[18 September 2012]
Without much fuss and even fewer preview screenings, the Resident Evil series has racked up five entries in 10 years, forming a sci-fi horror soap opera of sorts. As Alice (Milla Jovovich) explains directly to the camera toward the beginning of Resident Evil: Retribution, she began as head of security for the Umbrella Corporation. From here, she recounts, she encountered a weaponized virus run amok resulting in a zombie apocalypse, went rogue and searched for survivors, acquired and lost a set of virus-based superpowers, and took it upon herself to battle the sinister Umbrella Corporation in its various forms.
Augmented by a television-style “previously on Resident Evil” montage, Alice’s narration reminds us that the Resident Evil series has been long and also good fun, managing to improve over several installments, as Alice mutated from a basic zombie-fighter to female superhero. Retribution, though, finds the series’ charms wearing thin.
All the Resident Evil movies end by shamelessly setting up an ambitious big-canvas sequel, and all start by scaling down that ambition. So there’s no real disappointment when Retribution speeds through Umbrella’s attack on a survivor ship from end of the previous film, so Alice can be knocked unconscious and wake up elsewhere. That elsewhere promises a clever narrative zig-zag, with Alice in a nice suburban house, with a loving husband and a sweet-natured deaf daughter (Aryana Engineer). She even gets a new haircut: Jovovich in bangs!
But the suburban setting turns out to be a clone-based tease. The real Alice is actually trapped in an Umbrella facility that runs survival experiments using realistic sets, clones, and the company’s infinite supply of zombies. Umbrella has been taken over by artificial intelligence, and the formerly villainous Albert Wexler (Shawn Roberts) dispatches a team to rescue Alice so she can help save the always-endangered human race. To meet up and escape together, the heroes must run through various training grounds that imitate blocks of suburbs, as well as streets in New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and Berlin.
The fake cities and Umbrella’s use of clones allow Resident Evil: Retribution to position itself as a greatest hits set, à la Fast Five, which has become a model of late-franchise rejuvenation. Semi-familiar faces like Michelle Rodriguez and Oded Fehr return, sometimes playing their old characters and sometimes playing new clones (Rodriguez pops up repeatedly, in guises good and evil). These replaceable clones and level-like cities also imitate the form of a video game (although fans of the Resident Evil games will insist that they’re far more cinematic and character-driven than the films). It makes some sense, then, that the sets and cinematography have an over-lit sheen, but it’s also strange that the biggest-budget sequel so far would also look cheaper and more fake than its predecessors.
Of course, this is a B-movie series. And so such artificiality might have given Alice’s current journey a sense of trippinesss, had the screenplay fully explored the possibilities of clones with different memories and personalities. Instead, it just puts characters back into familiar situations. Here Jovovich’s usual grim determination feels muted and rote, even if she does—as always—look cool holding a gun. Poor Sienna Guillory, returning as Alice’s former ally (and current Umbrella mind-control victim) Jill Valentine, looks as stiff holding her weapons as she sounds delivering her robotic lines.
Most of those lines are variations on “Let’s go!”, but for long stretches, the movie doesn’t go much of anywhere. Its shoot-outs generally pit our heroes against faceless drones instead of zombies or creatures (which prompts the question: why make a Resident Evil movie about soldiers opening fire on each other?). These conceptual missteps are more frustrating given that Paul W.S. Anderson, franchise overlord and director of this film (as well as Parts One and Four), doesn’t have the usual action-hack blind spots: his fight scenes are lively and well-choreographed, the action is clean and easy to follow, and some of his images even have an imaginative pop, like a shot of zombies hording underneath a sheet of ice.
But while the fundamentals are in place, much of Retribution is missing the trashy energy that powered earlier movies. It’s essentially one protracted, not very suspenseful break-out sequence that could’ve been plopped into any of the other four films. Even the series’ titles have become interchangeable: it’s never clear whose, if any, retribution is achieved in this movie, and given characters’ dialogue about the impending extinction of the human race, the movie could just as easily be titled Resident Evil: Extinction (Part Three) or Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Part Two).
Those titles could also apply to Part Six, teased in the now standard final pull-back shot revealing large-scale apocalyptic mayhem that supposedly waits. The series continues to tease an apocalypse that never quite arrives. The world of Resident Evil has been ending, mostly off screen, for over a decade now. Maybe it’s time to get on with it.