Five Resident Evil movies have been released since 2002. Global audiences can’t seem to get enough of these apocalyptic thrillers loosely based on Capcom’s popular series of video games. Out of curiosity — and because my only alternatives this week were a 3-D update of a Pixar oldie, an art film already out on DVD and a message movie about how liberals are stealing Christmas — I decided to find out why.
Full disclosure: I did not do my homework, i.e., view and take notes on the previous Resident Evils. This turned out to be a nonissue, because Retribution opens with a slow-motion, reversed replay of the explosive ending of its predecessor, Resident Evil: Afterlife. That sequence, the most visually exciting in the entire film, is followed by a tutorial in which professor Milla Jovovich — or, to be precise, her Resident Evil character, a kick-ass security expert named Alice — recaps exactly what has happened to her since Movie No. 1, with visual aids.
So, by the time the action started, I was up to speed. Granted, I didn’t quite grasp why the evil Umbrella Corporation keeps experimenting with creepy mutations even after the bio-weapon it created escaped from a lab and turned most of the people on the planet into hungry zombies. The company is controlled by a rogue artificial intelligence called the Red Queen (played by Megan Charpentier and voiced by Ave Merson-O’Brian), and we all know from Terminator and Matrix movies that computers are capricious masters.
Retribution opens with Alice in the clutches of the Red Queen (expect no further Lewis Carroll references). She’s quickly freed through the influence of Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), a series bad guy turned good guy, who’s sent his gun-toting henchwoman, Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), and a group of operatives to destroy the Umbrella facility where Alice is being held. To reach the extraction team, she must punch and shoot her way through vast facsimiles of cities such as New York and Tokyo, created by Umbrella to test its armory of beasties.
The trailer for Retribution plays up this virtual-reality element, highlighting a scene in which Jovovich appears to be living a cloyingly perfect suburban life with a husband and daughter (Oded Fehr and Aryana Engineer). But my hopes that director Paul W.S. Anderson would steal liberally from Inception and The Matrix were soon dashed. The suburban scenes prove to be merely an excuse for him to steal even more liberally from Aliens, with none of the suspense and dread of the original.
So what’s the appeal of Resident Evil movies? They translate well around the world: Dialogue is minimal, and everyone except Jovovich, Engineer and Merson-O’Brian acts so woodenly, they might as well be dubbed already. That includes Michelle Rodriguez, back playing two clones of her character from Resident Evil.
Indeed, characters in these films have a chronic tendency to get themselves cloned and switch allegiances and identities — which prevents the viewer from caring about them, but also makes it a cinch to extend the series indefinitely. Are things getting boring? Bring back a series regular like Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), but make her evil! Bring on Nazi zombies! Put a digital blood spatter on the camera!
In the end, it’s basically a movie about Jovovich in black-leather quasi-bondage gear doing acrobatics while firing her gun. There’s no doubt something pure and postmodern about this bloody digital circus, which doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, and whose makers care about critics’ opinions about as much as Lars von Trier cares about tact. But low aspirations are their own reward.