‘Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City’ Review: A Satisfying Guided Tour Through a Dying World
This no-frills reboot shows how satisfying a horror story can be when its setting is truly the star of the show.
Not long after watching Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, I got to thinking about what makes a great horror game adaptation.
I may be wrong about this—and I reserve the right to change my mind—but I don’t think it’s the characters. Consider Silent Hill: To date, it stands as the crown jewel of all game-to-screen adaptations. Christophe Gans’ 2006 film replaces the protagonist of the original game, Harry Mason, with Rose Da Silva—a new heroine who exists solely in the screenwriters’ re-telling. And that’s just fine, because first and foremost, Rose is a vessel through which audiences can explore the film’s nightmarish atmosphere. What makes her journey compelling is not that fans see her as some familiar face, but that the world she inhabits is a faithful recreation of the foggy netherworld in which its source material is set.
Johannes Roberts, who wrote and directed Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, understands all this quite well. Though I doubt he’d agree that characters are secondary to atmosphere in game adaptations, his new movie shows just how satisfying a horror story can be when its setting is truly the star of the show.
Roberts’ Raccoon City has a couple of defining traits. The first you’ll notice is its decay: In the film’s prologue, we enter into the Raccoon City Orphanage through rusty gates and weathered wooden doors. Inside, young Claire and Chris Redfield are having trouble sleeping as some unknown entity lurks in nearby shadows. From those early scenes onward, it’s all about the rainfall, which seems as if it’s on endless loop—crashing down on the city some decades later in 1998, when Claire (Kaya Scodelario) and Chris (Robbie Amell) are living out their dreary adult lives in their desolate hometown. Rickety road signs also tell us that the corrupt pharmaceutical company, Umbrella, is headquartered here, and that the specter of corporate control looms large.
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Claire and Chris are joined by more Resident Evil mainstays: rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia), Chief Irons (Donal Logue), and members of the Special Tactics and Rescue Service (STARS), Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen) and Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper). The group are united in their efforts to investigate the Spencer Mansion, where a police squad has gone missing not long after an outbreak—caused, of course, by Umbrella—begins turning Raccoon City’s citizens into undead flesh-eaters.
While we do get fleeting glimpses of these characters’ individual tics and motives, Roberts is more interested in showing us how they work together—and break apart—once the action gets underway. In fact, this ensemble is driven almost entirely by action: Nearly every moment we spend with a character is a set-up for an encounter with some new mutated monster, zombie horde, or rabid, bloodthirsty hellhound. What really counts, then, is that these set-ups pay off, and most of them do. That’s largely because Roberts’ style is remarkably spare, favoring small-scale brushes with death over the kinetic melees of past Resident Evil films, in a way that heightens the actual horror that lies within this story.
For all of its atmosphere, Welcome to Raccoon City isn’t above deploying a jump scare or two. But while I’m generally eager to dog-pile on directors who resort to this tired tactic, I was surprised by how tactfully Roberts plays with it, here. After all, the Resident Evil games have always prided themselves on exploiting our startle response, putting players face to face with zombies that lurch toward the screen, their slow and sloppy shuffle punctuated by a sudden groan and aggressive lunge toward their intended target. It’s clear that Roberts has studied the movement of the series’ zombies closely, and he transposes that seamlessly to the screen.
That’s not to say that Welcome to Raccoon City will truly terrify or disturb you. It probably won’t. Even in one of its best scenes—in which a bumbling Leon struggles to subdue a zombie who just won’t die—the palpable threat of violence is undermined by some blaring musical cues that remind us we’re still watching a movie, whose heroes will always find a neat and tidy way to escape the bad things that befall them.
Still, if nothing else, you’ll come away with the feeling that for the first time ever, the nasty world of Resident Evil at last lives on-screen. If you’re a fan of the games and looking forward to watching Welcome to Raccoon City, my best guess is that you want the movie to bring you a little closer to those eerie environs you first fell in love with. Production designer Jennifer Spence’s wonderfully detailed sets meet and exceed those expectations; cinematographer Maxime Alexandre steeps each scene in suffocating shadow; and every iconic creature—from Lisa Trevor to the licker—is true to their inspired original designs.
Whether or not you’ll be inspired to stick with these characters’ stories when they’re inevitably continued in future installments is another matter. But if you find that there’s something oddly comforting about taking a gloomy guided tour through a world that’s hopelessly doomed, then this Raccoon City is worth the trip.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City opened in theaters November 24, 2021, courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.
It isn’t a transcendent take on its source material, but Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City hits all the notes needed to immerse us in the original games’ doomed world of disease and decay. After six sleek and sparkly Resident Evil features, that’s a welcome change indeed.