All anyone’s been talking about at the “Toronto Independent Film Festival” are films that potentially could be slated for an Academy Award nomination. But somewhere in between the talk of excellence a studio will produce another “Resident Evil” movie, where the blood and gore curdles and takes the kids, well maybe not kids by storm. It’s the fifth in the “Resident Evil” franchise of loud, metallic commercials for firing, jumping, throwing prowess and zombie slaughter, aimed at that segment of moviegoers ostensibly on a break from doing the same via their game consoles.
Based on a series of popular horror survival games by Japanese company Capcom, the first film was originally supposed to be directed by zombie movie titan George Romero, who had directed a series of atmospheric commercials for the games in Japan. Instead, he was swapped out for Paul W.S. Anderson, who can charitably be described as a talentless hack, and had previously directed an adaptation of videogame “Mortal Kombat;” as such, gritty horror was replaced by a kind of cheaply lacquered Hollywood sheen. Ten years later and five movies in, Anderson is still at the helm (having sat out the second and third entries), and his latest concoction, “Resident Evil: Retribution” (in 3D, of course) might be the most impenetrably obtuse entry entry in the entire series. Which is really saying something.
In the original “Resident Evil,” we were introduced to Alice (Milla Jovovich), a pretty thin girl who awakens in a secret lab run by the ominous Umbrella Corporation, where a bio-weapon fuck-up has unleashed an army of undead ghouls and goo-dripping monsters. Since then, it has been discovered that she is also some kind of bio-weapon, that she was cloned (or something), and that the Umbrella Corporation is really, really, ridiculously evil. The scale, supposedly, has been upped as the series has strolled along, too, with the outbreak consuming the entire planet, but Anderson almost always chooses to stage action sequences in dimly hit hallways so you can never really tell the true scope of the zombie-pocalypse. The mythology of the series has gotten gummier and harder to untangle, so thankfully “Resident Evil: Retribution” (the subtitle is totally meaningless, and suggests some kind of revenge subplot that is never accounted for), opens with a recap of the events of the previous films in true Basil Exposition form – Milla Jovovich is looking at the camera while little monitors show scenes from earlier movies. Like most of the movie, it’s laughably clunky, but not in any kind of cathartic, good-natured way.
This sequence, besides being a huge waste of time since nothing that happened in earlier movies has much bearing on anything that happens in this movie, also serves as a reminder that the only halfway decent entry in the franchise was the third movie, “Resident Evil: Extinction.” That movie was energetically directed by underrated Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, and overcame a typically weak Anderson screenplay by employing stark, neo-western visuals, and giving the entire proceedings some much-needed satirical edge by coyly commenting on the fact that they were based on a video-game (at the end of the movie it’s revealed that there are, in fact, multiple copies of Alice – possibly just waiting for another quarter to be activated). Mulcahy understood that he was essentially directing a television episode with a very big budget and he made the most of it – it remains the most fun and visually distinct entry in the franchise, a lone collection of earth tones in a series known for its cool blues and grays.
In “Resident Evil: Retribution,” Alice is forced to make an uneasy alliance with Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), the limp villain from the previous movies and former head of the Umbrella Corporation, who wears sunglasses inside and looks and acts a whole lot like a slightly more menacing Max Headroom. Alice is, apparently, trapped in an underwater research facility where Umbrella would test out different scenarios of the zombie virus – so there are giant warehouses that are exact replicas of Moscow, New York, etc. Assisted by a handful of mercenary-types that Wesker has sent in from the surface, including an actual guy from “Lost” (Kevin Durand, who played the villainous Keamy) and another guy who you sense the filmmakers are trying to trick you into thinking is a guy from “Lost” (Johann Urb, who looks suspiciously like Josh Holloway’s Sawyer). There are also a whole bunch of characters from the earlier movies, including Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr and Colin Salmon, but this doesn’t really matter because you can’t remember those earlier movies and who their characters were and because, in this movie, they’re evil versions or clones or some bullshit.
This is the most nakedly video-game-y entry in the franchise, in the sense that the entire plot consists of a group of survivors are trying to get through these different domes (levels) and reach an elevator that will get them back to the surface. At one point, a character gives another character two “items” – a grappling hook that Batman would be envious of, and a pair of reading glasses that magically produce maps (rendered in cheesy low-budget 3D). We had to look down at our laps to make sure there wasn’t a controller in our hand. The structure of the movie makes for incredibly tedious and repetitive viewing, as the characters are repeatedly plunked down into a situation and forced to battle some malevolent foe (there’s a giant, snarling beast this time and what appear to be Cold War-era Russian soldier zombies). It gets real old, real quick.
Not even the considerable charm of Ms. Jovovich, who is wearing a buckled jumpsuit that looks like it came out of YSL’s Nazi fetish fall collection, can salvage this wreckage. For some reason, towards the third act, Anderson just says “fuck it” and starts ripping off James Cameron’s “Aliens,” for no good reason. What’s weird is that Anderson, who directed the abominable “Alien vs. Predator” movie, doesn’t just rip off the monster stuff from “Aliens,” but he also tries to replicate the relationship in that movie between battle-hardened Ripley and Newt, a young girl and surrogate for Ripley’s long-lost daughter. What’s even weirder is that the young girl in “Resident Evil: Retribution” is a clone, and at one point the little girl and Alice are in a giant warehouse, surrounded by conveyer belts shuttling clones of themselves through open space (it looks very much like the door chase sequence in “Monsters Inc.”). All the “Aliens” beats are accounted for in this section, including putting the little clone girl in a glistening egg for reasons that we still can’t figure out. It’s a testament to the movie’s lack of creativity that Anderson can’t even rip off “Aliens” and have it come across as anything less than totally boring. But don’t worry; by the looks of things, Alice will be back for more. We can hardly wait. [D-]
The action, meanwhile, is the usual stereoscopic 3-D hodgepodge of slow-motion flips, sprints, swings and bullet trajectories, which begs the question: If they ran these scenes at normal speed, would 95 dreary minutes become a much more expedient 20 to 25?