REVIEW – Resident Evil: Death Island (2023)

Incredibly cheesy and melodramatic yet still rather fun, this is very much for the long-time and hardcore fans of the Resident Evil games.

Unlike the live-action films, these CG-animated movies are actually canon to the Resident Evil games. They slot between the various instalments and unlike a lot of tie-in promotional media we see with other games, these are complete adventures in their own right (and a lot more effort put into them).

This is the fourth CG film in the franchise since 2008 (technically fifth – there was also a limited series on Netflix that really felt like a movie chopped up into four parts) and while the quality of animation in past entries has been reflective of their eras, the quality of the storytelling has… struggled. One could chalk that up to an awareness of the B-movie horror of the original games, the way some anime sensibilities may not translate well to “the West”, or an inability to elevate the material from the aforementioned B-movie horror tropes. For instance, I bailed on 2017’s Vendetta after the first 15 minutes it was that bad. I eventually gave it another go and discovered most of the “meat” was in the second half and was overall an “okay” movie.

Death Island also struggles in similar ways, which I guess is understandable as it’s a sequel to Vendetta (apparently the working title was “Vendetta 2”) and despite my many nitpicks and criticisms, I had a better time with this story than the previous film, which may be due to a number of factors I’ll get into later.

There are only so many times you can setup a “mystery infection that leads to a source and a bad guy” plot and that’s basically what we have here. Although, Death Island does pull out a few novel tricks like linking things directly back to the original outbreak in Raccoon City (as depicted in the second the third Resident Evil games) as well as setting it on Alcatraz. However, the major selling point is seeing the five main protagonists, who originated in the games and have been popular with fans for over two decades, teaming up and interacting with one another on screen for the first time ever.

My usual disclaimer when talking all things Resident Evil: I’m a more recent fan of the gaming franchise thanks to the remakes. Prior to that I only ever watched the various movies including the CG films.

And it’s through that lens where a lot of my enjoyment is born from because it’s very clearly made with long-time (or just knowledgeable) fans in mind. There’s an assumed knowledge of the previous movie or events from the games that are used as motivation for characters as well as minor references and callbacks. It really does rely on that prior investment in order to sell the major moments in this story.

It’s a great looking movie as one would expect with the quality of CG these days as well as the studio that made it. The attempt to be “photorealistic” rather than any sort of stylisation matches the look of the current era of games. If anything, it sort of plays out like watching one of these YouTube videos where they’ve edited all the cutscenes together to play out like a coherent movie (not a criticism, just an observation).

Curiously, speaking of the games, the only one of the characters to be visually based on the games is Jill Valentine, reusing the face model from the recent remake of RE3 (which brings up the trope of her having not aged for 15 years, explained away elsewhere that her being infected with the T-virus in the game slowed her aging). Whereas the other characters are either based off their designs from Vendetta or Infinite Darkness. Helping with the sequel feel, the actors for Chris Redfield (Kevin Dorman), Leon S. Kennedy (Matthew Mercer), and Rebecca Chambers (Erin Cahill) all reprise their roles from Vendetta with both Claire Redfield (Stephanie Panisello) and Valentine (Nicole Tompkins) both coming from the games (Panisello also voiced and mocapped Claire in Infinite Darkness and Mercer voiced Kennedy on the Resident Evil 6 game).

All their performances are great and familiar and suit the characters because, of course, they’ve done it before. However, I’m not sure any amount of talent could overcome much of the material they were working with. When it comes to the action scenes or even the heroic elements, the plot and dialogue (although often cheesy) work in the vein of this kind of action movie, including some of the emotional character beats. It really breaks down in the awkward mundane banter where it feels as though the movie pauses just a tad too long for characters to say “hello” to one another like bumping into each other at work, which I found particularly odd and jarring.

The other glaring problem with the writing is with the main villain – whose name I can’t remember if that’s any indication. While there’s a germ of a great idea behind the bad guy and their motivations, just everything about him doesn’t really work. Villains don’t need to be rational, however, nothing about this guy seemed to be convincing or make sense – from his master plan to how he ended up this way, there’s no coherent through line. And while anime is pretty known for excessive exposition, the bad guy monologues do not clear up anything about what he’s all about. To a certain extent you can make assumptions about what got him to this point but it’s very unsatisfying despite the actor’s best efforts.

With a runtime of about 87 minutes, this barely touches “feature length” and so not a lot really happens in this story. One of the improvements over Vendetta is that it tries to get to the good stuff much earlier but also it’s to be remembered that it’s trying to juggle a lot of main characters in order to satisfy fans.

Although, just like the previous outing, it does crescendo into a very fun and ludicrous third act that a lot of fans have been likening to The Avengers and that action choreography and over-the-top spectacle is very much the strength of this movie.

Back to the running time, it’s a reminder that this was more likely intended as a “home video” release with only limited (and not well-advertised) cinema screenings around. In fact, I only discovered it was being shown on the big screen in Australia by accident when I was googling the blu-ray release. With limited session times, such as the 9:15pm one I attended at a cinema out of my way, I dare say it sort of enhanced my experience as there were only a few other people in the theatre with me. And I know that sounds odd but it felt kind of special like we were sharing something niche.

Overall, Resident Evil: Death Island is a fun time directed solely at long-time and hardcore fans of the game franchise. Although it struggles with the more nuanced aspects of the writing it does deliver on the big and silly B-movie action spectacle.

At time of publishing, it is currently showing only at Reading Cinemas in Australia in limited sessions. Will be available on blu-ray by the end of July

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