Saturday, 19 November 2011

Resident Evil Afterlife versus The Walking Dead: Special Effects can't buy style...

...and bad acting alone does not make a villain.

Last night, I sat down to a bit of a zombie marathon, to catch up on a bit of missed TV that isn't quite to the taste of my wife, who is away for the weekend. To be fair, I can't say I blame her, especially where some of the films are concerned.

First up, though, was a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead, series 2. I've never been a fan of the supercharged high speed zombie but the "walkers" are good old school lurchers and shufflers. The more complete specimens can run a bit but nothing superhuman. Well, nothing more superhuman than being walking dead, of course. Furthermore, the non-superhumanity extends to the walking living too. OK, so the police guys and crossbow dude are a little more accurate with their weapons than I suspect is realistic (and their survival begs the question as to why more army marksmen didn't make it) but these are well within the "suspend disbelief" range.

Because the characters are believable, you care about them. Their struggles may be quite small (each episode) but that makes them more real. When a horde (or herd?) of zombies appears, they don't whip out pairs of firearms and fire of multiple head-shots whilst flying through the air or running up walls; they hide, or run away. Because you care about the characters, there is real suspense and after a couple of episodes I felt the need for some light relief, hence my next choice...

This was the latest offering from the Resident Evil series to make it onto the small screen, Resident Evil: Afterlife. Let's compare and contrast this with the Walking Dead, for a moment. The two are loosely based on the same general premise: nasty virus turns the world's population into zombies while a group of survivors try to continue being survivors. The Resident Evil zombies are also mostly lurchers. Mostly. This is where the similarity ends, though.

Whereas Walking Dead is all about placing characters in a series of plausible scenarios (given the implausible backdrop), Resident Evil is all about placing them in increasing ridiculous and hopeless scenarios and watching them leap, somersault and spray their way out with automatic firearms. And with the death of suspension of disbelief comes a death of any tension or caring about the lead characters who, even when supposedly stripped of their superhuman powers, all exhibit superhuman powers and are bound to escape essentially unscathed. Actually, I'm being a bit unfair in what I just wrote. Sometimes they use semi-automatic or even pump-action firearms. (Plus, of course, explosives and shiny, pointy things.)

This is particularly sad, in a way, because the computer games upon which the films were based were themselves all about tension, suspense and the feeling of panicked desperation when a zombie horde was approaching. (That and incredibly frustrating controls - a double irony is the one thing you often couldn't do in the games was move and shoot at the same time!)

Perhaps I am getting old but I am sure that action movies used to at least pretend to have a story worth taking an interest in, or heroes worth caring about. If you had to make someone superhuman, you at least created an excuse, such as making him a cyborg from the future, or a "chosen one" that was able to bend the fabric of the Matrix to his will. (Maybe a bad choice as even The Matrix went The Way of The Special Effect with parts II and III.) Now it's all about ever more ridiculous and extravagant uses of "bullet time", all the time trying to ignore the stupidity of a hero that is able to nail a foot soldier right between the eyes whilst in free fall down a lift shaft but somehow manages to lose all accuracy as soon as the main bad guy becomes the target. 

Then there's the bad guys themselves. In certain circumstances, the deadpan emotionless bad guy works really well. Again, think of The Terminator or Agent Smith. Most of the time, however, and certainly the case for RE Afterlife, an emotionless villain just makes a one-dimensional and dull villain. It comes across more as bad acting than bad attitude - more Arnie in Conan than Arnie in The Terminator. 

Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that all these effects don't really impress any more. The Matrix, Inception and others have used all these tricks to great effect in the name of the plot. Employing them for the sake of it is not impressive, it's just lazy. Possibly worse, it actually reduces the impressiveness of the stunts. I could forgive the dodgy dialogue and bad acting in a Jackie Chan movie just to see what Jackie Chan was going to do in the next fight and think "wow"! Can anyone honestly say that, when witnessing a random hero/villain dodging a bullet in slow motion while the camera pans round, they think "wow" rather than "Matrix rip-off"? It is certainly not enough to make up for a lack of coherent story or adequate plot/character development - except (sadly) on opening night at the Box Office, perhaps. It most certainly not enough to get me rushing out to watch Resident Evil Retribution when it comes out. 

On the other hand, I am looking forward to catching up with a few more episodes of the Walking Dead over the weekend.

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