Monday 24 October 2016

Halloween zombie-movie rambling: the Resident Evil films and the struggle to escape Saṃsāra

[Fair warning: insofar as they have plots to spoil, this post contains spoilers for all five Resident Evil films. And, no, I don't really think the Resident Evil films are metaphors for Buddhist theology...]

Let me start by stating the obvious: the five Resident Evil movies are not good films. The first one was a serviceable Aliens pastiche. The second one was a rubbish zombie movie. The third one was a rubbish post-apocalyptic action movie. The fourth one was just rubbish. The fifth one was totally incoherent. I tremble to think what the sixth one is going to be like when it comes out in January.

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And just how much sillier are Jovovich's increasingly-ridiculous costumes going to get?

They're not good films. But they are increasingly strange films. Driven by their own near-total lack of new ideas, they fill their run-time by endlessly repeating themselves, like a rambling drunk launching into the same anecdote for the third time in two hours. As their plots become ever more nonsensical - why is Red Queen now trying to kill the world, exactly? - they increasingly dissolve into a kind of impressionistic collage, in which the same handful of scenes are endlessly repeated. Alice wakes up naked in a strange place. A team of friends delve into a labyrinthine underground facility. A band of survivors is whittled down, one by one. A grid of lasers hurtles down a corridor. Alice befriends a little girl. Alice gains new powers. Alice loses new powers. The Red Queen threatens people over a speaker system. Alice loses her memories. Alice battles a near-unkillable monster. Alice is carried off by masked men, unconscious. And then, at the start of the next film, Alice wakes up naked, in a strange place...

These films make aggressively clear that the viewer isn't supposed to be looking for a deeper meaning in all this. These are exactly what they appear to be: big, stupid action movies whose appeal depends almost entirely on the opportunities they offer to watch Milla Jovovich put on fetish outfits and shoot zombies in the head. But as their internal logic disintegrates under the force of too many plot twists and too much repetition, I find it increasingly appealing to try to make sense of them in other ways, especially as their actual plot - if they can even be said to have a plot at this stage - is so clearly no longer up to the job!

So let's ignore the increasingly unconvincing attempts of the films to pretend that the scenes they show us can be connected together into a single coherent narrative, and look at the scenes themselves. One very strong repeating pattern in the films is death and rebirth. It's not just that people constantly die and then come back as zombies, or that Alice experiences a long sequence of symbolic deaths and rebirths as she endlessly whacks her head on things and wakes up in new places, sometimes in womb-like fluid bubbles, usually in white, hospital-like environments, and usually naked. It's also that Alice, and later other people, keep getting cloned and killed, only to be cloned again.

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Alice discovers hundreds of her own clones waiting to be sent to their deaths in Resident Evil 3.
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Alice sends her own clones to their deaths in Resident Evil 4. 

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Resident Evil 5: Alice discovers everyone else is being mass-produced and repeatedly sent to their own deaths, as well.

The villain of the third film, Dr Isaacs, repeatedly runs clones of Alice through a kind of 'greatest hits' version of the first film; each time a clone dies, he reloads the set-up with a new one and starts again. (Just like a Resident Evil video game, geddit?) In the fourth film, Alice sacrifices a whole army of her own clones to take out an enemy stronghold. (This is probably a joke about the ease of using CGI graphics to copy-paste duplicates of the same figure onscreen.) In the fifth film, it turns out that virtually the whole cast of the first film (including Alice) were almost certainly clones right from the beginning: the Red Queen has been mass-producing copies of all of them in an underwater base, in order to run staged 'zombie outbreak' scenarios over and over again, in giant bio-domes that look like cities but are actually just Truman Show-style stage sets. (Just like the Resident Evil film series, geddit?) The more of them I watched, the more I started to feel that under the surface of these loud, dumb action movies there was some kind of almost Buddhistic meditation on life, death, and rebirth - entirely unintended by their creators, no doubt, but reaching out from between all the zombies and explosions, none the less...

Bear with me, here.

Alice's interminable travails, I would suggest, reflect what it is like to be stuck in what the Indian religions call saṃsāra: a cyclical world of life, death, and rebirth, characterised by continual change and pain. At the micro-level (of any one incarnation, or of any one film) her actions seem to have meaning, value, purpose: there is an evil to be fought, a person to be saved, an obstacle to be overcome, a clear and determinate goal towards which she can and must advance. The further one zooms out, however, the clearer it becomes that all this sound and fury doesn't really add up to anything, and that instead of advancing towards something, she's just wandering around in circles - which, Wikipedia tells me, is more-or-less what the word saṃsāra literally means. Her world never changes: there's always another underground labyrinth, another wave of zombies, another sneering villain, another mega-monster. She is born and reborn many times, in many places, sometimes more powerful and sometimes less, but it never makes any fundamental difference. She always just ends up in some damn corridor kicking zombies in the head. 

(Is it too fanciful to suggest a resemblance between the omnipresent logo of the Umbrella Corporation and the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which rolls our souls from one incarnation to the next? They certainly keep reincarnating Alice...)

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Umbrella Corporation logo.

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Wheel of Life.

This cyclical world is characterised by duhkha, suffering. Everywhere she goes, Alice sees a world dominated by violence, death, hunger, and pain. With each incarnation, more and more of the world is taken over by zombies, animalistic beings driven purely by their own insatiable desires. (Or is it just that people increasingly look like zombies to her increasingly rebirth-weary eyes?) But it is also a world of māyā, illusion, in which virtually nothing is 'really' real. Alice begins to realise this as early as the first film, when she takes off her wedding ring and sees that it has 'property of the Umbrella Corporation' engraved inside it; by the fifth film she has come to realise that the world she inhabits is literally a series of stage-sets. After waking up naked and amnesiac for the first time (or is it the first time?) at the start of the first film, she finds a handwritten note on her dresser: on this day all your dreams come true. (Perhaps the films are her trauma-dreams: Freud noted a hundred years ago that people who had suffered traumas tended to experience recurring nightmares in which those traumas were repeatedly replayed, albeit often in coded or symbolic forms, and he would have had a field day with all the weird injections that Alice keeps being subjected to.) Is any of this more than a dream, or an illusion, or a pantomime? Is anything?

Stuck in this illusion-world of pointless suffering, Alice's lives start to look increasingly meaningless. Dr Isaacs runs eighty-seven successive incarnations of her through a deathtrapped murder-maze, each of them waking, struggling, and dying without ever having any idea what their lives are supposed to be about or why nothing that is happening to them makes any sense. (Just like you and me, right?) Not that Alice herself proves to be a better task-master: under her leadership her clones die in droves, using the deaths of their 'sisters' as excuses for cheap quips, not even pretending to care whether they live or die. The Red Queen repeatedly manufactures whole communities of born-to-die victims, each provided with only the most basic memories and personality (just like minor characters in films, geddit?) - just enough to equip them to play their part in staged zombie-outbeak scenarios that last for no more than a few hours at most (which is roughly the length of a zombie movie, geddit?). Adopting a child refugee from one of these fake, doomed worlds, Alice insists that the girl's false memories matter because 'they're real to her': implicitly she's also talking about why her own memories matter, given that by this point she must have worked out that the chances of her not being a clone as well are slim-to-nil. But her actions belie her words: Alice and her comrades go on to blow up the whole clone storage facility, with countless thousands of clones inside it, demonstrating very clearly that they actually don't consider their fake lives and fake memories to have any real value. It that because they have, nihilistically, come to much the same conclusion about their own lives, as well?

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Mass grave of dead Alice-clones from Resident Evil 3.

This being an action movie franchise, Alice responds to all this death and pointlessness by fighting. Punch the monsters, shoot the zombies, blow up the underground bases... as though victory was simply a matter of racking up a sufficient kill-count. The films tell us that this is the right and heroic thing to do, but what they actually show us is that it's almost totally counter-productive: the only thing her violence ever grants her access to is yet more violence. She gets an army of her own clones, hundreds of new incarnations which she could devote to any end she chooses, and what does she do? Throws their lives away in yet more warfare. She discovers the means to repopulate the zombie-ravaged world with effectively-real people, and she blows it up in the hope of taking the Red Queen down with it. Her reincarnations are locked into a degenerating downward spiral which any Buddhist could have seen coming from the start, a cycle which threatens to drag her down below the level of the human and into the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. (Maybe she's there already. Maybe that's why she's always surrounded by ravenous zombies.) You can't shoot your way out of saṃsāra. 

So what should she have done? Well, one possible answer is that she could have taken the hint from her name. (Her name is also obviously fake, by the way: other people keep referring to her, not as Alice, but as 'Project Alice', though she never seems to grasp what this implies.) There was another Alice who went down a rabbit-hole and met a Red Queen. (Every single Resident Evil film includes a sequence in which the characters go down a long, long shaft into the depths of the earth... and, yes, I know the Red Queen isn't the same person as the Queen of Hearts) That Alice also found herself in a world that made no sense, ruled over by tyranny and death ('Off with their heads!'); but instead of just fighting it, she tried to understand it, pursuing the nonsense-logic of its inhabitants to its logically illogical conclusions. As a result, she was able to attain a kind of transcendence, seeing through its basically illusionary nature ('You're nothing but a pack of cards!') and ascending (literally - she grows two miles high) into a higher level of reality. Her Resident Evil namesake does not seem to be on track for any similar kind of spiritual progress.

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Another Alice, attaining something resembling enlightenment.

The start of the first film isn't really the start of the story. Before Alice wakes up, amnesiac, naked, and alone, she's already lived at least one previous existence as Umbrella's head of security; very possibly she has lived many, many more times before that one. The slate is never wiped clean, even though her memory often is: she's always neck-deep in karma, enduring the consequences of her previous actions, even when she has no idea what those actions might have been. Almost no-one in these films really stays dead: they come back as zombies, or as clones, or they just straight-up regenerate and pick themselves back up off the floor, confirming yet again that the present can never truly rid itself of the weight of the past. The sixth film is supposed to be the last one, and so I guess it'll have to offer some kind of attempt at narrative resolution. But the franchise being what it is, that resolution is probably just going to be an even bigger explosion, probably with Alice waking up in yet another symbolic rebirth on the other side of it; and unless she can change her ways, I fear that, on some level, she really is going to be stuck with her hordes of hungry ghosts forever.


  1. This is all making a lot of bizarre sense.

  2. Wow, amazing interpretations. You know that an interpretation is good when it just slaps you upside the head and you go: of course!
    Idk though, I think perhaps you are onto something pretty solid here. Anderson directs Event Horizon and Pandorum, two of my favorite space horrors, and while they're not art house films in any way, there is certainly some reflection to be had (I mean, at least when you're baked, right?). So perhaps...
    Great stuff to think about. And a great hint to look a bit deeper into the violence and suffering that we have been bombarded with in quite literally epic proportions on the screen...what is it telling us? There is seemingly a connection to a greater 'Awakening' espoused by folks from all philosophies and cosmologies that is being called for; maybe the screen is calling it out?