Resident Evil: Retribution
dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
Release Date: Sep 14, 12
Resident Evil: Retribution may well be the first film adaptation of a video game capable of completing the circuit, so to speak, and seeing a seamless video game adaptation of itself. I don’t mean to reopen the “are video games art?” debate with that observation, but the film is structured so much like a traditional video game narrative that it’s nearly impossible to divorce the movie from its roots. Though the Resident Evil franchise has proven to be a nice cottage industry in the September dog days of the moviegoing year (seriously, who imagined that this and the Underworld saga would both see fourth installments?), it’s also starting to look more and more like a sad imitation of its far superior digital counterpart with each film. Where the first Resident Evil at least tried to conduct itself as a horror movie, Retribution is condescending, lazy action filmmaking in nearly every conceivable sense, a meticulous exercise in carefully structured “gotcha!” moments and throaty one-liners. It’s also quite a chore to get through.
Poor Alice (Milla Jovovich), who’s been the franchise’s face and punching bag since the beginning, thought at the end of third film Resident Evil: Afterlife that she’d finally escaped the nightmare which beset Earth when the nefarious Umbrella Corporation unleashed the T-virus, an incurable biological weapon which turned most of humanity into savage, mutated zombies. However, as a helpful and comically overlong catch-up sequence at the beginning of Retribution reminds us, Alice’s getaway barge was attacked by Umbrella, who sent Alice’s brainwashed former friend Jill (Sienna Guillory) and a fleet of armed helicopters to capture or kill her. Alice learns from Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), former archenemy-turned-compatriot, that the virus has reached a crisis point, and the numbers of uninfected humans are rapidly dwindling. Still with me? Good, because now I can explain how Alice is actually trapped underground in a testing facility for the virus, and has to stage an escape so that she can…do something.
That note of vagary isn’t for the sake of being coy. Retribution has a lot of serious, glowering faces attached to muscular and/or comely bodies saying Important Things, but for all the urgently (and often, badly) delivered dialogue, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson’s screenplay never actually specifies what’s going to happen once Alice gets there. But then, I guess he has to find his way to Resident Evil: Ascension or whatever it’ll be called by one means or another. Once Alice is freed from prison by Ada Wong (Bingbing Li, giving maybe the worst performance in a major American film this year so far), Ada uses a detailed onscreen display to show Alice the exact trajectory her mission will take her on, through simulated zones designed to recreate Moscow, New York City and a suburban paradise, en route to the exit. It’s at this point that Retribution starts to actively insult its audience, as it tells you exactly where Alice will go, what she’ll have to do and how it’ll all resolve itself.
Even in a video game, there’s a sense that the unexpected can happen, even if the game is showing you its machinations up front. In Retribution, nothing feels half as innovative as most of the first-person shooter/survival horror games the film is blatantly aping. That aping isn’t limited to gaming, mind you. One early sequence, set in the suburbia “zone,” steals so liberally from the opening sequence of Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake that Snyder could probably make some money from a lawsuit. At least in that instance, Anderson is stealing from a quality film, which you’ll long for once Retribution starts to cycle through every hoary action-movie cliché imaginable. There are gruff mercenaries, one of whom gets a totally unearned self-sacrificing hero moment, a sexy companion, a sinister corporation that possesses an endless and disposable wealth of weaponry. There’s also the most common trait of the hackwork action movie: a total lack of compelling story or action, supplanted by a series of grotesque fight scenes and deaths which vaguely resemble a GWAR concert but ultimately prove meaningless.
Resident Evil: Retribution would just be a harmlessly dumb, forgettable piece of hyperviolent action fluff (again, much like the mirroring Underworld saga), except for when it commits the egregious error of introducing a child companion for Alice, one that may not actually exist (don’t ask, the film doesn’t either), and asks for audience investment in whether Alice can protect her from hordes of zombies and gigantic mutants. Little Becky (Aryana Engineer) serves absolutely no purpose, much like virtually everyone and everything else in Retribution, other than to a) move the story forward with a relentlessly utilitarian force and b) make the audience fear that a child is going to die onscreen, as opposed to all the countless others who’ve expired over the previous 90 minutes without eliciting any sort of response. Don’t worry, though. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Becky makes it to the end of the level (movie) after getting through the final (boss) battle, and will perhaps be around for the inevitable cash-in sequel (sequel).