Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
—William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”
The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multi–part essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:
Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.
Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.
Retribution, like every film in the series, ended with a tantalizing cliffhanger: Milla Jovovich’s Alice had been recruited by the fourth film’s villain, Albert Wesker, now in rebellion against the evil Umbrella Corporation, into joining him in a last stand against the zombie hordes in Washington, DC. The film ends with a long shot of Wesker, Alice (her superpowers now restored) and a ragtag band of survivors on the roof of the White House, looking out over the blasted city and the menace to come. The Final Chapter begins after that battle has taken place, and we’re told that it was all a ruse: Wesker betrayed Alice and her friends and, once again, Alice was the lone survivor. This kind of abrupt pivot from the end of the previous film happened as well between the second and third installments, when we were led to believe Alice was joining a resistance group to subvert Umbrella’s plans but then find out the world just went and died anyway, cutting past the apocalypse to a wasted planet. Anderson’s motive for eliding such obviously compelling sequences as the end of the world or the final betrayal of the forces of good may have its motive in budget concerns, but it’s this kind of dogged determination to not meet expectations that helps endear him to his loony partisans. The Final Chapter in fact has much else in common with that third film, Resident Evil: Extinction: the brown-gray desolation of its above-ground sequences versus the blue-gray of its underground, the reintroduction of Ali Larter as Alice’s friend Claire Redfield and Iain Glen as the film’s ultimate villain, and an approach to action that emphasizes speed over impact via cutting rapidly between multiple cameras (the editor is Doobie White, who worked with the team of Neveldine and Taylor on the hyper-active Crank: High Voltage and Gamer). Gone are the clean whites and Matrix-inspired digital poses of the fourth and fifth films, where time moved so slowly it even, for a beautiful little while, moved backwards: this last stand will be brutal, and ugly, and final.
Repeating the opening pattern of the last film, Alice gives us a voiceover explaining the events of the previous movies in the series. This is followed by a quick action sequence, in this case Alice versus a flying mutant: yes, at long last, Milla slays a dragon. This is in turn followed by another long exposition sequence, where the Red Queen, Umbrella Corporation’s sentient computer system, announces that she is betraying Umbrella and tasks Alice with getting to The Hive (the underground lab that was the primary location of the first film) to retrieve an antivirus that can finally put an end to the zombie menace. She has exactly 48 hours to get there, and so the clock begins ticking. The first half of the film will be Alice’s cross-country journey to Raccoon City, the second half her descent into the underworld.
On her trek, she is captured by a creepy group of Umbrella agents led by Dr. Isaacs, the scientist played by Iain Glen that Alice killed at the end of Extinction. That Isaacs is now revealed to have been a clone, while this one has become a kind of religious fanatic, packing his armored personnel carrier with crucifixes and true believers as he leads a zombie army back to The Hive. Alice escapes, but this is just a hint of the religious turn the series is about to take. Once in Raccoon City, Alice meets up with Claire and (once again) a ragtag band of survivors, the kind of generic character types (kindly yet sexy doctor, aggressively suspicious hothead, gearhead kid, pretty girl, gregarious large man, etc) that Alice is always meeting just before they get eaten by the undead, for one of the hallmarks of the series is the utter replaceability of every character (up to and including Alice herself). The fight sequences here are quick and effective: in fistfights on and around the APCs, with lunging zombies grabbing at anyone a bit too slow, there’s a desperation that would be undermined by the elegance of the fights in the last two films. The grunginess and the fast cutting gives them a primal (my pal Neil’s apt word) urgency: humanity literally scrambling at the last. In the city, the survivors try to fend off Isaacs and the monsters in a classic tower defense, the best siege warfare Jovovich has led since she captured Orléans for Luc Besson. Much of the film takes place at night or in dark spaces, and with the pace of editing the action could easily descend into the kind of smeared haze of Extinction, or far worse, the irritating incoherence of Apocalypse. But Anderson is the most spatially aware action filmmaker in Hollywood today, and he always keeps us oriented (perhaps this is helped by the film’s post-conversion to 3D, I haven’t seen it in 2D yet). Shot-length is not necessarily an indicator of coherence, nor is the long-take, emphasizing the extraordinary potential of human movement (see for example the work of Lau Kar-leung), the only right way to make an action sequence. What we lose in virtuosity and verisimilitude of performance, we gain in grimy viscerality.
Paul WS Anderson makes genre films and the language of genre is cliché. What makes him unique is the boldness with which he reconfigures his appropriations and his willingness to accept the truism behind the cliché for what it is on its own terms, without any inkling of subversion and nary a wink. Writing about his Alien vs. Predator years ago, I compared Anderson to a kind of backwoods preacher, every breath a bible verse, except for Anderson, the bible is genre film. This enables some shocking combinations: Death Race 2000 remade as a prison film; a steampunk Three Musketeers with ninjas; Spartacus meets Voyage in Italy meets Volcano. Each of the Resident Evil films has a genre forerunner: Aliens, Escape from New York, The Road Warrior, Assault on Precinct 13, to name the first four films in order, though each have elements of other films thrown in as well (The Matrix films for Afterlife, for example). The fifth film took for its template the Resident Evil series itself, with environments and characters returning in the form of simulated locations deep underground and clones of Alice’s fallen comrades providing both allies and enemies (or both). The ur-text of The Final Chapter is the Bible (might as well have named that final chapter: Revelation). But before that becomes clear, the movie must first return to the beginning, to the simple “gang of heroes whittled down one-by-one by monsters and traps” storytelling of the first film, including a return to the infamous slicing-laser hallway. The cyclical nature of the series was revealed, and its reverse direction began, after what I think is the pivot point of the series, the prologue to the fourth film, in which Alice leads an army of her clones (the literal Army of Milla) to attack Umbrella headquarters. That’s the moment when the series goes through the looking-glass, out of the recognizably real environments of the first three films and into the digital creations of the fourth and fifth. The Final Chapter runs that trajectory all the way back to the zero point: through the deserts of Extinction, to the city of Apocalypse and down into The Hive of Resident Evil. And what we find, when we get back there, to the Before the Beginning, is something wholly unexpected in this most secular of built-worlds. We find God.
The film’s allegory becomes increasingly obvious (spoilers here on out, for the sensitive). First, the terminology begins flying: a Noah’s Ark for the rich and powerful, several triangles where multiple characters are vying for the positions of Father, Son and Holy Ghost (though ultimately only one will prove to be the true Trinity), there’s a Judas (one of the survivors is a traitor, but of course we don’t know which), and a Christ (Alice herself, naturally), and I didn’t count, but I’m willing to bet there are 12 survivors Alice initially finds in Raccoon City. The ultimate reveal here is one we’ve suspected for awhile: that Alice is a clone, a copy of some other individual manufactured by some element within Umbrella. Backstory reveals her genetic template to be the daughter of one of Umbrella’s lead scientists, the heretofore unnamed/unseen Dr. Marcus (played by someone named Mark Simpson, who kinda looks like Anderson himself), who had an untreatable disease which caused rapid aging. The doctor developed the T-Virus to cure his daughter, but it had side effects. The visual representation of Red Queen is in fact this daughter, Alicia, played by Anderson and Jovovich’s own daughter Ever Anderson. This is pointedly just enough like the backstory presented in the second film, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (where Jared Harris’s Dr. Charles Ashford develops the T-Virus to cure his daughter Angela’s degenerative spinal condition) but nonetheless wholly different that it can’t help but raise pedantic nerd-questions. But in a series where the line between human and clone, between reality and simulation is never sure (see Retribution, where the exposition provided by Li Bingbing’s Ada Wong strongly hints that the filmic worlds we see may very well be simulations run by Umbrella’s computers, in constructed environments packed with an inexhaustible supply of clones and zombies and Alices), who’s to say what is blatantly erasing previously established characters and story in the name of retconning and what is merely a reshuffling of the variables before the initiation of another test program?
In this version of the backstory, Marcus is murdered by Isaacs, who with the assistance of his underling Wesker (who had been Isaacs’s superior in the third film) launches the T-Virus as a planned apocalypse, with his allies riding out the destruction of the human race underground, frozen and waiting to reemerge to rebuild a more perfect world. The real Isaacs thus lies at the heart of The Hive (the one rambling along above ground revealed as a False Prophet), along with Wesker and the still-living Alicia Marcus, wheel-chair bound and played by Jovovich in old-age make-up. It was Alicia who convinced the Red Queen to switch allegiances and help Alice, who is herself a clone of Alicia. Thus the Holy Trinity: Mother (Alicia), Daughter (Alice) and Holy Ghost (Red Queen), different versions of the same genetic being, united to put an end to Issacs’s (Issac’s?) Old Testament divine erasure. The daughter must descend to the underworld, and then rise up to release the antivirus, which will save humanity but kill her along with anything else infected by the virus (Alice has long been infected with the T-Virus: it mysteriously granted her divine powers, for a little while). Anderson’s Passion story becomes increasingly iconographic as the allegory becomes more apparent, with Alice rising into the light and the now-unreborn zombie hordes instantly collapsing at her feet like worshippers in ecstatic obedience. The final sequences here are as inevitable and overwhelming as the breathtaking climax of Pompeii, the first Anderson film that could be said to be deeply, profoundly emotional. This is all that and more, a culmination, an expression of hope that even in our blasted, fungible, unreliable world of fascists and capitalists and unnervingly fit blond scientists, there’s still a possibility of grace, a chance for us to claw our way out of the mire, just beyond the grasp of the rough beasts of darkness and indignant desert birds.
And of course there’s a Resurrection, another cliffhanger epilogue. Though the antivirus is spreading, there are still dragons to slay.