Copy of a Copy: Resident Evil and Digital Reality

We don’t live in the real world anymore. For decades now, we’ve shared our real lives with the internet and digital media, giving more and more of ourselves over to an alternate world-within-a-world. We like to pretend that the lines are distinct. There’s the real world, the one with our physical bodies, and the fake one on our computers and in our phones. It’s easier to do this than acknowledge how complex our definition of “reality” should be. After all, the internet exists without our “real” world. It’s entirely the result of actions taken in “reality.” Why do we insist, then, that it is less than real, or somehow separate from what is real?

It’s a complicated question, and because it’s a recent one, few films have engaged with it in a meaningful way. The six-film Resident Evil series does so with bravado. These films—particularly the latter three directed by Paul W.S. Anderson—are concerned with the importance of artifice and the reality of the unreal. Resident Evil: Afterlife, Retribution, and The Final Chapter form a trilogy of their own, exploring the problem of reality in a shared digital world.

This article will cover those final three films primarily (and SPOILERS for all of them, there’s your warning) so here’s a quick recap of how we got here. Years prior, and despite Alice’s best efforts, an incident in an Umbrella laboratory led to the T-Virus being unleashed upon humanity, turning most of Earth’s inhabitants into zombies. The T-Virus bonded with Alice’s DNA, giving her unique and powerful abilities. At some point after this, Umbrella created hundreds of clones of Alice and began running them through horrific gauntlets designed to test their survival abilities, hoping to use a perfected clone as a weapon. Having assembled an army from these clones at the end of the previous film, Afterlife opens with Alice and her clones storming Umbrella’s Tokyo headquarters.

This opening sequence bravely holds back on establishing where the “real” Alice is. It could be any one of the dozen or so Alices we see fight and die over the course of the battle. It could be none of them. The film deliberately confuses your sense of what is real and what is artificial, but the point it’s trying to make is that there’s no difference between the two. Each Alice has a body, a mind, a soul, thoughts and feelings and intentions. Why should she be considered any less real for the nature of her creation? Interestingly, the person who eventually draws that line is the villain, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), when the original Alice confronts him as he attempts to escape the facility. “Nice to see the real you,” he sneers, robbing the dead clones of their personhood and agency. To acknowledge a single Alice as more real than the others is depicted as an act of evil.

Later in the film, Alice takes refuge with a group of survivors holed up in a prison in Los Angeles. In the prison’s basement sits Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller), supposedly the last living inmate, locked in a cell by the others. Chris insists that he’s actually a guard, and that no one will believe his story. He has no choice but to sit in his cell and hope the zombie horde outside doesn’t break through. The apocalypse has essentially erased his identity. No one left alive knows who he truly is. Even his sister Claire (Ali Larter) has no memory of him. He has no real self anymore. In the world of Resident Evil, your reality is not something inherent to your being. It’s imprinted on you by the people around you. We see this all the way back at the beginning of the first film, when Alice wakes up in that mansion with no memory of who she is. Her selfhood is instructed, and she has no reason to question it.

It’s in the next film, Retribution, that this theme is examined in more detail. After a bravura opening sequence which shows Umbrella attacking Alice and co. first in reversed slow-motion and then again forwards at normal speed, we cut to Alice….waking up at home. She’s in bed next to her formerly deceased ally Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr), whose name now is Todd. She has a daughter named Becky. She has a normal life, and seemingly no memory of what we’ve seen happen to her. And then the zombies start breaking down her door. She rushes outside with her daughter and is almost run over by Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), another dead friend. She hides Becky in a closet, and dies. And then she wakes up again.

Retribution takes place entirely in an underwater Umbrella facility in Russia. This was where they originally tested the T-Virus’ capabilities as a chemical weapon. There are perfect recreations of several city centers as well as the suburban neighborhood we just saw, created as sites to run outbreak simulations. The Alice and Carlos and Rain we saw were yet more clones, just reused assets meant to fill out the simulations and be killed in the process. They were born to die.

The Alice we’ve followed throughout the series wakes up in a torture chamber, where she endures sleep deprivation at the hands of brainwashed former ally Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). Once again, Umbrella’s apocalypse has robbed Jill of her self and forcibly given her a new one. A power failure gives Alice the opportunity to escape, and she quickly finds herself in Umbrella’s recreated Tokyo. Everything there is fake, and yet the stakes couldn’t be realer. The artificiality of the zombies doesn’t mean they can’t end Alice’s life.

The movie could easily have played this as though Alice was the invader from reality trespassing in fake spaces, in danger because she doesn’t belong. It sets itself up to draw those lines more distinctly than ever. But it doesn’t. Instead, Alice finds Becky, the child of her dead clone, still hiding in the closet. Becky immediately embraces Alice as her mother, and Alice chooses to embody that role. “None of this is real,” Wong insists. “It is to her,” Alice replies. Her compassion extends to supposedly artificial life. She immerses herself in Becky’s fiction. After all, what difference does it really make? Everything about Becky is a lie, and still she’s standing in front of Alice asking for a mother. It doesn’t get much realer than that.

Shortly thereafter, Alice runs into an Umbrella goon squad comprised of clones of her allies from the first film. Yet another Rain is among them. Umbrella has repurposed their bodies to serve new functions. It’s deeply disturbing to see these resurrected corpses forced to perform labor for their former enemy. (The anti-capitalist themes of the series were never put in starker relief than here.) The film flirts with distinguishing this group as “unreal” here, but again steps back when Alice meets up with the suburban Rain clone we saw in the opening. Both Rains were created as tools of Umbrella, and one seeming more human than the other doesn’t mean one is more human. The second Rain’s relentless, cold-blooded pursuit of Alice makes her seem less sympathetic, but she is no less a victim than the first Rain.

Retribution is an extraordinary film, my favorite in the series. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the film in the series that most resembles a video game. Alice and friends traverse locations like levels, defeating enemy encounters and mini-bosses on the way. These spaces are entirely artificial. Like a level in a game—say, a Resident Evil game—they only exist within the boundaries of their intended purpose. To draw a further comparison, they’re like shots in a film, which capture specific images within the limits of a frame. We know these images don’t depict something real. But don’t they? Those actors really stood in front of that camera, they really moved their bodies and said those words. Even films entirely comprised of animation or CG are touched by elements of reality. As I keep saying, the lines are not as clear as we like to think they are. Neither are they in Retribution. Alice may not be in the real Tokyo, or the real New York, or the real Moscow, but her feet still meet solid ground as she runs.

This all comes to a head in The Final Chapter, which fully recontextualizes the series narrative. Alice is convinced to return to the Hive (the underground laboratory where the first film took place) by the Red Queen, the AI which still controls the facility. The Red Queen explains that Umbrella are hiding an airborne anti-virus which can destroy anything infected with the T-Virus and put an end to the zombie infestation. Though the Red Queen was the villain of the first film, Alice decides to ally with her for the sake of ending the apocalypse.

Once Alice gets back to the Hive, she’s confronted by Wesker and Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen), a former enemy who Alice thought to be dead. The two explain that the person we thought to be the original Alice has actually been a clone all along. She was based on Alicia Marcus, the daughter of the Umbrella scientist who created the T-Virus. Alicia suffers from progeria, and the T-Virus was a failed attempt at a cure. Both Alice and the Red Queen are constructs of an Alicia without the disease; Alice can grow up at a healthy rate, and the Red Queen can never age at all. They are mirrored simulacra, neither any more real than the other. When we first saw Alice wake up in that mansion, we saw her first moment of consciousness. “Sometimes I think this has been my whole life,” she says at the beginning of the film, because it has.

The series poses a final question to its audience. You’ve spent six films with this character. What does she mean to you? Do her stories feel less significant now? Do you feel you’ve been duped? Or do you not think it makes any difference? Alice being a clone of a “real” person doesn’t take away the personhood we’ve seen. Her experiences, her relationships, her actions were all real. So, the film asks, is she?

The Final Chapter ends by granting Alice a parting gift. Alicia gives Alice her childhood memories, bestowing on her a personal grounding which Umbrella never bothered with. It doesn’t matter that the memories didn’t happen to her. A memory is just the ghost of an experience, a shadow flitting on your mind’s walls. They feel real to her. And that’s all reality is.

The final three films of the franchise switched from shooting on celluloid to digital cinematography. Digital shots don’t exist in our physical reality the way that reels of film do. You can’t hold them in your hand. These images are ephemeral. When the screens turn off, when no one is looking at them, they cease to exist. And yet you can look at them. Are they less real for being visual imitations? Is Alice less real for being just the same? The Resident Evil films demand that we think more deeply about our own personhood in the digital age. No part of ourselves is fake by virtue of where or how we express it. Online or off, digitally or physically, we are always just us.

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