Johannes Roberts has a hit and miss (and miss) history of film-making. 47 Metres Down was a great shark nightmare, but the sequel 47 Metres Uncaged was downright awful, and The Other Side of the Door was a bit of a snooze fest. Strangers Prey at Night had a brilliant soundtrack and an excellent scene involving a swimming pool, but was otherwise another lacklustre genre offering. Despite so many disappointing entries on his CV, there’s always something that draws me to giving each of his new entries a chance, the latest, Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City being no exception.
Produced by the director of the original series of films, Paul W. S. Anderson, Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City discards the established franchise, splintering off on its own as it returns to the source material – the Playstation games. Roberts has built a narrative that threads together plot points of the first two games in the series in an attempt to capture the essence of the magic that ignited both a game and film franchise. Set over the course on the fateful night of 30th September 1998, the story sees Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) return to her hometown of Raccoon City to catch up with her estranged brother Chris (Robbie Amell) and expose the evil of the town’s corporate overlord, pharmaceutical giant Umbrella. Claire’s warning comes too late however, as citizens begin to change and mutate into monsters straight out of the very worst of nightmares. Aided by Chris’ colleagues, Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper), and rookie Leon S Kennedy (Avan Jogia), can the team uncover Umbrella’s diabolical plans before it’s too late?
If you are a fan of the first two games then Roberts has created the Resident Evil film for you. This film is crammed full of characters, locations, Easter Eggs, and plot points from the games. In all the years of video game movies existing, few have ever stuck so close to the source material. The original Resident Evil series of films began with a story whose only real connection to the game was the mansion, virus, and Umbrella Corporation. Paul W. S. Anderson’s series also leaned heavily into action and science-fiction, all but completely eliminating the horror-survival aspects of gameplay. Roberts keeps this new narrative grounded firmly within the horror genre, with horror maestro John Carpenter a clear influence on the style and feel of the piece.
The horror of the game infuses within Roberts careful homage to create a film that feels authentic to its inspiration, whilst still keeping something for itself. An opening scene set within the walls of Raccoon City Orphanage is a strong and solid scare sequence. Here, the viewer is introduced to the Redfield siblings as children and whilst helping to set up the differing personalities of the brother and sister, it also paves the way for some early frights. Roberts leans into silence for these scenes, creating maximum tension. Later moments of dread don’t work to the same level, but this strong beginning is enough to grab the viewer’s attention and lure them into the world of Raccoon City.
It’s worth noting that it takes around forty-five minutes of film time to arrive at that opening helicopter flight from the game, meaning that it has more legs than just regurgitating the game. Up until this point there are some nice little nods to the game series, though from this point on they start to come thick and fast. Both the locations of Raccoon City Police Department (RPD) and the Spencer Mansion look as though they’ve been lifted straight off of the game screen. The layout of the mansion is practically identical and those that poured many hours into the Playstation game will find themselves subconsciously knowing what room or area the characters will arrive in next. Other references include the title font (although the film forgoes the voice that read it so well on the game), a tinkling of Moonlight Sonata on the piano, the screwed words “itchy, tasty”, and a shot for shot recreation of that first zombie reveal. Roberts has been so meticulous in his recreation that he even keeps some of the gameplay’s quirky camerawork. A prime example is within the opening orphanage scene. Young Claire moves into a child’s play tent; this is translated on screen with a camera shot behind her, before a few seconds of black, before the camera appears in front of Claire to capture her arrival inside the tent. The sequence is the perfect capture of the loading black transition between opening doors etc. All these elements make for a heck of a fun watch for those that grew up on the games. Gamers beware, you’ll immediately get hit by an overwhelming compulsion to dig out those early games once more.
Despite some great success, the blending of remaining faithful to the Capcom series and originality isn’t entirely cohesive. Intent on calling out exactly who each character is, everyone has their full name disclosed almost every time they encounter someone new, which although very typical of video games, is not something that usually occurs in real-life (or typical film) exchanges. Another weaker element is the passage of time narrative device. The story is set across one evening and so every now and then a time-stamp appears so that the audience has an idea of how the countdown is progressing. Some of these do the job Roberts intends, but others are just confusing. For example a time stamp appears, a couple of short scenes play-out and then the next stamp reveals hours have passed, whilst at other times a load of things happens and only a few minutes have elapsed. It’s confusing to keep a track of, and the flow might have worked slightly better either with some finessing or removing this device completely.
By mixing together the story and characters of both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City does suffer from some bloating issues. The pace of the story works to mirror the sensation of gameplay, starting very slowly before rapidly increasing in violence, horror, and threat. It is with the use of the characters though that the problems come in. The protagonists of the first game are Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, whereas Claire Redfield and Leon S. Kennedy lead the second game. Placing them all alongside one another leaves them all jockeying for position and the screen time isn’t distributed fairly across all characters. The biggest casualty is Chris Redfield, a major part of game one, who disappears for several hours. This absence leads to a massive gap in his story-arc and is a waste of Robbie Ammell’s talent and star power. John-Kamen’s Jill gets fractionally more screen time, but the character also feels short-changed. Claire and Leon fare better, but even their arcs get cut into once the finale is on the horizon. As the momentum builds, just as with the games themselves, the wheels start to come off. A large portion of the story unfolds within the last fifteen minutes or so, rattling along at such a breakneck speed that the viewer gets whacked with whiplash.
What makes Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City extra fun is it’s 1998 setting. Roberts spends time weaving in little pangs of nostalgia with the inclusion of things such as the infamous Nokia phone game, Snake. The soundtrack is also hit after hit after hit, traversing a wide range of musical talent. The Cardigans’ My Favourite Game kicks things off before transitioning into Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (last heard in Rian Johnson’s Looper). Later there’s a wonderfully entertaining sequence set to Jennifer Page’s Crush as well as Journey’s Any Way You Want It and trailer track What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes. So basically, even if the film doesn’t do it for you, then at least you can enjoy some stellar sounds.
Don’t rush away or switch off too soon once the credits roll as there is a mid-credit scene. This inevitably sets up a path for a potential sequel, whilst at the same time introducing another key game character. Those that wish to avoid spoilers should steer clear of the IMDB cast page as this character still features relatively high up the listings on the site.
A return to the form demonstrated in 47 Metres Down, Roberts’ version of a Resident Evil film is the perfect love letter for fans of the game. Those not initiated may struggle to tune into some of the finer aspects, but can still enjoy it for an easy horror action flick. One can only hope that Roberts has exercised his film-making demons in his last few works and is now ready to throw down with the other genre creators around. Whether this film performs well enough (especially given its pandemic and close-to-Christmas release) to earn a sequel remains to be seen, but there’s enough quality here to whet the appetite for more. One for the game purists, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City will have you pulling the old game and console out storage for a proper trip down memory lane.
Resident Evil Welcome to Raccoon City is available in UK cinemas now.