Hollywood is betting the bank on digital 3-D as its salvation but that faith isn’t really reflected in the work they’ve been putting out.  Avatar aside, most of the recent 3-D boom has either been hastily-made junk, lousy-looking post-conversion fare or all of the above.  3-D has a long way to go to prove itself as consistently bankable, much less having aesthetic potential as a new way of storytelling, and it would help if the current practitioners would apply a little more care and effort to their work.

A good example that future 3-D filmmakers could follow – at least on a level of visual technique – is Resident Evil: Afterlife.  The fourth installment in this video game-derived series is as slim on artistic merit but it delivers the 3-D goods in style and thus offers a good demo on how filmmakers can use the current technology to its best effect.  Along the way, it offers the best “good dumb fun” at the multiplex since the summer began.

But first, the obligatory plot summary: series heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) is still chasing after the creeps who run Umbrella Corp, the conglomerate whose zombie virus project has infested the entire world.  After a prologue in which she lays waste to a Tokyo-based Umbrella lab, Alice barely escapes with her life and makes her way to Alaska to find the survivors she saved at the end of the last Resident Evil flick.  She only finds Claire (Ali Larter), who has temporarily been driven mad by a device stuck to her skin.  Alice neutralizes the device but Claire can’t remember what happened.

The two survivors get back in Alice’s plane and stop in Los Angeles when they find survivors who have barricaded themselves in a prison (Boris Kodjoe is among them) as they try to figure a way to make it to “Arcadia,” a ship off the nearby coast that promises food and shelter.  The only person with a plan to get there is Chris (Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame), a prisoner who claims to be the victim of a frameup.  When zombies break down the prison’s defenses, Alice and the gang team up with Chris to bust out, thus setting the stage for zombie battles, explosive slo-mo action setpieces and the by-now-obligatory 3rd act plot surprises.

It’s a workable if convoluted b-movie plot and Anderson gives it the treatment everyone has come to expect from him: the characterizations are paper thin, the dialogue is baseline-competent and the focus is on action and making the most of Jovovich’s gorgeous-yet-tough charisma.  There’s precious little meat to the storytelling, with the main focus being schematic plotting to move us from one setpiece to the next.  Any scenes that rely exclusively on character interaction and dialogue are dull and there are no attempts at bringing an individualized style to the proceedings or communicating a theme (a la George Romero’s zombie films).  He’s also still taking costuming and action-directing cues from The Matrix.

That said, the usual complaints take a backseat this time out because Anderson is very skilled at getting the most out of his 3-D effects.  Resident Evil: Afterlife was shot using the same camera system as Avatar and each shot displays a genuine effort to maximize on its 3-D potential via mise-en-scene, production design, effects, etc.  Better yet, Anderson is very careful in staging his action scenes so they are visually coherent, with a minimum of fast-cut editing and a maximum of showy slo-mo.  The end result is the best 3-D cheap thrills to emerge from Avatar‘s long line of sloppy-seconds successors.

It also helps that the cast keeps the audience engaged.  Jovovich once again confirms her status as the best action heroine in current cinema.  It’s easy to underrate what she does because she makes it look so simple but her ability to kick ass while looking lovely and playing out the silly plot with sincerity is crucially important to making a jerry-rigged proposition like this work.  Larter makes a good second-banana to Jovovich, delivering a similar sort of appeal, and Kodjoe is likeable even if the film never quite figures out what to do with him.  Elsewhere, Miller does solid work with his mysterious role: he doesn’t have much to work with but he has fun with it.

In short, Resident Evil: Afterlife is a modest but competent programmer that gets a real shot in the arm from its effective, skillfully thought-out use of 3-D.  If you dig extradimensional cheap thrills, it’s the rare modern 3-D quickie that’s worth spending the extra bucks on.