Hands up if you can remember what happened in the last RESIDENT EVIL film. Keep them up if you care. Of all of horror’s many flourishing franchises, perhaps only the UNDERWORLD series is more pointless and poorly executed. The original RESIDENT EVIL, based on the massively popular Capcom survival horror games and written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (whose one good film, the creepy, imaginative EVENT HORIZON, only compounds the tragedy of his directorial career by proving that he can produce something worthwhile when he puts his mind to it), was released in 2002, to distinctly mixed reviews. Four live action sequels followed, all starring Milla Jovovich and written by Anderson (who returned to direct the last two). The latest, (pointlessly) subtitled RETRIBUTION, debuted last year. Flashy, hollow and comprehensively bereft of substance, it’s yet another effects-reliant, plot-lite sci-fi/horror 3D slo-mo snooze-fest.
Knocked unconscious after she causes an airship to crash into the freighter Arcadia, Alice (Jovovich) wakes up in a suburban household to find she has a husband and a deaf daughter. The family are attacked by zombies and Alice’s husband is killed. She manages to escape into the attic with her daughter, but when she emerges she finds the street is under siege from fast-moving undead ghouls. She is rescued by her old friend Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), but is subsequently attacked by her now infected husband. Alice wakes a second time in the locked room of an Umbrella Corporation base, where she is tormented by Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), her former ally who is now under the control of Umbrella. Alice is presented with the unexpected opportunity to escape when the computer’s defences are hacked...
I’ve got an admission to make; most of the above synopsis was cribbed from Wikipedia. I watched RETRIBUTION, but I didn’t have the first idea what was going on. Like another basic, bombastic and vulgar genre franchise – the SAW movies – RESIDENT EVIL is a continuity nightmare, with each new episode not only requiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of what came before, but serving to further muddy the waters with another confusing, irrational assault on the senses. Characters from the previous films, both living and dead, return in multiple guises, playing both themselves and/or good/evil alternate reality versions of themselves, until even the most basic storytelling precepts – who characters are and what motivates them – fall by the wayside. To say plot is irrelevant is an understatement. Anderson constructs a vast virtual world within a world and proceeds to rampage across it with the mindless enthusiasm of a tantruming toddler – vast action set-pieces, a cloying overabundance of digital effects, and his trademarked indulgence in unnecessary slow motion (here utilised to the point of self-parody) take the place of narrative. Instead of a story we have a succession of fights, each more drawn out and cataclysmic than the next. Instead of characterisation we have cool poses and careful choreographed gladiatorial battles. Instead of dialogue we have pithy one-liners, mechanical exposition and emotionally-vacant, laughably wooden exchanges of non sequiturs.
I’m not entirely sure RETRIBUTION even qualifies as a film. It’s a series of video game cutscenes involving live actors. It’s also monumentally tedious. The nature of the franchise precludes anything even remotely resembling emotional attachment to the characters, and any tension that might have been generated by the hordes of faceless cannon fodder stormtroopers is entirely dispelled by the knowledge that everyone of consequence will be returning for the inevitable sequel. All we’re left with are the effects, which, while impressive in places, pale beside the best Hollywood has to offer. Performances are mostly adequate, although there’s precious little actual acting on display. Acting isn’t required in a Paul W.S. Anderson movie – just the ability to look good in a leather bodysuit, and to kick all kinds of ass in 3D CGI-augmented slo-mo fight scenes. Ten years on, Jovovich doesn’t look a day older, and commits to the material with her usual gung-ho gusto. Most impressive of all, she manages to spout her husband’s inept, artless dialogue while maintaining a straight face.
The best part of RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION is the opening two minutes, a visually-stunning, slightly brain-bending battle scene that plays out not only in slow motion but in reverse. As soon as it’s over the film becomes borderline unwatchable. The slender story is confusing at best, nonsensical at worst, and supposes an intimate knowledge of the franchise as a whole. Worse, there’s no sense of dramatic resolution – the ending serves as yet another set-up for a sequel (the only light at the end of the tunnel being that Anderson has stated the next film will be the last). For all intents and purposes RETRIBUTION is a video game, only without the fun and engagement of being able to play it. Vacuous, artless and emotionally empty, it’s a cynical, scare-free cash-in, and a new low for one of genre cinema’s most worthless franchises.