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Why Resident Evil crushes every other video game movie

Star Milla Jovovich and writer-director Paul WS Anderson reveal the secrets to turning a video game monster mashup into a billion-dollar franchise.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ended the record-breaking series.

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Despite video games being a multi-billion dollar industry, they face a steep path to the big screen. Transferring them from console to theater is a huge financial gamble, and many video game movies tank at the box office.

Unless they're Resident Evil movies. Having cracked a record-breaking billion dollars at the box office, the six-film franchise is easily the longest-running, highest-grossing film series ever based on a video game. As reports say Netflix is developing a new TV show based on the games, and the remade Resident Evil 2 game wins rave reviews and inspires nostalgic thinkpieces, we ask what's behind the blazing success of the zombie-blasting, monster-mashing series. 

Considering the video game industry raked in $3 billion in the US alone in 2017, you'd think video game movies would be a sure thing. But bona fide hits that the Resident Evil movies are, it's their relatively frugal budgets that guarantee a healthy profit.

"We don't have Harry Potter money," laughs Milla Jovovich, who played the heavily armed lead character Alice in all six movies up to 2017's The Final Chapter.

In the first movie, Alice wakes up with no memory, letting the audience discover the world of the films through her eyes -- almost like the character you play in a game. But writer, director and series mastermind Paul WS Anderson (who also happens to be married to Jovovich) deliberately avoided re-creating the game's format or storyline on screen.

"Imagine going in to see the first Alien -- one of my favorite, favorite movies -- and I tell you the order in which [the characters] die," he says.

The spectacular gunplay of the movies matches some of the later, more action-packed games, but overall the tone is very different from the survival horror spirit of the games. 

"We're not trying to look like a video game, which is a mistake some video game movies make," says Anderson, who wrote all the films and directed four of them.

A lot of filmmakers try and appeal to both markets and fail to get either, added film journalist Luke Owen, author of a book about video game movies, Lights, Camera, Game Over! He points to a first-person sequence in the movie version of Doom that mirrors the original gameplay.

"It sounded great on paper -- a literal adaptation of the game's format -- but in reality you're not in control, so it's not as satisfying," he says.

The Resident Evil films began with the 1996 hit game Resident Evil, known in Japan as Biohazard, which invented the survival horror genre and spawned a best-selling series of its own. 

"I love the game," Anderson says. "Milla used to play it with her brother. Michelle Rodriguez was a big fan. When we come together to make one of these movies it's always with a massive amount of passion from the people in front of the camera and behind the camera."

Believe it or not, the first Resident Evil movie was something of a trendsetter. Today, hordes of zombies claw at the windows of the mainstream from The Walking Dead to World War Z, but back when the first Resident Evil flick hit, zombies had been shuffling around the straight-to-video bin for 20-odd years. That was 2002, the same year 28 Days Later came out. When Shaun of the Dead and a remake of Dawn of the Dead followed, the zombie genre was well and truly reanimated.

Resident Evil movies distinguish themselves from the zombie horde with their technological themes. The all-encompassing Umbrella corporation that's responsible for the zombie outbreak was a fictional precursor to Facebook, Google and other tech monoliths that have infiltrated our lives. Technological surveillance, one of the defining issues of our age, pervades the movies from the first film's all-seeing video cameras to the later movies' omniscient satellites.

And with the characters Alice, Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, Rain Ocampo and Ada Wong, the films (and games) are refreshingly full of capable women. 

"Nobody in Hollywood was putting money behind female-driven action movies," remembers Jovovich, who had created a new kind of action hero in The Fifth Element and paved the way for female-fronted action flicks from the Underworld series to the rebooted Ghostbusters.

Ali Larter, Milla Jovovich and Ruby Rose in the sixth movie, "The Final Chapter."

Ilze Kitshoff

For gaming fans, familiar characters like Chris and Claire, Ada and Albert Wesker show up in later movies.

"Over time the filmmakers realized they needed familiar faces to get the die-hard fans on board," says Tamoor Hussain, news editor at CNET's sister site GameSpot. Hussain points out that players will have spent hours, days or years immersed in locations like the Spencer Mansion, Raccoon City or Resident Evil 7's Baker Estate, giving gamers a strong emotional connection to the source material.

The Nemesis monster, which had a very different story in the movies than in the games.

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Hussain cites the unlikely redemption of the hulking Nemesis monster in the second film as a moment that could turn off gamers. The monster had a very different story in the movies than in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, where he hunted protagonist Jill Valentine.

"That damn monster terrorized me for upwards of 20 hours in the games," he says. "I just refused to buy what the movie was selling me. He's choked me to death too many times."

That reaction doesn't surprise Owen.

"I think it's fair to say that most fans of the games aren't overly fond of the films," he says. "It's rare to find any fans of video games who like the movie counterparts."

If you can't rely on fans of the source material, it's important for a film series to establish its own audience.

"Creating an ongoing story that made audiences want to come back for more was a smart play," Owen says. "The increasing box office revenue (give or take) between films shows they have created a fan base that want to see the next chapter of Alice's adventure."

There are enough fans of the saga to ensure each of the sequels opened at No. 1 at the American box office. The series had rung up a running total of $1 billion and counting by the time The Final Chapter wrapped things up in 2017. 

That's a long way off the kind of megabucks made by franchises with a similar number of sequels like the Pirates of the Caribbean or Fast and the Furious movies, but it tops lesser franchises such as SawParanormal Activity and American Pie. Heck, the Resident Evil series took more money than the six Jack Ryan movies up to that point, and some of them had Harrison Ford.

According to Box Office Mojo, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is the top-grossing video game movie, raking in $166 million in theaters -- but even that only just covered the film's $115 million budget. Warcraft was infamously rescued from a dire US opening by success in China. Other big-budget adaptations like 2010's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Assassin's Creed couldn't recoup even half their production costs during their theatrical runs, despite big names like Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender on the marquee.

Let's face it, most video game movies tank because they're just not very good. At the time The Final Chapter was released, Prince of Persia was the highest-rated video game adaptation on review aggregator Metacritic, but even that has a decidedly average Metascore of 50 -- which beats the stale 2018 Tomb Raider reboot's score of 48.

2002's "Resident Evil" set the template: Milla Jovovich, a big gun, beer and pizza.

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Could it be that the Resident Evil films are successful because they're actually... good? They're certainly a hell of a lot more fun than the trudgingly average likes of Max Payne or Need for Speed. Apart from a woeful nosedive in the incoherent fourth film (Resident Evil: Afterlife), the series genuinely gets bigger and better with every film, and the increasingly epic fifth and sixth films actually build the series to an unhinged crescendo.

Jovovich describes Resident Evil as "perfect beer and pizza movies," and she's not wrong.

Despite the financial risk of video game adaptations, Hollywood has plenty more in the pipeline. Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokemon spin-off and featuring the vocal talents of Ryan Reynolds, will engage in some on-screen sleuthing this summer. We've also heard that a Resident Evil movie reboot will use the seventh game as "a touchstone."

Paul WS Anderson himself is developing a movie based on another Capcom game, Monster HunterTom Hardy was set to star in a Splinter Cell flick. Movies are planned for Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Minecraft -- even Tetris, for crying out loud.

They can learn a lot from Resident Evil: Keep the budget under control. Welcome non-players. Remember the human element at the heart of the story.

And get the beers and pizza in.

This article was first published Feb. 1 2017, and updated Jan. 25, 2019 to reflect the release of the Resident Evil 2 remake and further video game adaptations.

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