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Review: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City Lumbers to Capture Its Gaming Roots

Johannes Roberts’s prequel ultimately remains buried by its indifference to unchecked corporate power.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City
Photo: Screen Gems

Johannes Roberts’s Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City takes us back to the night of September 30, 1998, just before the Umbrella Corporation’s underground experiments wreaked apocalyptic havoc on the world. Still, with the pharmaceutical giant having closed up shop and moved elsewhere while Raccoon City’s residents inexplicably grow sicker, it’s already clear that doom is on the horizon. And as Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) arrives in her former hometown to warn her brother, Chris (Robbie Amell), about the rumours of Umbrella’s wrongdoings, the truck she’s hitching a ride on suddenly hits someone as they lumber out into the road, only for them to get up and continue wandering into the night.

Aiming to return the series to its roots, Raccoon City mimics the plot of Capcom’s first two Resident Evil games, as well as shoehorns in many of the franchise’s signature characters. Chris is part of Raccoon City’s special task force S.T.A.R.S., alongside Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper), Richard Aiken (Chad Rook), and Brad Vickers (Nathan Dales), who are all sent out on this fateful day to investigate strange disturbances at the Umbrella-owned Spencer Mansion. Meanwhile, with the town placed on lockdown, Claire hooks up with disgruntled local police chief Brian Irons (Donal Logue) and rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia) in order to try and find Chris and an escape route while avoiding the hordes of zombies that have begun roaming the streets of Raccoon City.

Reboots are largely about nostalgia and Raccoon City constantly spotlights its pre-Y2K setting, with the camera fetishizing Palm Pilots and pagers while amping up the soundtrack with ‘90s pop ballads. Roberts manages to create some amusingly metatextual diversions in this regard, like when pilot Vickers fails to notice an approaching threat while playing Snake on his chunky Nokia cellphone or when a flame-engulfed zombie wanders into the lobby of the local police station to the chorus of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” Other moments are less inspired, like when Claire has to explain what a chat room is to Chris—“It’s a room where you chat online,” she deadpans—a joke that lands with the thud of a Nintendo Power strategy guide.

Yet for the film’s first hour or so, Roberts, who proved himself a slick B-movie craftsman with his deliriously fun 47 Meters Down films, capably balances this cheeky humor with the steadily mounting dread of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse. Roberts clearly establishes the hauntingly depressed industrial environment of Raccoon City (shot in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario) while methodically spacing out his zombie attacks, which, while not especially innovative, at times put a pit in your stomach like the Resident Evil games do.

Unfortunately, Raccoon City’s second half hews closer to the methodology of Roberts’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, whose focus on characters running around dimly lit outdoor environments was a marked shift away from the close-quarters tension of Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers. Once the S.T.A.R.S. team inevitably discovers that the laboratories in Spencer Mansion’s basement were being used for human experiments and the creation of the (un)deadly T- and G-viruses, our heroes spend the rest of the film routinely fleeing from the CGI beasties that start rampaging out of the woodwork. Instead of effectively capturing the chaos of a shooter game, though, Roberts’s images coalesce into a mass of incoherent sludge.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films remain a benchmark of success for video game adaptations, and at their best (the original, Afterlife, and Retribution) they brought the games’ visions to life with addictively cool techno-goth aesthetics, eye-popping production designs, and demented action set pieces. Failing to adequately replace any of these things, Raccoon City only reveals its lack of personality the longer it progresses, particularly since no one among the anonymously attractive cast is able to fill the shoes of Milla Jovovich’s badass Alice.

Anderson’s take on the misdeeds of the Umbrella Corporation was also trenchant and prophetic, imagining a future world where corporate greed has completely overtaken the need for human existence itself (the rampant clones and simulation worlds of Retribution being one of the more creatively satisfying representations). Roberts attempts a similar exposé in initially positioning his story as a stand-in for any number of real-life corporate malfeasance cases, with the revelation that Umbrella has been pumping the T-virus through Raccoon City’s water systems signaling a parallel to the crisis in Flint, Michigan. But instead of plumbing this intriguing thematic premise, the filmmaker pulls away just as he’s finished setting it up.

Raccoon City does still go out of its way to give a face to its corporate evil: William Birkin (Neal McDonough), the head scientist mostly responsible for the atrocities committed by Umbrella in the name of a skewed idea of progress. McDonough, possibly one of the most underrated character actors of our time, is more than up to the task of embodying the slimy M.O. of corporatism run amok, and yet he’s given too little screen time for any of it to truly register. The film briefly jolts back to life when William re-emerges for the climax and mutates into an impressively grotesque viral creature, but after so much interminably aimless plotting, Raccoon City ultimately remains buried by its indifference to unchecked corporate power.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Hannah John-Kamen, Neal McDonough, Tom Hopper, Robbie Amell, Donal Logue, Avan Jogia, Avaah Blackwell, Stephannie Hawkins, Lily Gao, Marina Mazepa, Nathan Dales Director: Johannes Roberts Screenwriter: Johannes Roberts Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 107 min Rating: R Year: 2021

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