Any franchise going into its fifth instalment is bound to show signs of strain, but after a surprisingly spry fourth entry, the Resident Evil series looked to buck that trend. Despite having the first film’s creator back on board in the director’s chair for his third crack at the material (Paul W.S. Anderson, working form the Capcom video game source material), Resident Evil: Retribution sadly takes a turn for the worse despite some grand action sequences, strong female characters, and great use of 3D. It simply makes the storyline far too complicated for its own good; jerking the audience around like it’s… well… a bad video game.
It’s hard to say if seeing the other films in the franchise would be a prerequisite for Retribution since this one opens with a lengthy recap of the previous four entries before quickly confusing someone like me who had seen the other films by basically throwing most of it out the window in the following ten minutes.
Alice (Milla Jovovich, looking just as beautiful and kicking as much ass as ever) awakens in an Umbrella Corporation outpost in Siberia that’s been designed as a training facility and human cloning factory. Within this training facility are three separate large scale “urban tactical” combat scenarios controlled by the now evil Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) who finds herself under the control of the Red Queen computer programme from the first film. The now apparently benevolent Ada Wong (Bingbing Li) has been sent by the also apparently reformed former head of Umbrella Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, who was very clearly killed at the end of the last film) to retrieve Alice and escape the compound.
In order to escape the compound they have to meet up with a rendezvous team (including an astoundingly underused and nearly wasted Kevin Durand and Boris Kodjoe, playing yet another character presumed dead in the previous film) on the other side of a Tokyo mock-up, a suburban life that includes a young girl Alice believes to be her own, and a Moscow street fight with undead soldiers. This proves to be a huge problem in terms of logic.
If everything in front of them is known to be a simulation and everyone around Alice including herself can be cloned en masse, then what are the stakes exactly? The outside world completely gets forgotten about here (as are, you know, zombies) in what amounts to a more convoluted reworking of the first film with people trying to escape a single building. Making things even more confusing is the cloning aspect that Anderson seems to want to cram down the audience’s throat. Are we watching a real person or a clone and what is the difference? Also, Alice’s entire crew from the first film shows up after a three film absence, is suddenly evil, and now also apparently clonable. Why? What’s the point?
There really seems to be no other reason other than as an out to establish a franchise that can keep going endlessly since Anderson or whomever takes over the reigns from him can simply just throw up their hands and say “It was clones, man” and suggest that the last several entries were irrelevant. It’s almost brilliant in its crassness, but when the film around this conceit makes little sense, it’s far less enjoyable.
That’s not to say that there aren’t elements to like in the film. People still talk in video game styled cadences and are placed into scenarios not unlike what one would encounter in a survival horror game. Jovovich still remains quite the heroine, and there’s an extremely interesting feminist reading that could be made about the film (all men are imbeciles, the best fights involve only the female cast members, a sly joke about sexy librarian glasses holding the secrets to getting out of a tight spot, Alice’s motherly instincts). The action and fight sequences are top notch, and while it isn’t the best told story of the series, it’s certainly the most impressive looking. It’s also just barely 90 minutes not including credits.
Anderson gets a lot more flack than he should as a filmmaker. He certainly has a true vision of what he wants his films to be, he can shoot better than any big budget action filmmaker working today, and he definitely knows how to use 3D better than anyone aside from James Cameron or Robert Zemeckis. It’s his storytelling chops that get called into question a bit more this time around. Still, his entries in the series remain the strongest, even if this is his weakest film overall since AVP. The Resident Evil franchise still has two films worse than this one, but by the time the confusing set up for the inevitable sixth instalment comes, it’s hard not to hope that this storyline gets thrown out the window yet again in favour of a better one next time.