Saturday, 18 September 2010

Resident Evil Afterlife: Making sense was not on the to-do list

The fact that Milla Jovovich keeps on making the movies she makes is one of those headscratchers. Milla is genuinely a smart person, and I happen to think that she's capable of acting in real movies. But what she's actually done ever since she showed up out of the blue in The Fifth Element is methodically chunk out, once a year, an interchangeable action movie in which she shoots, bashes and stabs hordes of faceless mooks for some or other high concept reason pulled out of a computer game or bad science fiction.

I'm not complaining. I think I've actually seen most of those interchangeable action movies and even if I haven't really enjoyed the movies very much, I've always enjoyed Milla. She's got a lot of screen presence, and she's got whatever thing it is that you need to do the physical action well. It's not just athleticism, it's some odd physical equivalent of that mental attitude you need to deliver a good line of witty dialogue. Witty dialogue only works when the actor has convinced you that the character is actually smart enough to be that witty even without a writer. Something similar, but much harder to explain, applies to physical action. There's some sort of numinous swagger that you need to make it click with the audience. Keanu had it in Matrix and Point Break and Speed; Angelina Jolie has it switched on at all times; Milla burned up the screen with it as Leeloo in the Fifth Element and has really never looked back.

It's just as well for Resident Evil Afterlife, because it would be pretty thin soup without her. Oddly enough I found myself thinking that it really was a movie about Afterlives. Look, there's Ali Larter from trainwreck comicbook disaster Heroes! Look, there's Wentworth Miller from so-demented-it's-brilliant who-could-have-believed-it-would-last-three-and-a-bit-seasons Prison Break! Look, there's Kim Coates, skiving off from his real job in Sons of Anarchy. So this is what happens to actors when their TV series end. It's worse than I feared.

Afterlife is pretty terrible as any kind of a movie. It's fine while the camera stays on Milla, but only because you can't go too far wrong keeping the camera on Milla, largely for the same kinds of reasons that allowed Len Wiseman to get away with the first two Underworld movies. It's been made in 3D, apparently using some of James Cameron's technology from Avatar, but to even less apparent useful purpose. I've yet to watch a movie where 3D did anything worthwhile, but it's really hard to say what it did at all in Afterlife.

The movie divides straightforwardly into four acts.

In act one, Milla shows up in force at a vast underground HQ in Tokyo and kills everyone in it. She can do this because she's available in stereo at the outset; an indeterminate number of superpowered clones of Milla carry out the attack, with more and more of them appearing every time the one we're looking at gets killed. I lost count of the bodies very quickly, partly because the mooks are more than usually faceless and partly because the 3D was so murky. Anyhow, all the spare Millas get evaporated thanks to the miracle of the kind of easy to use self destruct system that would never be installed by a genuinely paranoid nutcase plutocrat, and we're back to just the one Milla, now with 100% less superpowers. Although she does still have the superpower of walking out under her own power from a plane crash into a mountain side that turns the plane she's in into a pile of smouldering rubble. Neat.

Next act sees her up in Alaska looking for the last survivors of the zombie holocaust which has wiped out humanity (I'd say that nothing like this happens in real life, but some kind of zombie holocaust seems to have been stalking Hollywood of late, wiping out anyone who can actually write a movie I want to watch). This is really boring, so we'll skip that bit and go straight to her flying to Los Angeles, where she finds a few survivors holed up in a maximum security prison completely surrounded by ravening zombies, in a scene which I think is supposed to be explicitly modelled on the crowds outside an Apple Store when they release the new iPads. Anyhow, Milla somehow lands an aeroplane on the roof of the prison, in one of the movie's several physics-does-not-work-that-way moments, and starts trying to figure out how she can get her new chums through the cordon of undead and out to the freighter in the bay which she has decided is the mysterious Arcadia where good survivors get to go if they're lucky.

Third Act is the whole getting out jail schtick, which features - stunt casting alert! - Wentworth Miller having key knowledge which will help them get out of the jail. Except it doesn't help a damn bit. Most of the survivors stop surviving over the course of the next half hour or so, and there's big fight with a huge mook with a giant hammer. He gets sorted out with four shotgun blasts to the head, all four blasts using nickels rather than buckshot and presumably sending an allegorical message about the way that you can solve all your problems if you don't mind using equal amounts of violence and money. That or something about how Obama was right to look for change, but just wasn't thinking about the right kind of change. I just spent the whole fight thinking it would have been so much better to parachute in Ramona Flowers and HER hammer, and let her sort him out, but instead Milla and Ali Larter do the work much less entertainingly. Sadly I think this was supposed to be some kind of setpiece, because it's incredibly well lit for 3D and very crisp. Unfortunately, it's got literally NOTHING to do with the plot, but of course, it's not like the plot has anything to do with the plot, so I'm really just grumbling that this is the worst example of hey, just do another action scene in a film plagued by the problem.

Anyhow, the featured cast get out of the jail - by means which have nothing to do with Wentworth Miller's expertise - and make their way to the freighter, which turns out to be a trap in which Milla gets to meet the uber-villain who we thought she'd polished off in the opening act. As climactic confrontations go, it's curiously flat and undynamic; it was somewhere around here that the needle on my meh-meter wrapped itself round the bumpstop and I started passively waiting out the inevitable reveals and hoping for the credits to come soon.

The movie ends with a honking great sequel hook; Milla has freed all the survivors on the freighter, but now there's hundreds of helicopters full of faceless mooks heading straight for them and being harangued to go in there and get all kill-y by some dominatrix with way more exposed cleavage than is really sound for the leader of an air assault.

Which leads me into one of my running gripes about the Resident Evil series as a whole. The underlying gag is that the Umbrella Corporation is a vast multi-national that has unintentionally created a zombie potion which has obliterated civilisation. So far, so good. But somehow Umbrella has managed to avoid the collapse and maintain an inexhaustible supply of underground bases, high tech labs, and faceless mooks to hurl at Milla Jovovich wherever she happens to show up. And I can't figure out the logistics of that. It just doesn't add up. One of the things which bugs me is that they don't even seem to have any competition; not only do I have to believe that there's a corporation THAT organised, but I have to buy into the idea that they're unique, and so well coordinated that they don't even have internal rivalries. It's all just too much for my powers of disbelief suspension. As is the other minor logistics problem. Although the Milla clones function as a weird kind of reload, it's the only time anyone worries about reloads. Milla has a pair of matched revolvers which don't ever seem to run out of bullets, but it's even weirder watching people run around firing pairs of submachine guns without ever addressing the problem of how you'd slap in fresh mags with both hands full.

Although Afterlife is an objectively terrible movie, it did have one moment which left me grinning with the sheer enjoyment which comes from a well executed piece of action; Milla dives off the roof of the prison - while it expodes - bungie jumps and bounds along the wall and then bounces into the courtyard before shooting and hacking her way through a throng of zombies to - not exactly safety, but at least not being eaten right this minute. It's a perfect use of that gift I was talking about earlier, and it really underlines how meh the rest of the movie really is.

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