Back in 1998, director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt made the infamous sci-fi action movie Soldier, starring Kurt Russell. A notorious flop, it gave Anderson some downtime to consider his next move. "I couldn’t get hold of Paul for weeks," Bolt told Empire in 2016. "Eventually he returned my calls and I asked him what he’d been doing and he said, ‘I’ve been playing Resident Evil! We have to make the movie!’ He’d literally been up all night for weeks playing this game."
That film arrived in 2002 and has spawned, to date, five increasingly bonkers sequels and a reboot that’s due in December. The six films so far have taken more than a billion dollars at the international box office. For a while it was officially the most successful horror film franchise of all time, until James Wan’s Conjuring universe stripped it of its title. It still holds the record for the most successful film series based on a video game.
It’s all the more impressive given the consistent critical kicking the films received, and the poor word-of-mouth from the game-faithful who were unhappy with the liberties Anderson took with the material. Somehow, the director turned a claustrophobic zombie survival horror property into an action sci-fi spectacle, with a very loose grasp on continuity and a protagonist – occasionally super-powered and much cloned – who isn’t in the games at all.
"Adapting games into movies is not easy," Anderson told Empire. "It’s underrated. What makes a successful video game doesn’t necessarily make a successful movie. While you have to appeal to the core fanbase who love the game, you also have to make a film. You risk alienating the fans if you deviate too far, but if you don’t deviate at all you kind of don’t appeal to a movie audience. It’s a fine line. Sometimes the fans hated it, but I felt like the end result was a good one."
With movie reboot Resident Evil: Welcome To Raccoon City on the way, Empire presents the ultimate start-to-finish guide to the live-action Resident Evil films – following the whole barking mad plot, exploring how they all tie in together, and explaining how they relate to the games. (Note: Names that appear in the games are highlighted in bold.)
Resident Evil (2002)
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
It’s hard to remember now, but in 2002, zombies were nowhere near the mainstream. The First Resident Evil arrived a few months before 28 Days Later, and the triple-whammy of Shaun of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and George A. Romero’s return with Land of the Dead, was a couple of years away. Zombies were such an unsafe bet that Resident Evil didn’t even have any American financing. This was essentially a European film based on a Japanese video game.
The story principally lifts the Spencer Mansion setting from the first game, along with the idea that there’s a secret lab underneath it, from which the nefarious Umbrella Corporation have been experimenting with "The T-Virus" and accidentally created zombies (okay, "infected", but allow us the shorthand). There are also some mashed-in elements and easter eggs from other games, including the wider setting of Raccoon City, and mention of the Nemesis Project, which is about creating a sort of undead mutant Terminator. But it’s all spun around a new story and an original character: the mystery of Milla Jovovich’s Alice, who wakes up in the mansion with amnesia and has to piece together who she is and what’s going on.
There’s been an accidental T-Virus outbreak in the laboratory complex – The Hive – causing A.I. The Red Queen to seal it off to avert a pandemic. Alice and her newfound allies Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) and Matt (Eric Mabius) and some Umbrella commandos override the Red Queen and accidentally let the zombies out. Cue battles through zombie hordes and "lickers" (monsters also brought in from the game) to find the anti-virus. Alice remembers that she was an Umbrella employee who'd gone rogue and started working to expose the company's weird science. The film ends with Matt being taken away by Umbrella scientists for Nemesis experimentation, and Alice waking up (again) in hospital, and walking outside into a deserted and derelict Raccoon City.
Where the game was slow, quiet and eerie, the film is fast, loud and action-packed. The soundtrack is an industrial score by Marilyn Manson and Marco Beltrami and a jukebox of early-2000s metal including Slipknot and Rammstein. But as its own thing, Anderson’s first Resident Evil is efficient and enjoyable enough. It even has a high-profile fan in one James Cameron. "I actually think it’s quite beautifully made," Cameron told Empire recently. "Watching Michelle Rodriguez in that film, moving like this feral creature, is joyful.”
Best set-piece: The laser security system that chops poor Colin Salmon into meat-cubes.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
Director: Alexander Witt
Apocalypse continues directly from the end of the first film, with the T-Virus now rife throughout Raccoon City, and Umbrella attempting a quarantine and eradication. Principle new characters are Raccoon City cop Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and Umbrella soldier Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr), both of whom come from the games – in name at least. Mike Epps plays stranded Raccoon citizen L.J. Wade. Since Anderson was busy with Alien Vs Predator, Alexander Witt took this as his directorial debut – a respected and prolific second-unit director, with credits on the Bond films (he worked on the rooftop bike chase in Skyfall) and collaborations with Ridley Scott, among many others.
As soldiers, cops and civilians battle overwhelming zombie odds, Umbrella deploys their mutant super-soldier Nemesis (poor old Matt), which doesn’t help much. Umbrella scientist Charles Ashford (Jared Harris) sends secret messages to Alice and Carlos, asking for help locating his young daughter Angela (Sophie Vavasseur), who is missing amid the carnage. The T-Virus, it’s revealed, was accidentally created by Ashford as a treatment for Angie’s genetic disability; although she also needs to take anti-virus to stop her turning into a zombie. The rescue is successful, but Alice – gasp! – dies when Umbrella nukes the entire city.
Or not. She wakes up again in another research facility, discovers she now has telekinetic superpowers thanks to having been injected with T-Virus, and promptly escapes with Valentine, Olivera, Wade and Angela. At the very end we’re introduced to Umbrella bastard Dr Isaacs (Iain Glen; "Isaacs" is a joke name in tribute to frequent Anderson collaborator Jason Isaacs), who reveals that he's working on "Project Alice", and that Alice’s escape is all part of Umbrella’s plan. How? We'd say read on, but you won't get the answer.
Larger in scope and budget than the first film, Apocalypse somehow feels smaller, ropier and less coherent. Nemesis ought to be impressive, but he's just a tall stuntman (Matthew G. Taylor) in a rubber suit. And it seems pretty clear that Angela is supposed to be the basis for the Red Queen, but this isn't made explicit and is aggressively retconned in a later film...
Best set-piece: Alice's dramatic entrance, jumping a motorbike through a church's stained-glass window.
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
Director: Russell Mulcahy
So it's a while later, and the T-Virus has gone worldwide. Meanwhile, Earth has transformed into a post-apocalypse Mad Max wasteland because the virus has, er, caused all the oceans and lakes to dry up.
Yup, let's just leave that there and move on.
Extinction actually begins back in the mansion again, with Alice waking up and not remembering anything again. But it turns out that this Alice is a clone, part of Dr. Isaacs' "Project Alice", which has to do with Alice's blood being uniquely compatible with the T-Virus. A pile of dead clones reveals that his experiments aren't going so well, and the recapture of the real Alice becomes top priority. Isaacs, incidentally, also has a zombie rehabilitation thing going on, rather like the programme that produced Bub in Day Of The Dead . But he's also tinkering with creating more oddball zombie variants along Nemesis lines. There's no great narrative logic behind any of this – you have to assume it's just for LOLs.
Real Alice, meanwhile, is alone and off-grid out in the wasteland around Las Vegas, trying to get to grips with her new Carrie powers. She hooks up with a convoy of scavenger survivors that includes Carlos and L.J. (Fehr and Epps again) and newcomer Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), and they all decide to head for Alaska where it's believed there's a safe haven called Arcadia. En route there's a huge confrontation with a new strain of Isaacs-created zombies. Isaacs himself is there too, gets bitten, takes the anti-virus and mutates into a giant zombie with Carrie powers like Alice's. L.J. doesn't make it, and Carlos sacrifices himself by plowing a truck into a zombie horde to create enough of a distraction for Claire and the rest of the survivors to hijack an Umbrella helicopter and fly away to safety. Alice stays behind to fight super-Isaacs in the Nevada Umbrella lab. She defeats him with the help of a new A.I., the Red Queen's sister The White Queen, who also tells Alice that her blood can be used to synthesise a T-Virus cure. Nobody, including Alice, remembers this in the subsequent films.
This film also introduces Albert Wesker (Jason O'Mara), Umbrella's chairman and Isaacs' boss. Extinction ends with Wesker in his Tokyo office receiving a threatening message from Alice and the army of Alice-clones she's picked up.
As with Apocalypse, Anderson produced and wrote the screenplay, but was too busy with another film (in this case Death Race) to direct. Stepping in here was Highlander's Russell Mulcahy, who made the most of the wide-open desert-scapes and delivered the best-looking film of the series. At least aesthetically, this entry feels completely different to the rest of the franchise. The action is pretty good too.
Best set-piece: An attack from a gigantic murder of zombie crows that Alice incinerates with a slow-motion telekinetic firestorm. Remember in the games when you never had enough bullets and were always nearly dead? If you haven't gathered by now, the films aren't really like that...
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
Director: Paul WS Anderson
Anderson returned as director for this one, and kept hold of the reins for the rest of the series. Seizing on Cameron's new Avatar technology, he leaned heavily into that brave new world of 3D. Since 3D TVs never really took off, there's a (literal) dimension of movies 4 through 6 that are likely lost on home viewing.
Afterlife begins with Alice and her clone squad attacking Umbrella Tokyo. Wesker (played here and for the rest of the series by Shawn Roberts) escapes in a chinook and nukes the facility. So that deals with the clones. But Alice-Prime has snuck aboard the 'copter with Wesker, who injects her with anti-virus in the ensuing scrap. That puts paid to her super-powers, although she's still apparently the only survivor when the 'copter crashes, and maintains a nifty line in acrobatic slo-mo martial arts and gunplay.
A while later, Alice finds Ali Larter's Claire in Alaska. The world in this film is, shall we say, not quite the Mad Max hellscape the previous film told us it was. The water and trees seem to have come back. Things haven't been going great for Claire, since she's being mind-controlled by an Umbrella-corps metal spider. Alice destroys the device, but Claire loses her memory in the process. Heading south to LA, they hook up with Claire's brother Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller) and fight some zombies in a prison – including a huge new hooded badass with an axe, who's been ported in from the fifth game.
Arcadia, we now discover, is an Umbrella research facility aboard a ship, where Claire's fellow survivors were all taken to be experimented on. Wesker has survived thanks to injecting himself with the T-Virus, but now needs to harvest uncontaminated human DNA to keep it under control. Alice takes him on but he escapes in a plane, and parachutes to safety when the bomb Alice had planted on board detonates.
We leave Alice and co. aboard the Arcadia, which they hope to turn into a genuine refuge. But Umbrella troops are on their way, led by Jill Valentine, making a surprise return under the influence of one of those spider things.
Best set-piece: The extended Alice/Chris/Claire/Wesker fight, which is a straight lift from the fifth game.
Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)
Director: Paul WS Anderson
When Jill and her Umbrella troops arrive at Arcadia, they kill most of the survivors and capture Alice – leaving the fates of Chris and Claire unknown.
From there, the largely baffling Retribution takes place in an underwater facility in Russia, but much of the action happens in VR environments designed to simulate zombie outbreak scenarios in Tokyo, Moscow, and Raccoon City. Several characters from previous films come back as clones – and sometimes multiple versions of those clones – so we get to reconnect with One (Colin Salmon), Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) and Carlos (Oded Fehr). Newcomers are Li Bingbing, Kevin Durand and Johann Urb as game favourites Ada Wong, Barry Burton and Leon Kennedy respectively.
The gist here is that The Red Queen is running the facility and is now evil. In the first film her actions had been an emotionless but logical attempt to prevent an outbreak by sealing Umbrella's infected employees in The Hive to die. Now she wants to destroy humanity for reasons that aren't exactly clear. Wesker and Ada have jumped ship from Umbrella and now want to help Alice defeat the Red Queen. Umbrella-controlled Jill is therefore the primary antagonist here, until Alice gets the spider off her and returns her to normal. Our surviving heroes visit Wesker in his new HQ in the White House, where Wesker injects Alice with T-Virus again, bringing back her superpowers the better to save the world. We leave them on the White House roof with millions of zombies converging on the lawn and down Pennsylvania Avenue...
Best set-piece: The opening sequence of Alice and Ada fighting giant axemen in Times Square. It plays in reverse, pre-empting Tenet by nearly a decade.
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)
Director: Paul WS Anderson
Remember everything that happened across the last few films? Well, prepare for some major retconning. The Final Chapter picks up with Alice alone again, in the ruins of Washington DC. In spite of what we saw, we're told Alice didn't get her powers back after all, and that Wesker faked the whole episode. The Red Queen is a good guy now, and appears to Alice to tell her that she needs to get back to The Hive in Raccoon City, where there's a new airborne anti-virus that can save humanity. There's a story-so-far recap that bears absolutely no resemblance to the actual story-so-far. It's quite something.
Iain Glen is back as Dr. Isaacs, because it turns out the previous one was a clone. In a re-write of the Angela Ashford business we learned in Apocalypse, we're now told that Isaacs was the business partner of Umbrella founder Alexander Marcus, and the T-Virus was created as a treatment for Marcus' own sick daughter Alicia. Isaacs had Marcus killed by Wesker and adopted Alicia. Umbrella, with Wesker at the helm again, is now simply waiting out humanity's demise so that they can reboot the world on Umbrella terms. The Red Queen – who Isaacs now created, based on Alicia – can't simply kill Wesker because she apparently can't kill Umbrella employees... despite having killed hundreds in the first film. This leads to a moment nicked from Robocop where Wesker gets fired to make him killable.
Alice reconnects with Claire Redfield and a new band of scrappy survivors (including Ruby Rose), and they all re-enter The Hive, which is accessed via the bomb crater resulting from the second film's Umbrella nuke. They battle zombie dogs and traps, and eventually Alice reaches the cryogenic capsule containing Alicia Marcus. At this point, we learn that Alice has been a clone of Alicia all along. And speaking of clones, another clone of Isaacs (who thinks he's the real Isaacs) kills the real Isaacs, and is then set upon by zombies.
Wesker blows up The Hive with everyone in it, including himself. But the anti-virus is released, Claire and Alice survive, and The Red Queen uploads Alicia's memories into Alice's brain, supposedly bringing us full circle. Alice, who you might remember woke up in the first film with no memory, is now fully restored, despite that restoration largely contradicting what we learned about Alice 15 years ago. We bid her a final farewell as she prepares to carry on her zombie-battling work while the airborne anti-virus slowly makes its way around the world. Thus concludes The Final Chapter, which unusually for a horror franchise, really was the end – at least as far as this particular Resi "universe" was concerned.
Best set-piece: Alice races a Hummer through the ruins of Washington DC and fights one of the giant Bat-Dragon things from the fifth game. This was the last sequence of the entire franchise to be filmed.
Resident Evil: Welcome To Raccoon City (2021)
Director: Johannes Roberts
So, what's next? Well, with the Anderson/Jovovich iteration done and dusted, this is a complete reboot from the director of The Other Side Of The Door, The Strangers: Prey At Night, shark horror 47 Meters Down, and its sequel Uncaged. Roberts wrote the screenplay with Mortal Kombat's Greg Russo, and says it's a straight adaptation of the first two games, leaning into the horror and the dark, rain-soaked atmospherics.
The cast includes Kaya Scodelario as Claire Redfield, Robbie Amell as Chris Redfield, Hannah John-Kamen as Jill Valentine, Avan Jogia as Leon S. Kennedy, Tom Hopper as Albert Wesker, Lily Gao as Ada Wong, Neal McDonough as William Birkin, and Donal Logue as loony sheriff Brian Irons. The story is split between the Spencer Mansion and the Raccoon City police station, and shooting is complete as of the end of last year. Welcome To Raccoon City is currently scheduled for release in December 2021.