Guest Movie Review: Resident Evil – Retribution
Admit it: whenever someone describes a film as a “video game adaptation,” you roll your eyes and ignore whatever comes next. You’ve never seen a movie based on a video game and thought for one second that it was worth the experience. Don’t worry, you’re not alone; in the two decades that Hollywood has been taking the most popular video games and transferring them to the big screen, how many of those do you think scored higher than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes? Five? Ten? Not even close. The closest to reach that somewhat respectable level was 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (43%), based on the Final Fantasy series of adventure games produced by Square Enix. Whether what you saw was just disappointing (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Silent Hill, Doom) or outright awful (Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon, anything directed by Uwe Boll), it cemented your bias that video game movies were just not worth your time.
So why do these films get such a bad rap? Part of the problem is that they really are that bad. Cheaply financed and often saddled with inexperienced filmmakers, the franchise simply isn’t allowed to tell its best stories. Instead, it is encouraged to fill time and include a particular game’s popular characters for the lowest budget possible. If a renowned director like James Cameron were ever to get involved in a Halo movie, critical acclaim would come from every corner as to how he had “rejuvenated” a “downtrodden genre.” But when directors with either no action experience – or even any experience in general – are the ones in charge of these works, you get some pretty quickly dismissable final products.
But just because video game adaptations get terrible reviews doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Under the right circumstances and in the proper set of hands, such a film or film series might just blossom into something genuinely enjoyable. So: I’ve actually grown somewhat fond of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series, which was based on the Capcom survival horror games of the same name and which first appeared in theaters back in 2002. Sure, critics will point out that these are mainly mindless action thrillers, and purists will complain of the many liberties taken by Anderson in his recreation of the R.E. universe (including, but not limited to, making the franchise’s lead character an individual who never once appeared in any of the games). But I really liked the first Resident Evil; I felt that Anderson – who both wrote and directed – captured some of the best parts of what made the video game series so much fun. The games were about living to see another day, and Anderson made that work on the big screen, pitting his interesting heroes against familiar-yet-deadly foes with a constantly-increasing level of doubt as to their survivability.
While the first Resident Evil was a fun trip, its success resulted in some of the worst movie sequels in the past decade. Anderson continued to pen the screenplays, and he produced Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Resident Evil: Extinction – which focused on a zombie outbreak as it first spread throughout a city and then the world, respectively - but the inexperience of first Alexander Witt and the lack in focus of second director Russell Mulcahy resulted in sequels that felt like mighty vapid. I, like many, quickly grew disillusioned and thought Anderson’s franchise couldn’t have any more stories to tell. That changed overnight when one magical thing happened: the progenitor of Resident Evil got back behind his camera. Anderson once again took the director’s chair for 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, and his direct control of the franchise helped prop it back up to enjoyability. Character growth once again became important, with actors playing not just caricatures of video game creations but people who were charming and slimy and heroic and stupid and human. And Anderson’s use of the latest 3D technology meant that IMAX screens across the country showed off some of the best tech this side of Avatar to back up the surprisingly strong story. I maintain that Afterlife is R.E.’s – and Anderson’s – best film, for its technical prowess as well as its desire to make up for the mistakes of its ancestors.
That’s part of why the fifth movie in the series, Resident Evil: Retribution, is such a missed opportunity. Taking place immediately following the cliffhanger ending of Afterlife, Retribution starts off with Alice (Milla Jovovich) once again in the custody of global mega-corporation Umbrella. Taking place almost entirely in one of Umbrella’s top-secret facilities, the movie once again pits Alice and a handful of monochromatic allies against the worst that the company’s weapons program has to offer, including a psychically-controlled Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) and clones of many of her former allies, programmed to hunt Alice down and take her out for good.
A fan-favorite cast and promise of characters from the game that had not yet made their way into theaters - these are the main draws if you are a fan of the Resident Evil series. It’s obvious that Anderson listened to the people paying his bills, as his inclusion of famous R.E. characters Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb), Barry Burton (Kevin Durand) and Ada Wong (Li Bingbing) is definitely geared to please the long-suffering faithful. Anderson also found ways to bring back many of the franchise’s most iconic (and mostly deceased) characters, especially Valentine, Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) and Luther West (Boris Kodjoe). Unfortunately, thanks to a script that focuses almost exclusively on the next action sequence, anything that might be considered a character-defining moment is quickly forgotten. Not one of the above actors gets all that much attention, and when they do it’s just a minor concession to appease the rabid fan base (for instance, any time Leon expresses any affection towards Ada). These moments are depressingly rare, as the film quickly turns into the Alice Show, with everybody else mere steps from the chopping block.
Not that our resident heroine has it any easier; while Jovovich’s persona is still singularly suited to leading the franchise forward, much of the personality Alice developed over the previous quartet of films is suddenly gone, from her quirky coin collecting to her gentle flirting with Carlos or Luther. Instead, she quickly gets trussed up in a leather catsuit (or, as one character calls it, an “S&M getup”) and loads up on enough weaponry to start and win a small war. She’s Underworld’s Selene without a British accent – Ellen Ripley without any reason to be.
Anderson’s screenplay is largely the culprit here. As with the other movies in the franchise, Anderson strays far from the canon of the games, electing to impart his own story using the ready-made characters in front of him. As Retribution shows, however, his narrative can only go so far. In each of the previous installments, imperfect as they were, there was an idea of increasing scale. In Resident Evil, the action was restricted to one secret base. Apocalypse focused on one city. Extinction saw a worldwide pandemic but remained primarily in the United States. And Afterlife carried a story halfway around the globe. Retribution, meanwhile, takes place… in one secret base. While efforts are made to separate the base into several differing environments, the plot is essentially the same as it was back in 2002, new characters be damned. And the director does his best to damn them, forcing everybody to spew out hideous dialogue in a pathetic attempt to move the story forward. What’s worse, the twenty minutes of exposition at the beginning that attempts to attack every conceivable plot hole the audience might spot? It’s delivered in the most stilted ways possible, by actors who’ve shown they can do better than this. Only Shawn Roberts (as secondary antagonist Albert Wesker) seems to be having any fun with the material – the rest blankly read their dialogue off cue cards. A few of the actors overcome this sleepiness, but both Rodriguez and Fehr deserve way better than the extended cameos they get to play.
This level of brainless entertainment would have been at least acceptable if Retribution retained the energy and visual splendor of Afterlife, but even that is simply lacking here. Gone are the gorgeous views of city skylines and near-perfect 3D rendering of characters and props, replaced by ice and gunmetal gray as far as the eye can see. After wowing me in the last movie with an epic communal battle and some truly expensive-looking visuals, merely offering me something that looks okay is guaranteed to disappoint. The vistas are nowhere near as impressive as they were in the last chapter, and most of the effective 3D use is the clichéd tossing of items at the camera. You’re left with nothing pretty to distract you from the insipid dialogue.
In the wake of Afterlife, I had hoped that the Resident Evil franchise would finally raise video game movies to a place of… if not acclaim, at least begrudging respect. After all, if Hollywood can throw millions of dollars at Zack Snyder productions, how hard can it be to toss some of that money at a franchise with millions of ready-made fans around the globe? Perhaps a better-financed movie could help overcome the intense bias mainstream audiences hold against this sort of stuff. In the meantime, Resident Evil: Retribution is an example of extreme regression, making everything that was so enjoyable about Afterlife feel like a fluke. Anderson certainly hasn’t learned any lessons in filmmaking, and he wastes a potentially excellent cast on his unfinished, half-baked screenplay, with an ending one beeping motion tracker away from a complete plagiarism. Retribution is less a sequel than a set-up; you can safely avoid it unless you’re either a completist or a masochist (or a little of both). This one takes itself far too seriously to come back from the dead.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in the Boston area. Check out Hello Mr. Anderson for his latest film reviews.