Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City

Johannes Roberts is one of the most interesting B-movie directors around. No one will ever mistake him for James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, but he knows how to bring style and energy to films that are, essentially, schlock. 47 Meters Down and 47 Meters Down: Uncaged are gloriously nutty shark attack pictures, and The Strangers: Prey at Night is a vastly underrated slasher flick. Roberts now takes over the reins of the Resident Evil series from Paul W.S. Anderson with the prequel Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Unfortunately, he's hampered by the desire to satisfy to fans of the Capcom video game on which it's based.

The setting is Raccoon City, a once-thriving town that turned into a virtual wasteland after a mysterious company called the Umbrella Corporation moved elsewhere. Kaya Scodelario (Crawl) stars as Claire Redfield. She grew up in the town's orphanage and now returns to warn her brother Chris (Robbie Amell) that the Umbrella Corporation is still up to something shady, and the person behind it may be William Birkin (Neal McDonough), a scientist from their past who always gave her bad vibes. Chris doesn't believe her until all hell starts breaking loose.

If the movie had stayed with Claire, it might have worked better. Instead, it keeps adding more characters. There's a group of local cops, including popular game figures Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen) and Leon Kennedy (Avan Jogia), who are called to investigate a disturbance at the decrepit Spencer Mansion. Eventually everyone converges to discover the shocking truth about why local residents are bleeding from the eyes, losing their hair, and turning into zombie-like creatures.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City spends too much time bouncing between Claire/Chris and various combinations of the cops, including their irritable chief, Brian Irons (hilariously played by Donal Logue). Since they're coming at the problem from different angles, the story is never able to generate the kind of tension a premise like this relies on to succeed. As soon as we begin to get hooked by what's happening, the movie jumps to someone or something else.

The seeming reason for this is to work in as many popular elements from the video game as possible. There are times when you can sort of feel the film stopping in its tracks to throw in a reference for the fans. If that's all you want, you may well be entertained. If, on the other hand, you want a movie that works on its own terms, independent of the source material, prepare for 107 relatively sluggish minutes.

Despite that, Roberts does stage several nifty horror moments, even if they're spaced out too much. One of the more grotesque sequences is wittily scored to Jennifer Paige's 1998 pop hit “Crush.” (The director is a master of off-kilter needle drops.) Gross visual effects liven up other sections, most notably a gigantic creature seen in the finale that has eyes bulging out of various parts of its body. Beyond that, Roberts definitely creates a mood, making Raccoon City a dark, forbidding place where menace credibly lurks around every corner. I do wish the cinematography wasn't so dark, though. Occasionally it's difficult to tell what you're looking at.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City ultimately faces a conundrum common to “brand” movies: Do you pander to the fans, or make something that stands on its own, apart from the thing that inspired it? Roberts chooses the first path, focusing on pleasing gamers, who will come with knowledge about characters and scenarios that non-players will struggle to piece together. If you have to play a video game to fully understand a movie, it is not a good movie.

out of four

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is rated R for strong violence and gore, and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.