Although I found the first two titles in the Resident Evil series fascinating in a cultural context & entertainingly goofy in select scenes of CG fantasy violence, I failed to fall head over heels for either work as an individual, stand-alone feature film. Watching Milla Jovovich weaponize a motorcycle by launching it through a stained glass church window makes for a fun, dumb action movie moment, but I’ve had a difficult time maintaining that kind of enthusiasm for the entire length of one of these zombie-themed shoot-em-ups. The third film in the franchise changed that for me. Within the first five minutes of Resident Evil: Extinction I felt a huge leap in quality, as if the series had emerged from a direct-to-DVD production value to a legitimate action cinema aesthetic. This is likely a result of hiring Razorback/Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, who cut his teeth directing music videos for 80s acts like The Buggles, The Vapors, and The Human League, to take the reins. Series mastermind Paul WS Anderson still remains a steady hand in the writer’s seat, but Mulcahy brings a slick sense of professionalism to the film’s staging that saves it from the series’ usual idiotic The Matrix But With Zombies formula.
One of the ways Extinction shakes off its stylistic rut is by hitting the reset button, opening with the exact same scenario as the first Resident Evil film. Milla Jovovich’s zombie-slaying protagonist wakes confused & unremembering in the shower, finding her iconic red dress from the franchise’s debut laid out carefully on her bed. As she tries to fight her way out of a military takeover of her home, she’s killed, the scenario is revealed to be a simulation, and her body is dumped on a pile of similarly-dressed clones in a chilling image that recalls the excellent existential horror Triangle. While The Umbrella Corporation’s main stooge (Game of Thrones’s Iian Glen) is literally trying to clone past successes of the franchise with villainous intent, Extinction then blows its derivative, campy treats wide open by shifting from Matrix knockoff to Mad Max knockoff, taking the zombie-infested shit show on the dusty, dusty road. The breakout has spread from Raccoon City to cover the entire globe, making Earth an endless Mad Max hellscape. Just like in the second Resident Evil film, an inconsequential female badass archetype leads a band of anti-Umbrella Corporation rebels until Jovovich arrives to take over. While Glen’s slick-haired corporate jerk is obsessed with cloning her, he also wants to capture & harness the Original Recipe version, which means the small group of desertscape rebels has to fight off the evil corporation in addition to the zombie hordes. Everything that goes down from there is highly stylized, but mostly predictable outside maybe Jovovich’s newfound telepathy abilities, a weaponized murder of crows the rebels fight off with flame throwers, and the casting of R&B singer Ashanti. The movie then doubles back to its origins a second time for another underground showdown with a mutated humanoid beast & some ominous warnings from a creepy child A.I. This is when Jovovich discovers the cloning project, concluding the film on a moment of existential horror.
It’s difficult to convey exactly why Extinction is of a higher quality than its two predecessors. On a writing level, its story is just as scattered & inconsequential as ever and its characters still sport dumb names like Project Alice, White Queen, and (most notably here) K-Mart. There are some new details like a serum that partially domesticates zombies, characters blowing off steam by running over zombie roadkill, and some corporate intrigue nonsense involving hologram boardroom meetings. It’s all very silly, but no more entertaining in and of itself than the silliness of previous franchise entries. I really do think it’s Mulcahy alone who elevates the material by bringing in a strong, stylistic guiding hand that the series desperately needed. He drags Resident Evil out of its nu metal era technophobia into some more timeless (but equally derivative) genre territory. Extinction is a really fun entry in a series so stupidly convoluted in its futuristic zombie mayhem that it doesn’t deserve to be so entertaining this many films in. I’m a little bummed to know that the last three contributions to the franchise all have Anderson returning to the director’s seat, because it seems like the best he can do at this point is knock down what good will Extinction built up in its break from the usual aesthetic. I won’t at all be surprised if this film stands as the best of the bunch and it’s sad to know that the most fun I’ve had with the series is likely already behind me.