Reviews

'Resident Evil: Retribution': Clones, Again

The series continues to tease an apocalypse that never quite arrives.


Resident Evil: Retribution

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Bingbing Li, Kevin Durand, Oded Fehr, Shawn Roberts, Boris Kodjoe, Aryana Engineer
Rated: R
Studio: Screen Gems
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-14 (General release)
UK date: 2012-09-28 (General release)
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Trailer

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.

4

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.

For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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