Milla Jovovich first stepped into the boots of the zombie-fighting heroine Alice a decade ago, not knowing that the “Resident Evil” role would help cement her place among the queens of sci-fi. It’s a character she’s been happy to inhabit and develop, working closely with her now-husband Paul W.S. Anderson, who wrote all five films in the franchise and directed three of them, including “Resident Evil: Retribution,” which opened last weekend.
Lucky for both of them, Jovovich isn’t ready to break up with Alice.
“Every time we see Alice, it’s like some different iteration of the same person,” the 36-year-old actress said. “I think there’s definitely been an evolution. It’s not like we’re repeating the same stuff over and over and regurgitating things over and over, so it keeps it fresh and keeps it interesting. I think that’s what kind of makes these movies stand apart, in that sense where people do keep coming back to see them.”
And come back they have. “Resident Evil: Retribution” opened No. 1 at the box office last weekend, drawing a respectable $21 million in domestic ticket sales.
The fifth installment in the franchise, originally based on the popular Resident Evil video game series, was a sort of greatest-hits album, bringing back multiple characters who were killed off in previous films, as well as a legion of fan-favorite monsters.
Most of the events in the film take place in an Umbrella Corporation testing chamber, where Alice discovers she is one of the “50 basic models” the evil corporation created, cloned, programmed and slaughtered during tests of the zombie virus. The setup allows several familiar characters — most notably Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain, who was killed in the first film — to return as clones.
“You build these relationships with people, for sure, especially with Michelle,” Jovovich said. “When Paul had her killed in the movie, she was on set with a bullet hole through her head, and she said, ‘You’re going to regret this, man. You’re going to be sorry you did it.’ And she was totally right, because he was all the time going, ‘Oh, I wish Michelle didn’t die. It would be so great to bring her back.’ … What a great little bit of inspiration that was, for him to think of a snickety, sneaky way to bring ‘em back.”
Also returning are Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine and Bingbing Li as Ada Wong, squaring off the girl-power quartet, who match the movie’s muscled men — Boris Kodjoe (Luther West), Johann Urb (Leon Kennedy), Kevin Durand (Barry Burton) and Oded Fehr (Carlos) — bullet for bullet.
The testing facility setting introduces a new character — another “basic model” programmed to believe she is Alice’s daughter. Alice’s relationship with the young clone Becky, played by 11-year-old Aryana Engineer (“The Orphan”), gave Jovovich a chance to show a softer side of the zombie-fighting heroine. Anderson and Jovovich had their first child, daughter Ever Gabo Anderson, in 2007, and the couple drew on their parental experience for the film.
“It was amazing that Paul really took a little snippet from our own life after having a daughter,” Jovovich said. “Of course, he makes everything go horribly wrong. But at least she got to have the perfect world, even if it was for like six minutes.”
As sun-soaked and loving as those six minutes are, they quickly give way to the intense violence and gore that have become the hallmark of the “Resident Evil” franchise, leaving Alice and her newfound child running from Umbrella agents, zombies and grotesque mutations.
“Poor Alice!” Jovovich said. “My heart was breaking, and I was like, ‘Oh my Lord, she’s been through so much.’ And now, getting to this point and seeing these people she’s known and loved coming back in the craziest ways — it’s heartrending.”
Heartrending, perhaps, but definitely satisfying for Jovovich, who early on in her acting career set out to play edgy, unexpected characters. The Ukrainian-born actress, born Milica Natasha Jovovich, is the daughter of a Serbian doctor and a Russian stage actress who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1981. The family eventually settled in California, where Jovovich’s mother raised her to work in Hollywood. After modeling for a few years, Jovovich broke into film at the age of 15.
“I mean, you’re talking to a girl whose first theatrical film was ‘Return to the Blue Lagoon,’ so you know, I was kind of very disenchanted very early on about playing obvious roles for females,” Jovovich said. Then, self-deprecatingly, she affected a sing-songy little girl voice. “Because I’m young and I’m a model, so of course I’m going to do ‘Return to the Blue Lagoon.’ We’re on the beach, frolicking!”
After that, she said, she decided she didn’t want to play the girlfriend, the romantic interest or the girl next door. “I’m not interested in being just a side character to the lead who’s a guy, and he gets to do all the major stuff that moves the script, and I just stand around on the sidelines,” she said.
Six years later, Jovovich got her chance to step out from the sidelines for Leeloo, the orange-haired, bandage-wearing savior of the world in “The Fifth Element.”
“Leeloo is so incredible,” Jovovich reminisced. “I think when I got ‘Fifth Element,’ I really got a taste of a unique character, an iconic character. And something different, something that is different for women, and strong and vulnerable. It was hard, definitely, to think about going and just playing girlfriend parts.”
Instead, Jovovich found herself playing the lead in “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” as well as several indie films. Then, encouraged by her younger brother who was a fan of the video games, Jovovich took the role of Alice in the first “Resident Evil” film in 2002 — a role she reprised in “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” (2004), “Resident Evil: Extinction” (2007), “Resident Evil: Afterlife” (2010) and finally this year’s “Resident Evil: Retribution.”
While onscreen she gunned down villains, behind the scenes Jovovich designed costumes, drawing from her experience in the fashion industry and working with her business partner, fellow model Carmen Hawk.
“When we did the costumes, we had action figures in mind as well. It’s like, how do you build an iconic look that is easily recognizable immediately?” Jovovich said. “In No. 3, she was like this road warrior. And we had this ninja look for the clones in the fourth movie, and then she just goes right back to being a little bit ragtag, haphazard with her style.”
Going into the fifth movie, the process was “almost second nature,” Jovovich said, and she and Hawk went back to the basics, returning to the video game for inspiration.
Milla Jovovich worked on costume design for her “Resident Evil” character Alice. From left to right: “Resident Evil”; “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”; “Resident Evil: Extinction”; “Resident Evil: Afterlife”; and “Resident Evil: Retribution.” (Screen Gems)
“These women are so strong that literally men would rather play Jill Valentine in the game than a lot of men,” Jovovich said. “These are quite amazing females, so we went back, and it was like, ‘Why don’t we create the warrior suit, the Umbrella 2.0 fighting outfit?’ And that’s where the black catsuit was born.”
The “catsuit” — think Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” or Kate Beckinsale in the “Underworld” films — is lined with an exoskeleton of buckles and includes enough holster space for blades and pistols. It’s also ultra-strong and ultra-flexible, allowing Alice to escape the tight places she often finds herself in and perform her acrobatic fight scenes with zombies and Umbrella agents.
“That Umbrella Corporation — man, they just don’t stop. Thank God they have such huge air vents,” Jovovich said, chuckling. “They’re so busy with their amazing interiors and sending people out to kill me that they forget that air vents are the main way that I infiltrate anywhere.”
Like its predecessors, ”Retribution” ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, setting up for yet another sequel.
“When we did ‘Resident Evil,’ nobody thought it was going to be a big franchise,” Jovovich said. “We just made a movie about a video game that everybody really liked. It’s amazing, now, everybody is zombie this, zombie that. It’s wonderful when you think about kids dressing up as zombies to go to midnight showings of ‘Resident Evil.’ … It’s fun. That’s the most important thing. If people don’t have fun watching this movie, then we should just fold it all up and never make another one, that’s for sure. But so far, so good.”
– Noelene Clark
Girl, I love you, but this sequel... smh.