erik reeds’s review published on Letterboxd:
It has become such a cliched statement by this point in the modern world to say that great art is often not acknowledged in its own era. While misconceptions about art are frequently endowed upon younger generations by people who have no real contact with it (the pretentious art critic trope comes to mind), this is one that sticks out as at least partially truthful in my mind. Yet despite this unanimous historical fact that we all seem to share (typically sold as some sort of bizarre success story under capitalist systems; van Gogh died miserably but at least he made art people liked decades later), there seems to be the notion that it is all about the immediate reaction to a work of art, or an auteur, or a movement. That we have such confidence in what is ultimately a temporal illusion, despite the knowledge of how underappreciated great art is, is surely just another irony in how many people view art. This irony has become so commented upon though that entire movements dedicated to overturning this thinking have been extremely successful; with film, the main one being that of the Hitchcocko-Hawksians of the ‘50s Cahiers du Cinema. Those who maintained that mainstream critics were wrong about, among other things, the value in American genre films. Those who believed that a Hawks screwball had as much to say about the human condition as a Mizoguchi melodrama. Perhaps most importantly, those who stressed the need for independent thinking on a critical level.
Today, of course, we are taught Hitchcock and Hawks in schools. Everyone in film is aware of their influence and prestige, and though ultimately not everyone likes them, there is a degree of appreciation which is likely obvious to a post-Cahiers world. We are so quick to accept our past “mistakes” and so slow to seriously consider our current mentalities, and this idea permeates through film criticism as well as a number of other facets. But in film criticism, this is even more exaggerated than normal. Consider Armond White, surely an insightful and singular critic, and perhaps one of the most educated people in the industry on criticism, film, and how those two things relate to popular culture; a figure who stresses, like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in their critical days, the importance of thinking independently with regards to a film’s quality. And today, just as surely as back then many decades ago, he faces intense flaming for maintaining this, with frequent claims of contrarianism for going against common critical consensuses.
The sort of opposition to the modern world of criticism that the Cahiers originally adopted was just that, adopted: it’s hardly a groundbreaking concept to disagree with general notions of what makes great art. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” by Clover, often considered the one truly essential paper on slasher horror, exists in itself as a rebuttal against critical norms of the time and which has ultimately gone on to be predictive of critical climates and how they react to so-called lower art. Likewise, the loosely constructed vulgar auteurism movement is, while somewhat of a ripoff of the original auteur theory, a mode of thinking which has surely been around for centuries, if unspoken for many of them. It is about reappraising genre filmmakers (Zack Snyder, Paul W.S. Anderson, Neveldine/Taylor) and appreciating others whose works are often not given proper credit (Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, David Cronenberg).
All of this is to say that, when considering such an incredible film as Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, one must at least partially suspend conventional wisdom with regards to film criticism. One should probably already be doing that, but if that’s not the case, now is as good a time as any, because the gap of enjoyment between those who are able to do so and those who cling to their self-serious dramatic genre ventures is vast. Perusing through RottenTomatoes or Letterboxd reveals as much; bitter hatred comes from typically pedestrian reviewers, and passionate consideration (not love; consideration) is frequently brought on by more diverse personalities completely. There’s no objectivist argument or anything here, and surely exceptions can be made in both categories; but ultimately there does appear to be a pattern here which backs up my similar statement on how the enjoyment is dependent to an extent on how much the viewer can suspend disbelief of convention as opposed to disbelief of logic. Then again, when have convention and logic ever been very correlated?
There are surely dozens of examples one can come up with for mainstream films that have critical statuses they disagree with, but that’s not entirely the point here. The point is the paradoxical reading of genre films by people who ultimately aren’t sure what they want from them in the first place. For genre films that are considered more serious, the logically hilarious The Dark Knight Rises is commonly selected by both critics and masses alike, fit with its inaccuracies in numerous fields. For those that are simply to be more fun, something with actual dramatic ambitions like, say, every Marvel Cinematic Universe film is a frequent choice. Where does that leave The Final Chapter, a film that is surely incoherent in many ways, and self-serious in others? Usually in the dust, for the same reasons that are conveniently overlooked when dealing with more conventionally accepted blockbusters. Again, the point of this paper is not to say that these people are objectively wrong for holding these stances, or that intersectionality can’t apply to film criticism, it’s just a way to call attention to a duality that surely many viewers are not even really cognizant of.
With this extended viewing guide of sorts over, discussion of the film itself – bereft of the “baggage” it has (which is a sub-40% on RottenTomatoes and a few poor ratings by the masses) – can be conducted on a more academic level. Perhaps the first thing to notice about this film is that it is edited at a breakneck speed; the average shot length is surely around the one or two second mark, creating such a rapid rhythm that it rivals the 24-images per second ratio of a Brakhage film. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply lazy frantic editing, but comparing the editing of this film to the previous films in the series (particularly the fifth film, Retribution, which is more of an art-house film than anything else in terms of cinematography and editing) reveals that this is an intentional choice on behalf of the filmmaker. The primary reason for this is likely due to the film’s editor being frequent Neveldine/Taylor collaborator Doobie White; a man whose blindingly fast pacing has given him such a singular vision that the majority of vulgar auteurists have at least dabbled in his style in some way. While this may seem like a neat stylistic aside more than anything significant, the fact that so many compare instead of contrast the editing of the films in the Resident Evil series yet focus on the plots of the film suggests a fatal misunderstanding of what a genre film can be. While they can certainly have significant dramatic payoff (Terminator 2, E.T., The Mangler), oftentimes the purpose of creating a genre film is to achieve separate pleasures altogether.
The Final Chapter makes this obvious. Ostensibly, it is an action film in its editing, a science fiction film in its setup, and a horror film in its execution. Through these modes of filmmaking, The Final Chapter is able to reveal truths via its tropes (and occasional subversions of them) that would be impossible to do in a domestic drama, and although a series of immediate subjects arise for the film to comment on (class differences highlighted by the Umbrella Corporation and various copies/holograms/undead versions of characters representing technological distrust come to mind), the aspect of the film which seems the most dependent on its genre tropes is that of hope. Through fascist mega-corps, monsters, outbreaks of mutated and quick-running zombies, six feature-length films, betrayals, the loss of superpowers, clones of villains which take an entire film to kill, and various traps, the protagonist across the entire series, Alice, retains her undying sense of hope for mankind even as it evaporates before her very eyes.
Where genres such as science fiction and horror can exaggerate reality as we know it, they are also able to exaggerate personas, emotions, and moods. The effects of the primary hyperboles are more resonant in pop culture; one remembers the Xenomorph and not Ripley’s larger than life plot armor, power, and complacent submissiveness. David Bordwell has famously noted the value of psychological realism of classic Hollywood films, and how their quality, in the public eye, is dependent on whether this ideal is upheld. Because this culture of valuing human psychology over physical humans, there is a cognitive estrangement when watching a film like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter that goes far beyond older notions of Brechtian distancing; the effect of seeing a heroine who lives through the elite winning at the cost of the entire world’s population still have enough hope in her to carry out one last movie is such a difficult one to process rationally because it’s so far removed from what we are used to seeing in regular people. Determination and hope are surely human virtues, but when something is taken to this extreme it is this logical ineptitude we focus on, and hardly the zombies with spiky tentacles for mouths. Contrasting this with acclaimed genre film classics, when psychological realism suits our needs it is simply ignored (Alien), and when it doesn’t, it becomes the negative focus (The Mangler). Lack of realism is usually only called into question when it is of the psychological kind.
The cognitive estrangement in abandoning psychological realism is what allows Paul W.S. Anderson to overcome difficult cinematic obstacles (like portraying leftist allegories without any connection to the real world). As noted by a host of Letterboxd critics, there are somewhat obvious parallels between the Umbrella Corporation and real-life authoritarian capitalism. Since PWSA is working within not one or two but three separate genres, all with their own tropes, his finished product is less of a representation of a world where Germany won WWII and more of a fantasy land of high concept science fiction, the same last girl in every movie, and incoherent villain motivations to set up for action setpieces. Through this playground of sorts, conclusions about this abstract reality can be redirected back to modern political landscapes: no matter how much stronger the “system” appears to get (for Resident Evil it’s Umbrella, for the real world it’s immoral authority), there will always be hope for a new world, and anyone can become a hero in this context. This is, of course, an extremely boring message to be fed over and over after the course of several movies with extremely similar plots. But the power that The Final Chapter holds is that it’s so fragmented due to the constant cognitive estrangement that what appears cliched instead holds a level of abstract transcendence fit for a Jack Chambers film.
In both the editing and the effect of the bizarre lack of realism, the effect of this film appears to more mimic experimental cinema than a standard big-budget videogame adaptation. Another reason for this is, across the series of this film, there is an oozing sex appeal despite the lack of any actual sexual activity. In Roger Ebert’s review on Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he notes a similar effect with the leading ladies: while the film is obviously an exploitation film, he notes that their scantily clad bodies aren’t exactly titillating but rather are just an extension of the women in question. While this film has picked up acclaim through the years, it’s surely a disappointment for male viewers trying to get their rocks off. Similarly, in The Final Chapter, Alice is played by a model (who later goes on to be PWSA’s muse) yet, for the entire series, is all but asexual. Her clothing is tight fitting but as practical as anyone else’s in the film, and while she is certainly picture perfect with regards to makeup and hairstyling, similar comments can be made for her other multi-gendered cohorts. In short, this film defies many of the sexual expectations that male audiences would likely have; it may not be up to Mulvey’s standard as the male gaze certainly exists in Anderson’s benevolent admiration of his wife, but there is certainly a lack of payoff which may at least partially explain its dismal reception. There is, however, a practical effect to this which benefits the horror of the movie: there is so much tension and fear and adrenaline that carnal desires are the last thing on anyone’s mind, despite the horrors they have all surely been through. This almost inhuman dedication to survival is again a way the film distances itself from psychological realism, only adding to the insistence that this is a film about genre pleasures above all.
Obviously, one can analyze mode and tones and themes all day long, but these are ultimately not the elements that make a film explicitly sci-fi, horror, or action. The Final Chapter gains these genre tags due to its plot, a saga of elites setting up a self-made apocalypse before the man-made one hits, so they can secure their lives and futures. It’s something which cannot really take place in the dramatic world, but in a universe where these elements mix, it’s due to genre tropes that the film can even be conceived. While there are surely a number of zombie beasts, AI beings, and enormous action setpieces, it’s not until the film gets near its close that the meta effectiveness of all of its concepts can be fully realized. After reaching the Hive and being subdued, Alice cannot realistically challenge Isaacs and he has no reason to try and eliminate her. When she considers trying to use the available weapons from a bartending set to try and attack Isaacs, he simply tells her that she cannot make it to the decanter, the icepick, or the fountain pen and successfully kill him as his built-in software can predict all outcomes. Here, since a stalemate of sorts has been achieved, the editing slows. Isaacs explains to Alice both the fate of his own clones and the origin story of Alice herself. As more suspenseful, less violent music builds, the Kubrickian set design compliments the bizarre nature of the conversation between the two. It is revealed that Alice is a clone of Alicia, and that the famed Red Queen, an AI under the Umbrella Corporation’s control, is as well. The three seem to, in this way, almost mock the earlier conundrum of Alice’s weapon choice; where before her three weapons were powerless alone against Isaacs, together the “trinity of bitches, united in their hatred” are able to work together using their own strengths in order to overcome the company.
Perhaps more important to the film than overcoming the antagonists – which, by these films cyclical nature, is surely bound to happen some way or another – is the catharsis that Alice, Alicia, and the Red Queen all experience afterwards. Even though the editing in this scene is still fast by conventional standards, it’s practically Bela Tarr compared to the less-than-a-second shot length that composes the action scenes shortly after it. Alicia uploads all of her memories, via the help of the Red Queen, for Alice to experience afterwards if she ever gets the chance. The Red Queen shortly after gets taken offline, and Alicia perishes as explosives destroy her and the rest of the company. Only Alice remains of the trinity, though she releases an antivirus which will save the world and is said to kill her right after these events occur. Before she is able do this, however, a horrified Isaacs clone meets his original, and stabs him to death after the true Isaacs taunts him, mortified by the existential crisis this brings upon him.
As is to be expected in a Resident Evil film (though not necessarily for an Anderson film; see Pompeii), Alice awakens, unharmed, as the Red Queen explains to her that antivirus ended up sparing her as it only killed the negative cells and not the good ones. It’s as silly as a deus ex machina can get, but ultimately, that is the point of these films which embrace all the tropes – even the frowned upon ones – of their genres. Yet despite the narrative hokeyness of this film and the entire series, the ending here is extremely emotional. The Red Queen further goes on to say that both she and Alicia knew that Alice would survive the antivirus, but that they withheld this knowledge from her to test her. The music slows, offering an uplifting palette; the beautiful scenery clashes with the bodies of really-dead-this-time-undead; the editing once again slows against the chaotic chopping of previous scenes. The Red Queen concludes by noting that “the clone became more human than they ever could be,” and then reveals to Alice all of Alicia’s uploaded memories. Brief moments of happiness and beauty hover holographically around Alice as the music now introduces more overpowering piano notes and the editing and visuals seem to mock a Jonas Mekas film. This hologram sequence, which the whole series of six feature length films has built upon, lasts for a couple of minutes at most.
The power in this film lies in its ability to transcend narrative structure and convention, wallow in genre tropes, and ultimately achieve a finale which is at once transcendent cinema unlike any other and bereft of the narrative payoff we ordinarily expect even from experimental filmmaking. In the narrative world, where psychological realism is preserved (or, at least, intended to be), such logical ineptitudes that occur in the film and would threaten to undermine the film’s denouement. While shifts in music and editing are hardly exclusive to either class of film, the extreme extent that happens in The Final Chapter is something which is rare even in contemporary dramatic works. Perhaps most importantly, the entire plot and pathos is something which completely exists independent of anything happening in how we usually perceive the world: how else would a film exist as a tearjerker about a clone being reunited with an AI, in a payoff sequence that occupies around 1% of the total movie? The fact Anderson’s magnum opus succumbs to its tropes is not a flaw; it is an advantage which allows his films to communicate in ways that many people are even more intrinsically opposed to than they are avant-garde cinema.