Five movies in, you ought to know exactly what to expect from yet another entry in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise: lots of undead ghouls mutating into what looks like the final boss of a video game (not necessarily the source material), lots of shots of Milla Jovovich wearing tight outfits and defying gravity in slow motion, and lots of evidence that even something unequivocally stupid can be creative in its own right. As I watched Jovovich’s Alice mow down legions of cloned zombies in increasingly implausible ways, I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s famous quote from Trash, Art, and the Movies: “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
Shameless trash without a hint of hipster irony (take that, 2007’s Grindhouse and all its spinoffs), Resident Evil: Retribution ranks somewhere in the middle of the series in terms of junk food entertainment, which isn’t saying much, I realise. The characters are hinted at more than explored, and the only turn in the story consists of our heroine having to veer right midway to get to her destination (as shown on a helpful map). However, the film has got a strong, outlandish concept at its core and a gorgeous visual approach.
Consider the opening scene, which consists of an epic gun battle filmed in reverse, delineating the lacklustre cliff-hanger of Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) from the new story Anderson wants to tell. This isn’t the first time the writer-director switches gears between sequels, but past instalments have tended to waste their first act addressing cumbersome continuity issues before moving on to a largely unrelated premise. Instead, Resident Evil: Retribution starts from the desired point and slowly rewinds to the previous film’s final shot, clearing the board in a cohesive way and evoking the theme of looking back without a single line of (usually awful) dialog.
Then Jovovich spends a good four minutes summarising the series to the audience in a clunky monologue that, I confess, strikes me as a necessary evil, given how much the plot, as it were, draws from past events. In a nutshell, after getting captured by a mind-controlled Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), whom long-time fans may recall from Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Alice finds herself in an underground testing facility where clones of all her dead allies over the years are used to play out T-Virus contagion scenarios. As she makes her escape, the vast virtual environments allow our heroine to advance between set pieces without connective tissue, fighting axe-wielding giants in Tokyo one moment and communist demons in Moscow the next.
In a way, Resident Evil: Retribution thrives where Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) failed. You want sexy warrior princesses claiming their freedom by opening cans of whoopass? You got it, but this time the heroines comprise real, grown-up women who dress in a practical manner so as not to creep out the audience with the director’s rampant hebephilic vibe. You want misshapen fiends in far-out environments? Here you go, but this time their threat holds real value to the characters by virtue of affecting their layer of reality. You want gravity-defying stunts and special effects? Have a dozen dozens, but this time the rules are clearly set so as to keep the tension: women can bend the laws of physics; men cannot.
My only qualm with how the fantasy elements are set up pertains to pacing. All this mayhem leaves little room for character development or, you know, auditory respite, and I may well have heard enough shell explosions to last me a lifetime or nine. More to the point, the relentless violence, while “kewl”, does result in some missed opportunities. For example, Alice encounters two versions of Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), the badass Umbrella soldier from the original Resident Evil (2002). One is programmed to be an evil henchwoman; the other is cast as a suburban pacifist; neither gets so much as five lines beyond the usual, “I’m going to kill you!” Maybe I’m letting my affection for the actress taint my judgment, but doesn’t that seem like wasted potential?
Oh, well. I guess the point isn’t to show the psychological and ethical ramifications of imprinting different personas on genetically identical human beings. After spending a full decade adapting console properties to the big screen (I maintain that 2008’s Death Race is based on Super Mario Kart), Anderson may have at last succeeded in accommodating cinema to the gaming aesthetic. From newcomer Ada Wong’s (Li Bing Bing) expository mission briefings to the way weapons emerge from the ground like platformer power-ups, everything in Resident Evil: Retribution evokes the frenetic appeal of video games. Those who, like Roger Ebert, believe the latter can never be art will find plenty of fodder for their argument, but so what?