Silver Screen: Resident Evil: Retribution *
The theater's increasingly protracted preamble of commercials, trailers, and public service announcements wound to a close, the lights went down, and Resident Evil: Retribution started to roll. Fade into a bustling city street, where a little girl prepares to take a sip from a can of soda that suddenly erupts with an alien-looking goo that, in a series of rapid cuts, lays waste to the entire country. By all accounts it's pretty much the promised plot of Resident Evil-- but this isn't a live-action movie, it's all computer-animated. A sudden cut away to a title screen reveals this not to be the beginning of the movie, but a preview of yet another videogame about a scientific apocalypse in which people shoot big guns at Lovecraftian monsters. If this game is as successful as Resident Evil, perhaps ten years from now I'll be equally baffled and annoyed sitting through the fourth sequel to it.
Full disclosure: I've never played a Resident Evil game, nor seen any of the first four films based on the videogame series. Helpfully, star Milla Jovovich opens the latest installment with a barely-in-character video blog complete with a highlight reel to catch up newcomers. It's both exceptionally convoluted and pretty simple: The short version amounts to “an evil corporation released a bio-chemical weapon that turned people into monster-infested zombies who now rule the planet. Milla Jovovich plans to shoot all of these people, zombies, monsters, et al.
This time around, Jovovich's gravity-defying, leather-clad superheroine Alice is trapped in an immense underwater training facility where the nefarious Umbrella Corporation tests new clones and simulates monster attacks in mockups of New York, Hong Kong, and even a quiet suburban setting. A team of soldiers is sent by the resistance to rescue her, but to reach them at the evacuation point she must battle her way through the entire complex.
It's a pretty decent concept for a game, which is partly the problem. Resident Evil: Retribution always feels formatted more like an arcade shooter than even a frivolous action film, so even at its best moments it feels like watching your friend play a videogame. That's the conundrum for the spate of game-based movies in the last fifteen years. Games began with a simple structure but gradually evolved to use cinematic tropes to heighten the excitement and complexity, but really the cut scenes and cinematography they borrowed were just window-dressing on the gameplay. Now movies are borrowing the aesthetic from videogames, which effectively means these films are cannibalizing simple techniques from older movies-- it's a movie aping a game aping a movie, which ultimately just results in a crappy movie.
Perhaps being a longtime fan of the game will make some of the spare subplots and side characters more interesting and add some kind of dimension to the movie, but it's hard to see how even the sharpest inside jokes could redeem the almost defiantly awkward Resident Evil. Sienna Guillory, playing a skanky assassin being mind-controlled by a sentient computer, gives one of the all-time-great, stilted, awkward performances, reading her lines as though they were written on the sides of trucks traveling very fast in the opposite direction. Johann Urb proves that men can be just as ditzy as women with his own vapid turn.
Of course, you don't go to such a movie for the acting or plot, but the moments between action sequences are grueling even by straight-to-DVD standards. The action is at least well-choreographed, although writer/director and series producer Paul W.S. Anderson stylizes it so heavily that it's more ballet than action. The meticulously constructed sequences are undercut, however, by visual effects that swing from handsome to shoddy. The tone, too, varies wildly; rather than a genre mashup, Resident Evil: Retribution is a horror movie for awhile, then an action movie, and back again, alternating between the two rather than blending them. It would make the movie incredibly awkward... if that weren't already a foregone conclusion.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.