Guarantee Me You’ll Bring This Corporation Down: Narrative Closure and Resident Evil’s Anti-Corporate Politics

Curator's Note

The Resident Evil franchise revolves around the Umbrella Corporation. While seemingly benevolent, Umbrella produces “viral weaponry” that turns humans into flesh-hungry weapons of mass destruction. The evil corporation is a familiar zombie film convention, but the Umbrella Corporation recalls real-world institutions like Halliburton Company, as well as the multi-national media conglomerate that produces the Resident Evil film series (Sony Pictures Entertainment), significant connections given the role such corporations play within the Resident Evil films’ universe: they are the preconditions for narrative development.

In the first film, the film’s protagonist Alice tells an anti-Umbrella activist, “You have to guarantee me you’ll bring this corporation down.”  This stated goal drives the entire series, but it’s one that neither she nor any of the characters seem capable of accomplishing, as the corporation is always one step ahead of the good guys and in a position to undo any progress made against them, insuring the story will continue (as the accompanying video, featuring the final moments of each film, demonstrates).

In Resident Evil, after escaping a zombie-infested laboratory, Umbrella captures Alice and experiments upon her, a sequence of events reproduced in the sequel.  Even when she escapes, she remains under corporate control.  In Resident Evil: Extinction, she defeats one part of Umbrella, but the larger corporation persists, requiring another film, Resident Evil:  Afterlife for her to take them on again, where once more the corporation wins in the end. In the most recent film, though Umbrella seems to be destroyed, the final moments reveal that it persists, operating autonomously under control of a self-aware anti-human computer. The corporation persists and destroys Earth in the process.

The narrative’s dependence on Umbrella’s persistence mirrors the franchise’s dependence on the persistence of the real world corporations that ensure its expansion. The films thereby dramatize capitalist expansion, a process the Resident Evil franchise depends upon and emerges from, but denounces, identifying it as a destructive force.

The film’s narrative thus introduces a political problem, but one that it cannot solve.  Alice never brings the corporation down, nor are the films ever going to bring down corporate capitalism.  The films present protracted struggle, something closer to the reality of anti-corporate activism.  It seems that the only way to accomplish Alice’s goal, to bring Umbrella down, and resolve the narrative is to bring down the corporation that produces Resident Evil itself.

Comments

Felix Brinker's picture

Politics, Popular Seriality & Narrative Closure

Hello Sean, thanks for a great post! I am not too familiar with the Resident Evil-franchise(s), but I think you capture the relationship between the narrative/thematic preoccupations of the film series and the commercial logics behind its proliferation quite well.

I’d even argue that your post calls attention to a recurring problematic that contemporary long-running serials (irrespective of the medium in which their appear) in general face sooner or later. Namely the need to bring the internal/diegetic logics of the narratives in line with their commercial interest in sustaining a continued serialization: Popular serial formats need to find ways through which they can negotiate the needs of the narrative — for example that individual installments of series, like episodes, seasons (in the case of tv series, for example), or films provide a certain degree of narrative closure, coherence, and progress — with the economic logics that inform their production (i.e. the fact that serials become more and more profitable the longer they can continue). One way of mediating these competing demands seems to be the reliance on a narrative formula that pits the protagonists in an asymmetric conflict against an all-powerful enemy (in this case, the Umbrella corporation). We can see this logic at work in other serial formats as well — mystery-centric or conspiracy-themed tv shows like Lost, Fringe, 24, or Rubicon do this in a very similar manner, only with different antagonists (be it supernatural powers, endless series of connected terrorist plots, far-flung government conspiracies, and the like; I have a post up here on IMR in which I discuss this for tv shows in more detail).

I think it’s especially interesting that many recent popular serial productions engage with ‘political’ subject matters to spin their stories — in this respect, I think we can point to the recent political/financial crises in which capitalism and democracy seem to have lost some of their legitimacy that was still taken for granted 15 years ago. On the other hand, this also points us to the fact that serial formats provide a medial framework which can accomodate narratives about what you call ‘protracted struggle’ (which might perhaps pass as a shorthand for political processes & engagement, or politics in general) — precisely because serials don’t come with a predetermined ending. Political subject matters and problems therefore seem to be tailored for the needs of serial storytelling in general.

(And we could take this even further and relate the recent popularity of serial formats to the industrial and medial transformations connected to the digitalization of our life-worlds that we’re currently witnessing, and which coincides with the economic crisis. Serialization, as Roger Hagedorn has argued, is a mode of narrative presentation that serves to accomodate audiences to new or transformed media formats and technologies, i.e. it serves to promote a medium — here, it promotes digital, 3D, effect-heavy cinema, i.e. an art form that seeks to reinvent itself in a moment of media crisis).

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