I’ll be the first to admit that while I know they are a collection of dumpster fire vanity projects to keep his wife working in films, the “Resident Evil” franchise is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Even as someone who likes these awful films for no particular reason, my desire to see “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” was at an all time low. I really only caught an early screening to stay ahead of the December awards rush. So you can imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a pretty good movie. Like, shockingly better than ever should or needed to be.
“Welcome to Raccoon City” trades out overly stylized CGI for atmospheric practicality. This proves to be the right choice, as the film’s overall vibe and tension is its main strength. Unlike previous entries, this one seems to understand what makes “Resident Evil” such a popular video game franchise. It’s not particularly a great movie, but the bar for both “Resident Evil” films and video game adaptions is so low that when one gets even half of it right, it automatically raises its standing. “Welcome to Raccoon City” may have some script and pacing issues, but makes up for it with solid directorial execution and a clear desire to try and maintain the integrity of the game franchise.
The film is written and directed by Johannes Roberts who’s most notably works include “47 Meters Down” and “The Strangers: Prey at Night.” Roberts is no stranger (pun intended) to the horror genre, and his familiarity with it is a clear reason as to why he got the job of rebooting “Resident Evil.” He clearly knows his way around a dark hallway and empty, mountain town street, and shows tremendous restraint when it comes to the scares and T-virus zombies. Gone are the over the top ridiculous layers of style and gloss that previous entries were so keen on creating. Roberts is all about patience and grit, focusing on creating that same haunting atmosphere the games are known for. He’s a much better director than he is a writer, with the script being a bit too ambitious and sprawling in its reach to include as much as it possibly can into one film. It also doesn’t really do our heroes any favors with dialogue, but more on that later.
“Welcome to Raccoon City” is pretty slim on the details, opting to not get too far down the lore rabbit hole (or create stories and characters that have nothing to do with the games) and focus on the basics. Claire (Kaya Scodelario) and Chris Redfield (Robbie Amell) are siblings being raised in an orphanage in the heart of Raccoon City that is completely run by The Umbrella Corp. After a harrowing encounter with a “monster” no believes exists, Claire escapes the orphanage and the city, only to return after learning of some of Umbrella Corporation’s misdeeds to save her brother. The RPD prepare for the night shift, only to discover that Umbrella’s relocation is more daunting than they realized, with plans to destroy the entire town at 6am. As the experiments begin to take over the city, Claire, Chris, and the ragtag group of remaining RPD officers must try to not only survive the night but escape before the city is leveled.
Now, there are some that seem to miss the horrendous previous entries. I’ve seen quite a few reviews that long for the glitz and glamor and “everyone look at my wife” of Paul WS. Anderson instead of the stripped down, close to the source material version of “Welcome to Raccoon City.” I said it up top, I actually like all of the previous films. However, I’m not going to sit here and conjure up compliments in hindsight as a way to dunk on this new entry for being stylistically different. I can enjoy the franchise without convincing anyone that any of them are good movies; they aren’t. But you do have to decide what kind of “Resident Evil” adaption you want, because “Welcome to Raccoon City” is a departure from everything that came before it. For me, this was a good thing, and where the film actually thrives for fans of both the games and zombie flicks. The film kind of functions as both, sticking true to source material while also using the zombie outbreak blueprint for the overall narrative structuring.
So where does it misstep? Robert’s script is easily one of the films biggest weaknesses. Though infinitely better than whatever Anderson directed, it’s not better by too much. “Welcome to Raccoon City” is burdened by trying to do too much at once, causing the film to feel a little choppy and disconnected at times. It tries its best to hold it all together, but it never quite feels like a complete film. It’s a lot of adaptive ideas strung together loosely by plot points and familiar characters. While the dialogue may be better this time around, it’s not better by much. In fact, people noticeably curse weird throughout the whole film. I’m not one to shy away from a good f bomb (as most swear words are included in my daily minute by minute speech), but for whatever reason it stands out like a sore thumb in “Welcome To Raccoon City.” It feels like the way kids curse; they don’t really know how to use it properly but they’re so excited to say it that they just kind substitute it everywhere. This is a first for me, as cursing isn’t something I’ve ever noticed or commented on before. That should tell you have strange it is in “Welcome to Raccoon City,” and especially now that I’ve pointed it out, you won’t be able to help but notice it too.
There also really isn’t an antagonist. No, zombies don’t count. I mean yes, technically William Birkin (Neal McDonough) is the antagonist, but he’s not really a focus nor a real threat even during the film’s climax. He’s also not in it enough to give credence to him being the main villain, and “Welcome to Raccoon City” is scarce on the details for just about everything. Again, the script is at fault here for not really being about to balance adherence to the source material with adaptive liberties to function as a compelling story. Fans of the games with know everybody instantly, and while the plot is stripped down to its bare bones, Roberts may have taken the “less is more” a little too seriously. There are some things that do work, but overall the writing is only slightly better than its predecessors.
Where it shines is with the atmosphere it creates. “Welcome to Raccoon City” does an incredible job of building tension through aesthetic, relying on practical set pieces and a few clever camera tricks to really make you feel like you’re stuck in the dark surrounded by infected, flesh eating monsters. This is where choosing to stick to the source material as closely as possible pays off. The sets are impressive, and Roberts has clearly played “Resident Evil 2” and builds Raccoon City with all the joy of a teenager playing the game for the first time. He’s patient and purposeful in his vision, and fans will be impressed with the recreated RPD Police Station and Spencer’s Mansion. Roberts clearly understands that we want to see one of our favorite games be brought to life, and his focus on trying to do just that pays off in a big way. It feels like a big budget film and a b movie simultaneously, which is attributed to Roberts’ ability for tension through visualization.
“Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” isn’t the best film I’ve seen, and it’s not quite the best video game adaption, either. But it’s better than every entry before it, and better than I ever gave it credit for. It didn’t suck, and frankly the bar has been set so low that that’s about the best we could hope for. I don’t want to take away from the film’s successes, either. The film has its flaws, but its strengths offset most of them to make the film pretty enjoyable. And ya, I’d say the film is good even on its own merits, without having to be compared to anything else.
If you were on the fence or worried that it would be an unmitigated disaster, rest assured it’s a solid zombie flick and a pretty faithful adaption of the games. “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City” is better than it should be and better that you might expect, and delivers enough scares and haunting atmosphere to make it an enjoyable experience.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
It shambles into theaters on November 24th, 2021.