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‘Resident Evil: Extinction’ and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Dawn of Self-Awareness

Written by Molly Faust on September 21, 2017 


Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

What happens when, even ten years on, a masterpiece still has not received its due? Well, you keep pushing for it, even in the face of a macrostructure of art evaluation that will have to collapse entirely for the work in question to even be taken seriously. This is a scrape of that structure in the name of its victim, Resident Evil: Extinction.

The Resident Evil series has, in recent years, found its subculture of defending critics gain notoriety, though those directed by Paul W.S. Anderson receive the bulk of that attention. While great films in their own right, it is a shame that they’ve overshadowed this film, which marks a key development for Anderson (who writes and produces here): the dawn of his self-awareness that the characters share in, and to profound effect. While one may expect a genre-film artist to take the piss out of themselves in understanding their own pettiness, Anderson identifies a great tragedy in the marginalization of his characters. A humanist current runs through a landscape of cheekily obvious genre heritage, the full weight of their emotions placed against a backdrop sucked dry of them by a history of diminishing returns and the cynicism that it could be considered anything else, a sense that undercuts the paralleling glee in the melding of influences.

To look plainly at the narrative, Alice’s (Milla Jovovich) clones provide a basis for this soul-bearing case for the validity of mimicry. One of Anderson’s main obsessions as an artist working almost exclusively in adaptation has been the reflexive notion of facade, or something paraded as legitimate when it is, in fact, borrowed. The film opens with recycled footage from the franchise’s first entry — setting itself up to question its place as a supposedly artistically cheap “clone” of the original, as well as its genre ancestors (e.g. The Road Warrior, The Birds, and Day of the Dead). Soon the opening sequence morphs into a maze consisting of environments from the first two films that Alice (or, as we soon find out, a clone of hers) ends up failing to navigate. This opening not only displays the possibility for invention in recycling — it is genuinely thrilling to watch the very first portion in its fidelity and subtle difference, in no small part due to the focus of the sequence being Alice / Clone Alice waking up with no memory and no known identity. The zombies are similarly stripped of their identity, becoming, as does Alice, nothing more than a device towards an artpiece’s end. They and her clones form parallel hordes, one with uniqueness lost and another never found, though they are redeemed by the generosity of the film, a Frankensteined reproduction in itself, towards all such duplicate beings.

The original Alice gains a status akin to a platonic form — not only in relation to attempts to copy her, but via her status as the franchise’s center. She wanders the desert as a singularity, Jovovich’s voice breaking as she later tells Oded Fehr — whose own voice seems entirely, robotically ADRed so he melds with the flesh of the films itself — that it’s “just safer if [she’s] not around people.” Winning Homer’s Contest brings with it a profound loneliness. Alice’s solace comes in the form of a subtle psychic communion with her clones, the only “people,” nay, people she can in fact be around, even as their deaths are also tragic because their function is heroism, not living and loving.

This inherency of character roles, going back to Anderson’s forgotten 1998 Blade Runner universe film Soldier, is another tragic limitation the characters he traps in his films often suffer through. In 2017’s franchise conclusion, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Alice speaks the words “this is what I do,” though they now bring with them a triumphant ring. Any film character, even with the most human gestures, is a recorded being and can only follow one trajectory in their lives. Even Alice, appearing in multiple films, is only ever really five new clones of the one in the first film — though she doesn’t have the misfortune of also being a clone of a character from the games, a fate the franchise itself cannot avoid. They cannot break free of predestination, but they can embrace it, for such is the path to idealization. (Anderson’s starkest example of this comes in the star-crossed Pompeii.) But even this ascent into godhood can only ever be settling for the best that slavery has to offer them. Freedom becomes an impossibility, and no matter what triumph might accompany succumbing to this oppression, it is what it is.

Beyond the brilliance of Extinction‘s tone, theme, and narrative, the form, of course, must play a role as well. Romero-esque action scenes of static shots and miniature ellipses give each shot an “ideal” quality with the space in time around it and the privilege of serving its own space rather than the sequence’s. The sequence is an object too, however, and these miniature ideals create it just as they comprise their influences, like sand grains in a sandcastle. This layered communism of the convoy, the filmmaking, and the theory all make for a profound composite work on composites, with sorrowful humility and anger for its place as a capitalist object for profit.

There’s a misconception that every dumpster diver expects to find something so dense and so endearing on every try. The truth is that works such as this fuel that eternal hope, and allow plunges for such values even within corrupted works. But this writer has found her engagement diamond in the rough, and now resides there.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

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