As Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario) reunites with estranged brother Chris (Robbie Amell) to settle their traumatic past a deadly and mysterious virus creates chaos across Raccoon City. While Chris leads a S.W.A.T. team of fellow cops to investigate sinister goings on at Spencer Mansion, Claire assists a rookie police officer in attempting to survive a sudden zombie outbreak. Eventually everyone unfortunately discovers there are things out there on the loose even worse than zombies...
The Resident Evil movies have long been a running joke under the supervision of Paul W.S. Anderson (here credited as executive producer) and a cadre of like-minded, equally slapdash directors. Structurally the original film series lean more on their video game origins rather than the horror elements, which is a fatal mistake. Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a sort of back-to-basics reset-cum-prequel, more faithful to the games but making more of an effort to creep viewers out. Writer-director Johannes Roberts goes for skin-crawling eeriness over the series hitherto trademark amped-up, CGI-bloated action scenes. Long takes and prowling steadicam build and sustain a reasonable level of tension while moody lighting and intricate production design weave an atmosphere of encroaching dread. Yet regrettably Welcome to Raccoon City retains the earlier Resident Evil films propensity for crass missteps including laughably profane dialogue, cartoonishly grotesque supporting characters and in-joke references likely to fly past all but the most devoted gamers.
Shorn of series regular (and arguably lone saving grace) Milla Jovovich the focus instead switches to a panoply of characters culled from the games. Alongside Chris and Claire Redfield the film serves up rookie patrolman Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia), gung-ho sharpshooter Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), enigmatic lunk Albert Wesker (The Umbrella Academy's Tom Hopper) and more. The gang's all here. However attempts to flesh out these shallow gamer stand-ins with silly soap opera subplots, unrequited passions and familial tension fall flat. Kaya Scodelario, a spirited genre lead on the strength of Crawl (2019) and The Maze Runner films, struggles to elevate Claire Redfield above the second-rate Ellen Ripley clone the film paints her to be. Clearly Johannes Roberts is far less interested in character dynamics and, well, drama than staging splatter effects and zombie attacks.
Whereas the early Resident Evil films aspired to be George A. Romero's Dead trilogy on steroids but came across more like Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City (1980) on meth, Welcome to Raccoon City opts for a slower pace and more sinister mood. Roberts lifts from The Shining (1980), David Fincher thrillers (especially D.P. Maxime Alexandre's chiaroscuro lighting) and the Spanish wave of more accomplished, apocalyptic zombie horrors that emerged in the early-to-mid-00s to relatively decent effect. His zombie attacks are well staged, comparatively though not entirely devoid of excessive computer graphics and pleasingly visceral and unsettling. Even so although atmospheric the film is low on action and instead high on scenes of characters wandering dark hallways. Amidst a surfeit of "Hey look, it's that bit from the game" moments, it acts like it is the first zombie movie ever made. Characters have no idea how to deal with the living dead (no-one aims for the head) and prove continuously frustrating. Overly concerned with recreating iconic set-pieces from the games the film's reliance on viewers being familiar with the source material renders far too many plot points, background details and character motivations unnecessarily vague. It is still probably the best Resident Evil movie but still pretty weak. Which says a lot about this franchise.