I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I have terrible taste in movies. But I also think there are movies out there that are better than people give them credit for. We’re going to talk about some of those here.
The Resident Evil films are popcorn horror. They’re not meant to make you think, they’re not meant to be deep explorations of the existential dilemma. They’re made so we can see Milla Jovovich in cool outfits shooting things full of holes. I’m okay with that.
The thing is, horror movies reflect their day and age in ways both intentional and unintentional and looking at the details can reveal a lot about the struggles and values of the time. The Resident Evil movies are deceptively meaningful when you really look at them. Their worst plot factors are actually a powerful mirror for the society we live in today.
Let’s get a couple things out of the way first. This will not be a review of the series. They have zombies in them, I love them, and Retribution has zombies on motorcycles with rocket launchers and chainsaws, which makes it the greatest thing in the history of ever. ‘Nuff said. And I will not be addressing the video games or the animated films since I haven’t played/seen all of them so I can’t comment on them. And there will be spoilers here. If you haven’t seen all these movies, skip this essay.
There are several threads you can follow through these films that lead you to places that will make you cringe. But let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first: The Umbrella Corporation.
I hear people sneer about Umbrella. It’s dumb because it’s not actually a villain and why would they even keep making zombies when there’s no one left? These are all valid points. If you really think about it, the Umbrella Corporation is a terrible villain. No face, no motivation, just a machine that keeps destroying for no reason.
Here’s the sucky part: The Umbrella Corporation is 100% realistic and just because it doesn’t exist in name doesn’t mean the stuff it did in the movies isn’t happening around us every day.
Umbrella has no motivation; they just keep making monsters for the sake of making monsters. Maybe one or two employees want to make money. Maybe one or two of them want to use zombies to cleanse the world so their elite society can take over. It doesn’t matter why. They keep going. Anyone who has ever worked for a corporation knows. There are people in an office somewhere who know nothing about the actual workings of the companies they own, telling you how to do things. You never see a face, sometimes you get a pre-recorded message. All they do is make a series of arbitrary decisions that benefit them in ways you can’t fathom while screwing you. If you’re lucky (and none of us have been so far) it’ll involve zombies. If not, it will involve getting laid off because it’s easier to fire you then take a lower bonus. Their goals are the only thing that matter. What is Umbrella gonna do with more zombies? The same thing the Koch Brothers will do with another million dollars. Nothing of importance, but they’ve had it ingrained in their heads that they need it, they deserve it and they have to have it at any cost.
This also manifests as a lack of concern for the people who work for them. Employees are resources to be expended as needed. This is clear from the second sequence of the first movie when we see the AI in The Hive proceed to kill everyone. What was thought to be a computer malfunction becomes much more sinister when we realize that the Red Queen is just carrying out pre-programmed instructions. Because the humans who created the Red Queen and the T-Virus saw this coming and created a plan for wiping out and covering up their mistakes. In Apocalypse, it happens again after the quarantine is a miserable failure. Raccoon City will be “sanitized”, a fancy word for nuking it off the map. They even have a neat little story about a nuclear reactor meltdown prepared and are so well connected that when a tape pops up at the end of the incident showing what really went down, Umbrella manages to discredit it completely.
This becomes laughable when we meet Albert Wesker in the last three movies. There must be, what, a couple hundred people left in the world, and he is still killing his employees left and right. At the end of Afterlife we find out he has been eating them to feed his own power. That is hitting the audience over the head with the point, but the point is still valid. People are grist for the mill for these corporations. Nothing more.
We get hit over the head again in Retribution when it is claimed (the continuity of the series is beyond screwed by this point) that the apocalypse began when Umbrella started selling the T-Virus to anyone with money to spend, not caring that they would use it and destroy the earth.
Another theme that pops up in the latter part of the series is classism. It begins to rear its head in Apocalypse. The Hive is opened after the incidents of the first movie. Of course we, the audience, know that bad stuff is going to happen because of that. Umbrella knows it too as we see when we learn there’s a protocol for protecting the people who matter to them. As soon as the T-Virus breeches the surface, a series of black SUVs prowl the streets of Raccoon City, collecting scientists and their families and removing them to safety. This is done quietly with no fuss, leaving the scientist’s neighbors to wonder what that was all about. When they find out what is happening, there is already a wall around the city. Everyone is shoe horned out over a single bridge until infection pops up near the exit and it’s shut down for good. People don’t matter to Umbrella. They can be left to fester in the petri dish the city becomes.
We see it again in Extinction when Isaacs talks about domesticating the zombies to use as a workforce. We see traces of it in Afterlife as well, in the character of Bennett, the movie producer who never stops acting like a movie producer. But, really, there’s always one of those in every group in a zombie movie.
Retribution has an interesting take on it. In trying to get clever with the concepts of the series (with largely disagreeable results), we come to find out that everyone is a clone. So we have a group of scientists who have no problem mass-producing people specifically to test situations where they will be killed. Because the worker bees don’t matter. This is also a nice twist on the old Hollywood Voodoo zombie, where a person of color is stolen, has their memories and lives wiped out in order to be a slave. How could you do that if you didn’t think you were better than other people?
Unfortunately, we get hit over the head with classism in The Final Chapter, where a retcon reveals that the entire premise of the series was a group of business people freezing themselves and killing everyone else so they can start the world over again. It’s not surprising that this theme should pop up later in the series as the gap between the haves and have-nots grows in real life.
Probably the biggest theme of this series is the one it shares with most sci-fi movies: The intersection of science and humanity. This is the area where the series pays homage to sci-fi/horror hybrids of the 50’s. This is an issue that has plagued humanity since science started moving forward in leaps and bounds and will continue to do so.
But the way Resident Evil reflects how humanity deals with science is very modern. In your older movies, you had a scientist who created a thing. Sometimes he got scared of his thing and it gets lose. Sometimes he set the thing loose because he thought it was a good thing that will help people. Then he has to help stop the thing and we all learn a lesson.
In the Resident Evil series, a scientist had a problem and created a thing to fix it. The company he worked for said, “hey, that’s a nice thing! But you created it on our dime and we’re gonna take it now!” Then proceeds to actively make the thing into a problem. The scientist attempts to stop them but they kill him and make the thing into a weapon that ruins everything.
There’s a level of Lovecraft style fear of academic advancement here. Humans aren’t supposed to know things. See what happens when people know things? Zombies and desolation, that’s what happens! So we should stop knowing things and everything will be fine!
As people who are watching climate change destroy lives we may get annoyed and shake our heads at such thinking. Ignoring the truth just makes things that much worse.
But the other side of that is humans did destroy the environment, just like the humans who ran Umbrella took a medicine and twisted it into the destruction of mankind. Science is important and we need to keep pushing forward to make the world a better place. But we also need to be mindful that there will always be greedy eyes out there that will steal our ideas and weaponize them, just like Umbrella did.
There are several smaller themes that are dealt with in just one movie. Extinction deals with environmental issues. The Final Chapter has notes of the mindless religious fervor that we’re dealing with in America now. Apocalypse is the height of bureaucratic horror, which the movie invented if that wasn’t a thing before. Afterlife and Retribution have a lot to say about free will. That pops up in Apocalypse too, now I think about it.
I would be remiss not to comment on the feminism these movies run with. The bad ass, super powered characters that get shit done in these movies are mostly female, while the men sit around in boardrooms planning and bossing each other around.
Horror films done well are a way for people to address difficult situations in life and in society. That doesn’t always go well. There are creators who claim to be making a film about brutality of various sorts as an excuse to show that brutality. But sometimes a movie will deal with things in such a cartoonish way, we can’t see how true – and how scary – the message is. That is the case with the Resident Evil movies. So while we giggle about zombies with bazookas (because I giggled because they made me very happy), don’t lose sight of the fact that we may not be too far off from it in the real world. And before you roll your eyes at something you think is silly in a horror film, take a second to think about if it is genuinely silly, or if it is so common in your life you simply don’t recognize how scary it is anymore.