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Resident Evil Adaptations Explained: A Licker’s Guide to 20 Years of Films and TV Shows

Take me down to the Raccoon City / where the bullets are scarce and the zombies are bitey

Resident Evil Watch Guide
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    The history of video game adaptations is replete with failure, Hollywood attempting to glom the thin characters, ropey storylines, and innately gamified nature of popular game franchises to the big or small screens. Some work better than others (Mortal Kombat ’95 good; Mortal Kombat ’21 bad), but few franchises have tried as often as Resident Evil.

    Capcom’s flagship action-horror franchise has been a staple for decades, with dozens of games under its umbrella (eh?). It’s a series with deep, convoluted mythology, with the evil Umbrella Corporation and its attendant T-viruses and G-viruses. There’s also a host of grizzled protagonists, slimy beasties, and helpless young girls your characters are forced to rescue. But adapting the material to film or TV becomes tricky: Do you lean into all that mythos for something that’ll keep the fans happy? Do you try something totally different and hope the spirit of the games will come through?

    Hollywood has been making Resident Evil adaptations for 20 years(!) now, from the long-running Paul W.S. Anderson-directed films to the 2021 reboot to, most recently, Netflix’s new live-action series. And in that time, they’ve run from one end of that aforementioned spectrum to the other, alternating between full-on in-universe fanservice to wild swings at new stories.

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    With the franchise’s flexibility in mind, we thought we’d look back at the Resident Evil adaptations we’ve seen thus far, and whether any of them match the spirit of the series at its best.


    The Milla Jovovich Resident Evils (2002-2016)

    Paul W.S. Anderson’s six-film Resident Evil series (as producer and overall creative head, at least; he handed off the second and third films to other directors) is quite the odd duck as an adaptation of the games. The first film in the series was a barely-connected Aliens riff, chucking most of the characters and settings in favor of an unrelated cast of gruff Umbrella commandos (including Michelle Rodriguez) and an amnesiac protagonist (Milla Jovovich’s superpowered Alice). It clearly showed Anderson’s passion for the source material but largely felt like a self-contained companion piece to the games.

    But as the series continued, it threw in one character after another from the games, its cast growing alongside its scope until it became an apocalyptic mishmash of video game references and cinematic hagiography of Jovovich as the ultimate female action hero. Anderson, who married Jovovich in 2009, clearly loves how she looks and fights on screen, making the films charming as cinematic love letters to his spouse’s incredible talents.

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    Storywise, the Anderson Resident Evils play out like a zombie-meets-Mad Max soap opera, with amnesia, evil clones, and resurrected characters galore. But there’s something (figuratively) infectious about the chaos, especially as the series reaches its later self-referential installments. Resident Evil: Retribution, with its cartoon physics and meta references to characters and films past, maybe the most innately cinematic one of the series.

    These films, messy as they are, feel like true products of adaptation, a filmmaker taking what he likes about the source material and doing his own thing with it. The later decision to retroactively work in characters and events from the games makes the mess even more charming: This is especially clear in entries like Afterlife, which just plop in the Matrix-inspired version of Albert Wesker from the games and set him loose in dorky slow-motion kung fu fights.

    The Anderson films aren’t the best adaptations of a video game by any stretch, but they feel the most faithful, unique, and — if you’re in the right mindset for some schlocky action cheese — entertaining.

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