What the 'Resident Evil' Movie Reboot Could Draw From

As the remake of 1998's 'Resident Evil 2' hits shelves, it's time to look at the decades of storytelling that could inspire the new film adaptation.

Get ready to return to Raccoon City.

This week, Capcom releases Resident Evil 2, its remake of the 1998 game of the same name, to consoles and PC. In the midst of killing zombies, dodging bio-organic weapons and dying (a lot), it was difficult not to consider how these elements could be adapted to film. Yes, we’ve had six theatrical Resident Evil films, the majority directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, but while they have their merits, they are not Resident Evil.

The Resident Evil film franchise (2002-2016) consists of slick and entertaining entries that helped Milla Jovovich break out as one of the major action stars of the 21st century, but they are narratively unfocused ventures that cobble together elements of the games for the sake of set pieces and money shots. There’s a reason why these games have held the appeal they have for 23 years, and it comes from likeable characters, engaging scenarios and, above all, damn good scares. It’s time for Resident Evil to get the cinematic adaptations it deserves.

In December, we learned that Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down, The Strangers: Prey at Night) will be writing and directing a reboot of Resident Evil for Constantin Films. The filmmaker, who is making his mark with tense and atmospheric low-budget horror movies, is a good choice to bring Resident Evil to screen in a new way. But the position won’t be easy. Despite the reservations many fans of the video games have about the Jovovich-led film franchise, the series’ $1.2 billion worldwide gross — and the fact that there are six entries — is evidence there are plenty of fans who enjoyed Alice’s adventures.

“Reboot” is often treated as a dirty word among film fans, but Resident Evil as an adaptation, as opposed to an original concept, stands a strong chance of getting new fans on board. Plus, horror tends to invite a more favorable response, especially if this reboot lives up to its potential. Still, Resident Evil needs to feel like it’s offering something new, not just in terms of a Resident Evil film, but also as a zombie film in a market that has become oversaturated with media featuring the undead. Across seven central games, we’ve narrowed down the elements we’d want to see in what we’re hoping will be the first great Resident Evil film adaptation.

The Story

The new pic is rumored to be greatly influenced by Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017). Although it’s the seventh entry, Biohazard provides a great jumping-on point that brings the franchise back to its horror roots after the action-heavy and narratively muddled Resident Evil 6 (2012). The game follows new character Ethan Winters as he searches a plantation home in Louisiana for his missing wife, a researcher for bio-chemical organization The Connections. Biohazard takes the Resident Evil tranchise into the realm of the Southern Gothic, delivering the kind of sun-soaked rot that would make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper proud. Ethan’s search brings him into confrontation with the Baker family, infected locals responsible for kidnappings and murders in the area.  

The games rely heavily on puzzles to move from one area to the next, something Anderson’s movies largely abandoned after the first pic. As a key part of Resident Evil’s identity, puzzles are definitely something the film reboot should reintroduce in order to separate it from other survival horror movies. It’s easy to imagine Escape Room (2019) being a primary influence on bringing some of the game’s challenges to the screen and keeping audiences on the edges of their seats. While some of the puzzles stretched narrative logic and simply existed for gameplay and not for story, Biohazard found an organic way to introduce the concept through crazed inventor Lucas Baker.

In broad strokes, Biohazard isn’t entirely unlike the first game Resident Evil (1996), in which a group of special forces operatives, led by series mainstays Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, investigate a Victorian manor in the Arklay mountains, outside of the fictional Raccoon City. While Resident Evil movies have a history of merging too many elements, these two games could easily be blended together to make a functional and exciting story. The first Resident Evil movie (2002) already utilized much of the manor setting, so taking the story to a plantation in the South would give the film a different aesthetic. And given the history of slavery in Louisiana, there’s a unique opportunity to explore how this modern structure of corporate evil, The Connections, and its mind-control experiments have created this new form of submission and body horror.

The Characters

Undoubtedly, the most anticipated prospect of a Resident Evil reboot is seeing which characters will lead the film. Most of Resident Evil’s classic game characters were reduced to glorified cameos in the prior movie installments. And when they did show up, they held little in common with their game characters. Resident Evil isn’t particularly known for deep characters with a strong handle on dialogue, but at the very least they are defined to the point where players have preferences and get pleasure out of seeing character arcs followed up on. If anything, a film adaptation should strengthen the characters from the games, rather than place them in the background.

If Resident Evil does end up being mostly influenced by Biohazard, an alteration we'd welcome would be replacing Ethan Winters. Winters isn’t a bad character by any means, but he’s new and lacks the history and fandom behind him. Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, who were portrayed by Sienna Guillory and Wentworth Miller, respectively, are obvious characters to start with. But it’s worth considering the fact that Jill and Chris are considered to be experts in their fields, and if the pic wants to aim for a less action-packed perspective with characters who are immediately thrown in over their heads, then maybe rookie characters like Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, previously portrayed by Johann Urb and Ali Larter, would be more fitting as protagonists to start with. Centering the film on two characters who are split up during the events of the story would be a nice nod to the Resident Evil games’ frequent option to play through the campaign as one of two characters. We shouldn’t expect the film reboot to follow any of the games exactly, but if the tone is largely matched and we’re following characters we’re familiar with, then a large part of Resident Evil’s success will already be accounted for.

The Creatures

We’ve hit peak zombie. The undead are everywhere, in our movies, our television series and our comic books. The classic zombie approach will no longer work for Resident Evil. Luckily, Resident Evil has always had varied creatures, a result of the Umbrella Corporation’s experiments with different viruses. The film reboot should stray as far from the rules of zombies as possible, opting for creatures closer to those seen in the criminally underseen Overlord (2018) and The Void (2016), which are the best unofficial Resident Evil movies to date. Biohazard further departed from zombies by presenting The Molded, evolved fungus types that are just as frightening as any of the lower-tier fodder to come out of the previous six entries. The Resident Evil reboot shouldn’t hesitate to pit a variety of bio-organic monsters against our insufficiently armed protagonists — and hopefully ones created by practical effects.

Another key element of the Resident Evil games is, of course, boss battles. The previous film series burned through baddies like the Licker, Nemesis, the Tyrant and Wesker. We’re hoping that the new series introduces these core creatures a little more carefully and gets creative with their use of them, i.e. less gun battles and more genuinely frightening scenarios. We’d even be happy to see none of the familiar big bads in this reboot and instead see the newly introduced Eveline and the Bakers serve as the primary antagonists, complete with their Thing-esque transformations.

The Future

There’s surely a lot Resident Evil fans are expecting to see in the film reboot, but perhaps the most important thing to hope for in Roberts’ adaptation is that it takes things slow. We don’t need nods to every game in the first installment, and if we want this to become a series then it’s even more important that we allow familiar elements to come together naturally. To pave new ground, familiar elements like the Umbrella Corporation and Raccoon City should be hinted at through The Connections and hopefully the inclusion of traitor Albert Wesker, but should be saved for a more focused exploration in later installments. And the same goes for our protagonists, too. Because as much as we’d like to see Chris, Jill, Claire, Leon, Barry and Ada all share the same space, that moment should be earned.

Ultimately, we hope that Johannes Roberts’ Resident Evil is a character focused, practical effects-driven, atmospheric and scary horror film that isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeves. After all, the Resident Evil game series has survived this long not by rewriting the rules of horror, but by finding a cohesiveness within some of the genre’s best elements. It’s certainly a good time to be a fan of the Resident Evil games, and if the film reboot can follow suit, then the resulting enthusiasm will be a virus we’ll gladly spread.

The Resident Evil 2 remake is available Friday.

  • Richard Newby