“For what it’s worth, ‘Welcome to Raccoon City’ is one of the most loyal ‘Resident Evil’ adaptations, though for most viewers this will count for very little.”
Resident Evil is one of the most important and best respected video games, and this film celebrates a landmark 25 years of the franchise. The first game in 1996 was a revolution for playable horror, and naturally this long-running series has seen adaptations in film and television. The live action ones have been commercial successes, but none of these works have been regarded as high-quality entertainment by critics or fans. Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City appears to aim higher than anything that has come before it by taking on the challenge of adapting Resident Evil 1 & 2‘s iconic stories. The effort is admirable and fans of the games will see many nods they’ll appreciate. Ultimately though, the ambition that powers the film can’t stop the final result from being an abject failure.
The story brings back lots of familiar characters and locations, though it puts them into fresh arrangements. It begins with series veterans Claire (Kaya Scodelario) and Chris Redfield (Robbie Amell) living in the Raccoon City orphanage, run by the Umbrella Corporation’s Dr. William Birkin (Neal McDonough), and there are big hints of strange things afoot. Fast forward to 1998 and Claire returns to her hometown, confident that there are sinister activities underway that threaten everyone. Before long many familiar characters appear, most crucially Leon (Avan Jogia), Jill (Hannah John-Kamen) and Wesker (Tom Hopper), who uncover the mystery via iconic locations like the Spencer Mansion. It’s a fan’s dream to see a Resident Evil adaptation that takes long-established lore so seriously, even placing the adventure within the era of the original games.
It’s hard to imagine anyone expecting an Oscar winner with this material, but the start is nevertheless well-crafted. Tension and fear are surprisingly prominent as Claire makes her way around the dark, isolated, decaying city, and events increasingly hint at the inevitable zombie onslaught. Welcome to Raccoon City is very different to the film’s action-oriented predecessors, more loyal to the survival horror that characterises most Resident Evil games. There’s shlock, too, with cliché dialogue and some awkward camerawork, but initially it appears in homage to its roots: ’70s horror and the sometimes-janky games themselves. The combination of quality and quirkiness suggests that this could be a successor to George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005).
But the promise of good entertainment is based on this early simplicity, which unfortunately doesn’t last for long. The storylines soon begin to pile up: the fracturing police squad investigating the zombie attacks, Umbrella’s larger scale plot, Chris’s relationship with William Birkin, the secrets of the orphanage, et cetera. There’s no real throughline to the plot, which makes it nigh on impossible to care about anything happening on screen. Such bizarre pacing means that the atmosphere established early on totally disappears, and the performances lose their luster with increasingly rushed exposition. By the time the film ends, it feels like a whole lot of nothing has happened, and the main residual feelings are boredom and tiredness.
Unfortunately, there’s not even anything stylistic that can rescue the film from its mangled plot. It looks consistently cheap, with the limited number of sets determined largely by the story but feeling like the result of a very low budget. There aren’t any shots that establish the scale of Raccoon City or the presence of the Umbrella Corporation, for instance, which makes the large scale narrative feel far too contained. A glimpse of the police station’s iconic interior is so poorly created that it evokes a YouTuber’s proof of concept rather than something suitable for the big screen. The whole thing has the kind of poor lighting and limited locations that could be expected and excused with a fan-made film, not the follow-up to the $300 million grossing Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016).
For what it’s worth, Welcome to Raccoon City is one of the most loyal Resident Evil adaptations, though for most viewers this will count for very little. The previous live action movies took aspects from the games and chucked them into a largely original universe, and the results were often stupid but at least sometimes fun. This film brings many familiar elements to the screen for the first time; yet in every instance, the source material manages to outshine this remixed take. So much running time is spent on hitting familiar beats that Welcome to Raccoon City feels more like a live action Wikipedia entry than a big-screen reimagining. If the film had some of its own personality — maybe an edge of camp or ultra-violent grit — it might have something to offer.
It’s very unlikely anyone would come away satisfied by this film, being the beginning of a rebooted series that doesn’t leave any promise. There are a few good moments that will satisfy fans and non-fans, but the random, mashed-up plot drains most of the film’s potential. Its confused narrative and shockingly low-budget look means it fails to capture the franchise’s horror or delightful melodrama, making for a watch that is bizarre and a world away from the slick, methodical construction of many modern blockbusters. The fact that Resident Evil film and television adaptations are still so poorly made suggests it’s a franchise that will struggle to ever work on the screen. Unable to capture the tone or quality of the source material, this film will likely only encourage audiences to replay the infinitely better games as a palate cleanser.
Header image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Johannes Robert
Producer(s): James Harris, Robert Kulzer, Harvey Gorenstein
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Robbie Amell, Neal McDonough, Avan Jogia, Hannah John-Kamen, Tom Hopper
Release Date: 2021