Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) – Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson – Starring Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Kevin Durand, Sienna Guillory, Shawn Roberts, Aryana Engineer, Oded Fehr, Colin Salmon, Johann Urb, Boris Kodjoe, and Li Bingbing.
RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION is the fifth installment in the franchise.
Or it’s the tenth. Or third. Or twenty-seventh.
I don’t think it matters all that much.
I don’t remember if I’ve watched all of the previous four installments. I know I’ve watched the first and second films because I own them and the wrapper has been taken off the DVD case, and I don’t take off the wrapper until I’m gonna watch the movie. I don’t think I’ve watched the third and fourth films because I don’t remember seeing Ali Larter in any of these movies. But then, I don’t really remember much about any of these movies except a vague memory of Alice (Milla Jovovich) shooting things and … and … yeah.
While all of that sounds rather negative, the RESIDENT EVIL franchise certainly deserves all sorts of respect for pumping out five versions of Alice battling the Umbrella Corporation, and truth be told, if we’re comparing zombie franchises, I’d much rather sit and watch five RESIDENT EVIL movies than five episodes of The Walking Dead. If that sounds like high praise, it really isn’t because The Walking Dead really doesn’t work for me, and whatever problems these films have, at least a RESIDENT EVIL movie isn’t grim, depressing, and mopey. At least here people are doing things instead of simply reacting to them. A RESIDENT EVIL film is perhaps the ultimate example of cinematic fast food: it’s consumed quickly, it’s completely unmemorable, and it satisfies a late night craving.
For the most part, RETRIBUTION did okay on the Smart Phone Test (TM).
What’s the Smart Phone Test? If I’m watching a movie at home, I will inevitably reach for my iPhone and start playing around with it: I’ll answer my text messages, play Words with Friends, check in on Twitter, maybe skim through the Bleacher Report app. (As annoying as the Bleacher Report website is with all their inane article breaks, the app is pretty great, allowing me to skim headlines for Arsenal, all the Boston teams, the WWE, Red Bull Racing, Syracuse hoops and football, and Olympics news all in one convenient place.) If a movie is superb, I’ll never reach for the phone and if it’s terrible, I’ll fall down the Smart Phone Rabbit Hole and spend more time looking at it rather than the screen.
But it’s those movies in the middle where the test proves its worth, and whenever I went to my iPhone during RETRIBUTION, I was pulled back to the movie. This is not to suggest RETRIBUTION is on par with GoodFellas, but for a middle of the road movie, it largely proved more interesting than anything my cell phone had to offer on a lazy, early Tuesday afternoon. I went to the phone too many times for RETRIBUTION to be called a good movie, but it was an enjoyable enough bad movie for a day off.
In RETRIBUTION, Alice wakes up as the prisoner of the Umbrella Corporation. The entire plot of the film involves Alice escaping from this facility as a crack team of tough guys shoot their way into the compound to assist in the escape. The execution of this idea plays just like a video game – the facility is a testing area for Umbrella, so they’ve got a large areas modeled to look like New York City, Suburbia/Raccoon City, Moscow, and Tokyo. Alice, Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), and Newt, I mean, Becky (Aryana Engineer) work their way out as the commandos work their way in.
That RETRIBUTION mirrors a video game makes the viewing experience less than it could be. I don’t understand this idea that if a movie (whether it’s RETRIBUTION or Crank) looks like a video game it’s a good thing. Why would I want a movie to act like a video game? That’s what video games are for. In RETRIBUTION, this negatively affects the film’s pacing. There are too many scenes that are completely unnecessary, adding nothing to the film except this is where a fight scene goes. When Alice wakes up in prison to discover a way out, she ends up in simulated Tokyo, and the infected Tokyoites chase her back into the pure white hallways, it’s just an excuse for a dumb shoot ’em vs. chomp ’em scene.
I’m all for action, but a scene like this is putting the action before the story, and action usually works best when it’s in service to the story.
It also gives the film a lethargic feeling, as if everyone is just going through the motions because there’s nothing about this story worth investing in. So much of the acting here is just standing around shooting. Or getting punched and then hurled across the room thanks to a harness. There just seems little reason for the actors to have invested themselves in this obvious script. They even include a little girl who thinks Alice is her mommy because she was programmed to think that another Alice clone was her mommy in order to add a little pathos to the script but there’s absolutely zero actual investment in this character. Sure, it’s a momentary blip of actual emotion when Becky hugs Alice for the first time, and yes, Alice does go back to save her from a big monster later on, but three time – THREE TIMES – in the movie Alice sends Becky to hide so she can fight without worrying about her.
Which, yes, is what she should do in these situations but then why include the little girl in the script? Just because Aliens did it? The difference between Becky and Newt is that Newt had things to do. She was her own character, not just a prop. When Alice tells Becky to hide, that’s the end of Becky’s involvement in the sequence. We don’t see what Becky does or learn what she’s feeling because the film has no room for a kid to do anything smart. It’s like someone decided in some meeting that it would be great to see a little girl hug Alice and no one realized there needed to be something for her to do in all of the other scenes she’s in.
Bad guys appear in RETRIBUTION very much like they do in video games, too – they appear in waves from out of the ether. Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) is a former ally of Alice but now mind-controlled drone of the Umbrella Corporation. The way Umbrella controls a person’s brain is by making them wear ugly jewelry, which likely means Umbrella started out as a harmless Etsy store. Valentine is another character that’s just a function. The film needs someone to be the physical face of the evil Red Queen (a computer program that’s now in control of Umbrella) and they might as well use someone from the video games, right?
Everyone is a function and everything is obvious and it’s terrible and it’s a semi-enjoyable kind of terrible. For all my cracks at the sameness of this franchise, there is something to be said for how its longevity effects the audience. If you’re invested in these characters, it’s probably enough to watch them run around for another 90 minutes doing the things you like them to do. There’s nothing inventive here, nothing to hook new viewers in, but it’s not a horrible watch.
Or, it is a horrible watch, but it moves so fast and feels so familiar watching it is like cinematic meditation. It hits that totally familiar, totally not-quite-even-mediocre point where the film consumes us as much as we consume it. I mean, I could have gotten off the couch, but I didn’t.
I will often say, of a film like Barbarella, that I don’t understand why they didn’t make a whole series of that movie. If In twenty years, if they only ever made one RESIDENT EVIL movie, I’d be saying the same thing. Well, they obviously did make a whole series of RESIDENT EVIL films and RETRIBUTION shows both sides of that coin – at some point, our collective affinity for these characters has outstripped the filmmakers ability to tell a story worth caring about, so they add a kid and bring back an old face or seven and hope some the mix of new curtains and swapping old stories are distracting enough that you don’t notice the couch is worn and the laughs are forced.
And in a week or a month or a year you’ll forget if five people showed up or ten or three or whether you watched RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION or RETRIBUTION or INSURRECTION or AWAKENING or … or …
It doesn’t matter because before you can figure it out you’ll be distracted by the return of the McRib or Ali Larter’s new movie or your smart phone. But just because RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION is easily consumed, digested, and disposable doesn’t mean it this franchise doesn’t deserve some respect.
They’re not making ULTRAVIOLET 5, after all.