Resident Evil: Damnation was, outside of Japan, vomited onto video on demand with disappointingly little ceremony — an advert here, an advert there — and left largely to fend for itself. On top of that, it was released the same month as the live-action Resident Evil: Retribution and was tentatively tied to the horribly middling Resident Evil 6. But it’s not just the best Resident Evil movie you’ve never seen; it’s the best Resident Evil movie full stop.
Entirely rendered in CGI, Resident Evil: Damnation is, technically, a sequel to 2008’s Resident Evil: Degeneration, but it eclipses the original in every respect. You’d be hard-pressed to call it horror, but trying to recreate the terror of Resident Evil on the silver screen was always going to be a gamble. There’s a good reason why George Romero’s original Resident Evil script never made it to the big screen: You can’t just throw in the trappings of the original game and expect instant fear. You’ll tiptoe through Resident Evil’s picture gallery for fear the crows will descend on you in a flurry of beaks and blood, but when you’re a passive observer it just seems silly.
Instead, Damnation takes the absurd, schlocky spirit of Resident Evil 4 and just runs with it. The premise is that, after the fall of the Umbrella Corporation, bio-organic weapons, aka B.O.W.s, can be freely purchased by anyone with the requisite funds — a scenario that’s distressingly relevant in this age of billionaires. Want a rocket launcher-wielding, bin bag-clad meat-tank? That’ll be $11 billion, please. I’m not saying Jeff Bezos is buying Lickers to curb union activity at Amazon, but he’s not solved world hunger yet.
Resident Evil 4’s Leon S. Kennedy is sent into the fictional Eastern Slav Republic to investigate rumors that both the country’s sitting president and resistance fighters are employing these weaponized monstrosities. You’re hurled right into the action with Leon merrily wisecracking his way through the warzone. On the surface that sounds highly disrespectful, but it lets Damnation inject a dose of political commentary without getting too preachy.
It’s also a welcome change from the other two animated films, Degeneration and 2017 sequel Vendetta, both of which make Leon 99% pure angst — here he’s someone you actually want to spend screen time with. Alice, protagonist of the live-action movies, might be tough, but she’s got as much charisma as a walking corpse. And let’s face it, the Resident Evil live-action movies are Resident Evil in name only — from the word go, they’ve been very much their own thing.
Damnation, on the other hand, nails the themes that define the Resident Evil series. It’s not scream-out-loud scary, but there’s body horror, gore, conspiracies, monsters, ludicrous underground facilities, and so much more. Who needs zombie Michelle Rodriguez when Damnation’s Plagas are turning people into passengers in their own bodies? Jordan Peele would be proud.
On top of which, Resident Evil: Damnation is accessible to both hardcore Resident Evil fans and newcomers to the series, unlike the live-action films that are all pretty impenetrable unless you’ve seen the first three. Wondering why Milla Jovovich is being pursued by multiple Jorah Mormonts? Here’s 10 hours of film and a wiki. But while Resident Evil: Damnation seems like a labor of love, you can leap into it barely knowing a thing about the series.
Newcomers will appreciate Ada Wong’s subterfuge and badassery, while fans of the game will appreciate the frisson between her and Leon. When Leon begs a fighter to give up the body-warping Plagas, it might seem like he’s just trying to fulfill his mission, and that’s all you need to know. But if you’ve played through Resident Evil 4, you realise he’s speaking from experience, that he’s had the horrors wriggling around his own body.
Resident Evil: Damnation’s greatest accomplishment is that it nails the balance of action and tension — it’s not an immediate, relentless assault on the senses. So while Leon is fleeing infected civilians, Ada is trying to talk her way into the president’s graces, unaware that she knows exactly who Ada is. A few scenes later, Leon is taking a breather as he picks his way through the ravaged city, thinking that he’s seen the worst the civil war has to offer.
It’s only when you reach the third act, arguably the “boss fight” of the movie, that Resident Evil: Damnation really grabs you by the throat. It takes a special kind of madness to look at Resident Evil’s most infamous foe and think, “You know what? How about we make them twice as big? And have two, no, three of them.”
Damnation’s computer-generated graphics aren’t perfect, though Leon’s got less of an uncanny valley vibe than he does in the Resident Evil 2 remake. But it lets the movie go places that would break the bank or be just plain impractical if they were live action. There’s Leon versus monsters, monsters versus monsters, monsters versus scenery, and so much more. I defy you to find any other movie where the big bad gets repeatedly smacked in the face with the business end of a tank turret. And all through this, Leon is dishing out wisecracks left, right, and center, dispatching his nemesis with one final, perfect quip.
Video game movies are always going to be a risky prospect. Studios often overlook the many barriers involved in bringing a game to the big screen. They forget that movies need to appeal to both fans and nonfans alike, and more often than not, the protagonist is a blank slate. Sure, Fortnite might be insanely popular and no doubt someone’s thought of optioning it, but where would you even start with making a movie? And Doom? If two duff movies have proved anything, it’s that if your main character is a chasm of nothingness, you should probably look elsewhere. In carving out their own mythology, the Resident Evil live-action movies did at least have somewhere to go, and it paid off in terms of profits.
Resident Evil: Damnation isn’t perfect, and it’s a crying shame that the Leon portrayed in the animated follow-up, Vendetta, bears little resemblance to the Leon of this movie. But as the best Resident Evil movie, one that not only nails the franchise but is a joy with every repeated viewing, Damnation is still Resident Evil heaven.