isn’t only the people but the plot of Infinite Darkness that appears to have been generated by a computer: random elements cut and pasted together, a narrative flow chart without any flow. There is something in there about the US and China, and it spins around a shady defence secretary who—with black-rimmed spectacles and hair like brushed smoke—is apparently modelled on Larry King. In the second episode, we get an extended passage onboard a submarine, as if deep-sea pressure were enough to propel the story on.
But, really, who cares? The best reason to plunge yourself into Infinite Darkness is also the only reason to watch any of the other animated movies: Leon’s hair. As technology has improved, from 2008 to now, so Leon’s signature style—half-drawn curtains, with a chestnut comma flopping over his forehead—has been boosted with volumetric rendering, and combed through with creamy polygons, for a high shine. It sounds trivial, but nothing could be more important. Leon, after all, isn’t really a character; he’s a sketch, stripped down to the bare essentials of thigh holster, jacket, and jetlagged quips. After killing a squad of zombies: “Rest in peace, assholes.” Faced with a flood of infected rats: “Wish I had some cheese.” He needn’t worry on that front.
As I sat through Infinite Darkness, a pleasant languor washed over me. Not quite the trembling excitement that attends a really terrible film or TV show—as you detect the ripe whiff of miscalibration that rises from the earliest scenes, like steam from a sewer. It had more to do with the process through which it was wrangled into shape. This is not quite direction, although Eiichiro Hasumi is credited for taking up the challenge; it’s more like translation. The early Resident Evil games had a movieish kick. The camera may have been static, but its angles stuck in the mind; and those pre-rendered backgrounds through which it peered—gloom-infested manors atop gleaming laboratories, city streets doused in fire—were scumbled, like painted sets. You emerged from them relieved, having steered a jagged clump of blurry colour away from death, like guiding a ghost through the machinery of horror film cliché.
When you’re converting that into a horror film, though—or a TV series—via a computer, and you can’t supply the buzz of play, all you can do, to remain true to your subject, is bring those blurry clumps into sharp focus. Thus, the coppery helmet of pixels that once plugged happily into Leon’s head is now an ultra-definition sweep, lightly mussed to a smoulder. And when Claire Redfield inevitably shows up to foil Larry King, her red-pink biker vest is replaced with a jacket of high-resolution leather that glistens in the light. Who needs agency or moral complexity? In place of interactivity, Hasumi—and his predecessors, Makoto Kamiya, who directed the first two films, and Takanori Tsujimoto, who delivered the last—can only jack up the thrills, and so we end up with a surreal result, completely distinct from the live-action films. They try to be movies and wind up falling flat. Infinite Darkness and its ilk somehow try to translate the games in more literal terms, and the grammar is all off. Still, if you have an afternoon to kill, you could do a little worse than this. Where else this year are you likely to hear the line “How the hell did zombies get in the White House,” spoken without the faintest trace of irony, and truly not care about the answer?