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How the Resident Evil Movies Became the Longest-Running Video Game Series of All Time

Why has Resident Evil endured while so many others have flopped? Go ask Alice.

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Which female action hero punches hardest and longest? The Hunger Games’ Katniss was a girl with grit, but she got tangled in teenage distractions while overthrowing a dictatorship, and even the Alien series lost the iconic Ripley after the fourth movie. The real mainstay may come as a surprise: Milla Jovovich, who’s played fearless zombie-killer Alice in the Resident Evil movies since 2002, turns out to be a fighter with staying power. Based on the Capcom video games, the Resident Evil movies—all written and co-produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, who also directed four of the six—have earned nearly $1 billion at the global box office. (According to Forbes’ number-crunching, they represent 17 percent of all the revenue video-game movies have earned at the U.S. box office.) Alice returns Jan. 27 for her last battle in the Anderson-directed Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the culmination of a remarkable 15-year run that defies the trends that have sunk other game-to-screen transfers. Where did Resident Evil go right where Assassin’s Creed, Doom, Warcraft, and so many others went wrong? The answer is Alice, whose rage and passion drives Resident Evil further than any female-led survival horror or science fiction action series before it. She’s a compassionate, wily heroine whose fury, once kindled, never lets up.

When Capcom sold the adaptation rights to Anderson and his creative producing partner Jeremy Bolt, it gave the two Britons—both Resident Evil game addicts—free rein to transform the material. Anderson’s screenplay for the first movie, with new characters and allusions to Alice in Wonderland, functions as a prequel to the games, with Alice, a secret agent within the nefarious Umbrella Corporation (“computer technology, medical products, military technology, genetic experimentation, viral weaponry”), on a quest to expose her employer’s misdeeds. Then a killer virus gets loose, and she’s trapped underground with monsters.

Financed by German and U.K. companies for only $30 million, Resident Evil attracted a Hollywood backer, Sony’s Screen Gems, only after it had satisfied a U.S. test audience, sidestepping the lengthy studio development process where so many potential projects have gone to die. After Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Resident Evil turned profits in 2001 and 2002, other studios grabbed the rights to popular games like Halo, Bioshock, and Mass Effect. But those once-hot properties have now been stuck in turnaround for years. Every box-office failure leads to studio second-guessing, often combined with player outrage that Hollywood can’t comprehend video games. Capcom’s relationship with Anderson and Bolt remains an exception.

As the Resident Evil games evolved, so did the malevolent forces at work within the films. As the first big-budget zombie movie in more than a decade, Resident Evil led off a wave of brain-eating pop culture, but Umbrella Corp., which unleashed the undeadly virus has also its eyes on Alice, whom it views as both project and product, a body to be manipulated. The 2002 series opener starts with Alice knocked out and suffering from amnesia, but, like a novice Resident Evil player, she quickly absorbs the rules of the game. Her fellow Umbrella employees, transformed into the lurching undead, are dangerous, but her real enemies range from a mutant monster called the Licker to her own husband. Sequels find Alice facing off against the corporation’s twisted scientist-CEOs as well as her old friends, who’ve been brain-wiped, brainwashed, or otherwise reprogrammed. Alice, too, gets upgrades: Injections of T-virus grant her superpowers, and later an antivirus restores her to her original self.

The conventional wisdom has always been that video games pull a male audience, and the movies would, too. Anderson, a teenage admirer of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, simply ignored that old saw, reasoning that men liked an adventurous heroine as much as women did. He described the first movie as being driven “the relationship between two women, Alice and Rain,” the commando leader played by Michelle Rodriguez. Producer Jeremy Bolt insisted that both Jovovich and Rodriguez be featured, gunned up, on the DVD art, at a time when U.S. action movies with female leads were virtually unheard of. (Not so these days, but the new Star Wars movies still maroon their female leads in an otherwise all-male galaxy.) Jovovich, as Alice, is at her best when she’s righteously seething over what’s happened to her and the other victims of Umbrella’s soulless experiment. Yet the movies cling to a hard-won optimism: Alice continues to find survivors, and she never gives up. These may the most upbeat post-apocalyptic tales ever told.

Despite the movies’ sly jibes at evil megacorporations, marketing has rolled them out with a sense of humor: A trailer for 2007’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse took the form of an ad for “Regenerate,” a suspiciously effective face cream that promised to “actually bring dead cells back to life.” (The commercial, directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Marcus Nispel, ended up in the film as well.) Synergy doesn’t hurt, either: Capcom tends to drop a new Resident Evil edition right around the time a movie hits U.S. cinemas. Timing can be everything: Assassin’s Creed made a rocky transition to cinema just as its game sales were flagging, and the decade-old craze for World of Warcraft felt like nostalgia by the time the movie hit theaters last summer.

The Resident Evil movies have embraced technical advances, perhaps on the idea that their audiences are as tech-savvy and demanding as the filmmakers themselves, but they’ve done it without breaking the bank: None of them have been runaway hits—the highest-grossing was 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, which took in just under $300 million worldwide—but their budgets max out at $65 million, about half the cost of Assassin’s Creed. The later sequels, including The Final Chapter, were made in 3-D and shot by cinematographer Glen MacPherson, who’s been at the forefront of the medium. Anderson has earned praise from his peers, including James Cameron, for exploiting the possibilities of 3-D, and he’s also found critical defenders for his inventive visual style. Resident Evil: Afterlife’s faceoff between the towering Axeman and the team of Alice and Claire (Ali Larter) is a brutal battle that looks as effortless as Singin’ in the Rain.

Anderson’s devotion to fireworks has led even his admirers to frame the movies as mere exercises: exactly as much meets the eye. Yet small, unflashy moments deliver the same thrills, like a pause in a gunfight to see the close-up of a bullet with “Umbrella Corp.” imprinted on it or when Alice and comrade Ada Wong walk from a manufactured New York cityscape, a killer-virus testing ground, into a manufactured suburb by passing through a wall of clouds. “When they were running a simulation,” Ada tells Alice, “trust me, no one was looking at the sky.”

Like the games that spawned them, the Resident Evil movies could conceivably go on forever. Alice herself has been endlessly cloned by scientists; favorite characters, like Rodriguez’ Rain and Oded Fehr’s Carlos, return as good and evil versions of themselves; and the artificially intelligent Red Queen switches sides as her software dictates. (Adding to the family business, the Red Queen is now played by Anderson and Jovovich’s daughter.) But all involved insist that The Final Chapter will be the last. Will Alice, like Mad Max, ride off into the apocalyptic sunset? As long as there’s trouble on the horizon, or some new technology to be explored, Alice—and Anderson—never say never.