*/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
animated; screenplay by Shotaro Suga
directed by Makoto Kamiya
by Bryant Frazer One of the more obnoxious trends in current filmmaking and distribution is the move towards cheapjack fansploitation movies. Masquerading as original, feature-film content, these low-budget theatrical and home-video releases are little more than expansive knock-offs of an existing, lucrative property that function as extended promos for yet another upcoming instalment of said franchise. In other words, they're commercials, bought and paid for by the very fanbase to which they're marketed. Not so long ago, we saw the theatrical bow of a decidedly sub-par feature animation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, whose only reason for existence was its function as a come-on for the already-in-production Cartoon Network series. Then there's Resident Evil: Degeneration (henceforth Degeneration), an extended videogame cut-scene created to flog the upcoming release of AAA console title "Resident Evil 5". Taking place in the Capcom videogame's universe and filling in the narrative gap between "Resident Evil"s 4 and 5, it has nothing to do with the popular live-action film series starring Milla Jovovich.
While I generally couldn't care any less about the purported backstories of the figures I control in videogames, I know that a sizable contingent of gamers enjoys hearing the details of character and extended plotlines from their virtual adventures, and that mitigates somewhat my disgust at this unambitious cash grab. But viewers who approach Degeneration with anything other than an absolutely uncritical desire to spend more time gawping at "Resident Evil 2" characters Claire Redfield (depicted here as a pretty but blank piece of set dressing) and Leon Kennedy (a charmless automaton) face disappointment.
If you come to Degeneration expecting state-of-the-art visuals, you'll be dismayed by the rudimentary CG imagery. The character models routinely combine motion-captured animation techniques with an assortment of facial expressions captured deep in the heart of Uncanny Valley. The rendering of skin, hair, etc. hasn't advanced much since the release of that first CG-animated videogame knock-off, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, when it really was new technology. And, because too many scenes involve 3-D human characters standing in front of a digital matte painting that obviously only exists in two dimensions, the illusion of an inhabited world is never achieved. If, on the other hand, you come to Degeneration expecting an agreeably outré filmmaking experience, full of the cheap-shock booga booga that makes the videogame series such a great lights-out experience, or the craziness that seems embodied in the very idea of J-horror...you'll be bored silly. The best they can do are bizarre deformations introduced in humans by a strain of the "G-virus"--the specimen in the film has a huge round growth on one shoulder that's either a distended eyeball or a giant, swivelling breast. But there's no creepy atmosphere here; there are no out-of-nowhere jump-scares.
Degeneration takes most of its cues from the fundamentally silly, creatively bankrupt idea of violent, digitally-enhanced action that runs rampant in over-budgeted American multiplex action movies these days. The biggest difference is that the dumbest studio summer tentpole still has real human beings up there on the screen. Even in the worst of 'em, you can take some pleasure in watching how a Brendan Fraser or a Milla Jovovich tries to spark up the proceedings by either throwing themselves bodily into the role or simply planting tongue firmly in cheek. The human factor is sadly missed here. There's no poetry in motion capture.
The film's CG is much more effective depicting large-scale action than anything at the human level; an early scene featuring a jetliner loaded with zombie virus crashing into an airport terminal is actually fairly stunning. (The shot is so startling that I'd normally be loath to mention it in a review, but it's spoiled outright by its presence on the menu of the Blu-ray Disc, so that battle's already lost.) The movie never again approaches this level of spectacle. Degeneration's director had previously worked only in the craft of visual effects, which may help explain some of the movie's failings. It's as if nobody involved understood the strengths and weaknesses of their particular techniques.
The first half of the picture is set in and around an airport where Claire just happens to be hanging out as a zombie bio-terror attack begins. (A U.S. Senator, who looks like a character escaped from Pink Floyd: The Wall, is on the scene and may have something to do with the day's bloody events.) The second half takes place at the research facility of drug company WilPharma, where a similar disaster is about to transpire. A pretty cop, Angela Miller, turns out to be the little sister of shady-looking Curtis, a rabble-rouser Claire spots in the crowd at the airport. Someone called General Grandé, an apparently dictatorial figure in an unnamed country, is an unseen presence in the story. And so on.
Though the filmmakers seem to be unpretentiously dedicated to the idea of crafting a movie strictly for videogamers, which makes me feel a tad churlish for hating the finished product as much as I do, they're obviously operating under the influence of the gaming industry's long-standing inflated sense of its own importance and expertise when it comes to storytelling. The robotic result is a cheeseball piece of CG anime that recycles just about every shitty cliché from every shitty action-horror movie you've ever seen. Resident Evil: Degeneration is ho-hum and hackneyed, poorly performed, and ostentatiously, programmatically animated. Come back, Milla! All is forgiven.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
"I hope people would enjoy the 90 minutes of this film during breaks from playing games," says screenwriter Shotaro Suga near the end of "The Generation of Degeneration", a shortish (30-minute) HD documentary comprising the usual mélange of movie clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and filmmaker interviews. It's competent enough, though I had to wonder why it was encoded in 1080i instead of 1080p--and why the English-language subtitles weren't turned on by default for this Japanese-language extra. "Voice Bloopers" (9 mins.), a collection of apparently scripted joke dialogue read by the voice actors in place of the original lines from the movie, is painfully unfunny. "Faux Leon Interview" (5 mins.), an apparently scripted mock Q&A with one of the motion-capture actors, in standard-def, is another clumsy attempt at humour. "Character Profiles," a feature apparently geared towards short attention spans, includes a combination of "action montage" clips from the film and stills galleries featuring selected characters.
A couple of supplements run the length of the movie. One is a pop-up trivia track that provides a bit more detail on various story points. (In a nice navigational touch, the disc allows you to hit the "next chapter" button to quickly skim through the movie, reading every last one of them if you so desire.) Meanwhile, a picture-in-picture option offers alternate video tracks at various points in Degeneration--hit your yellow button to see the storyboards, hit the red button to see the animatics, or hit the green button to see real actors in funny suits acting out scenes on a motion-capture stage. (The appearance of real human faces on screen, even if it's only in a tiny little corner of the picture, is refreshing. It's like you're really thirsty and someone has handed you a glass of water.) The BD also contains a preview of "Resident Evil 5" (which is where viewers should be spending their money), plus a raft of promo clips for the film, i.e., a trailer, a teaser, and footage edited together for the San Diego Comic-Con and the Tokyo Game Show, in addition to a pair of promos for the aforementioned "Resident Evil 5" videogame--which looks way more crazy and hyperkinetic than this film.
The package is rounded out extras-wise with Sony's usual pantload of HD trailers (for Resident Evil: Extinction, The Fall, Pineapple Express, Zombie Strippers!, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, Dragon Wars, Hancock, Step Brothers, Underworld, Underworld: Evolution, Lakeview Terrace, and Paprika) as well as the ubiquitous "Blu-ray IS High-Definition" promo. (Oddly, the BD Live interface points to a number of promos for other Sony Blu-ray releases but doesn't seem to unlock anything related to Degeneration.)
The sound quality of the movie proper (I was listening to the 448 kbps core of the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD English-language track) is pretty good, with some deep bass and an aggressive approach to the multi-channel sound field. Unfortunately, the mix isn't much to listen to. Dialogue has an antiseptic, recording-studio quality, and while there's a lot of sound, none of it is especially atmospheric, evocative, or gut-punching. Generic videogame music thrums along underneath the action. Other 5.1 tracks are offered in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai, while subtitles are offered in English, "traditional" Chinese, Thai, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Degeneration's 1.78:1, 1080p presentation is as generally pleasing as you'd expect from a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. I don't know if computer-generated images are necessarily improved by overlaying them with a layer of phoney film grain, but that's presumably a creative decision and no fault of the Blu-ray production. Still, it seems the resolution of the program material doesn't quite measure up to the 1080p Blu-ray format. For example, in one scene late in the game, the fine detail in Leon's shirt creates an unmistakable moiré pattern--an undesirable visual artifact that shouldn't be seen at this resolution. Going through the shot frame by frame, the moiré pattern looks to be generated by a coarse blockiness--not at all like the fine detail Blu-ray is capable of resolving.
Critical viewing elsewhere shows that high-contrast edges have a tendency to be aliased (that is, they appear on screen as jagged stairstep patterns rather than as smooth lines or curves). An examination of full-resolution frame-grabs on my PC indicates that the animation was originally output at some lower resolution (1280x720, perhaps?) and then upscaled for Blu-ray, since the pixel resolution of the picture is visibly higher than the frequency of the stairsteps those pixels are trying to resolve. Fortunately, the filmmakers have simulated a shallow-focus effect in most shots, meaning the vast majority of potential jaggies are blurred out--but this is nevertheless a significant technical shortcoming.
Finally, I've got one more serious gripe. Like the videogames, Degeneration is the creation of Japanese creative types, but it's a product that will be largely consumed by Americans. That's evidenced by the fact that on-screen text in this film is all in English as opposed to Japanese. (I'm choosing to ignore the overtranslated "Extra Delete Action Command" that appears on a computer monitor at one point.) But the animation was obviously based on the performances of Japanese voice actors--I can't think of any other way to explain why the lip-synch between the characters and the English-language cast is so atrocious. Especially given that disconnect, Sony's failure to offer a Japanese-language audio track (with English subtitles) on this disc is only the final insult in Resident Evil: Degeneration's long stream of affronts to American movie buffs. Originally published: May 28, 2009.