Let’s face it: we don’t expect much from the Resident Evil series. Suit Milla Jovovich in the fetish gear du jour, send her against a new passel of zombies, and who cares about little things like a coherent plot? The increasingly Byzantine mythology has reached a state where even hard-core fans of the video game are hard-pressed to explain exactly what’s going on, and that’s okay. We’re not here for deep thinking of any form. The third and fourth movies, in particular, achieved some real guilty pleasures, and with Jovovich rarin’ to go for Part Five, there was no reason to expect anything different.
Unfortunately, Resident Evil: Retribution can’t even pass muster for the simple standards of this series. It starts out great – with a striking reverse-slow-motion depiction of a typical slice of Resident Evil mayhem – and finishes with a terrific cliffhanger, but the whole middle part just bores us to tears. Like the other films in the series, it needed to capture the energy and feeling of the source video games. It doesn’t, leaving us watching someone else play rather than feeling like they’re playing themselves.
Primary fault for it lies in the chosen locale. After getting blown off the ship in the transition from Part 4, Alice (Milla Jovovich) finds herself trapped in a virtual training center for the Umbrella Corporation. She quickly plans a breakout, aided by allies both expected and surprising, but must first fight her way through a variety of virtual scenarios used by Umbrella to test their zombification virus.
We’re never sure if the zombies are “real” or merely clones. Many of the supporting figures who pop up seem to be clones as well. Director Paul W.S. Anderson – who’s clearly doubled down on these films along with his wife Jovovich – hopes to establish a dreamlike “what is reality” feel to the mayhem, but ultimately succeeds only in removing any hint of plausible danger. Instead, he sets up an escalating series of VR simulations: one set in New York, one in Moscow, one in a random suburb and so on… all actually taking place in the Umbrella facility. The fights feel larger and more elaborate, including one piece in a virtual Times Square between Alice and a pair of giant boss zombies, but the uniformly lack any interesting aspects. The backflips and gunshots take on a glum, repetitive tone, differentiated only by the exact flavor of zombie and whether or not Alice has any back-up (which includes returning faces like Michelle Rodriguez and Boris Kodjoe). The game of mix-n-match quickly wears out its welcome, with the action finally sputtering to a halt rather than reaching any plausible climax.
The dizzying array of supporting characters don’t help, whisked in and out with reckless abandon and accompanied by exasperating explanations to remind us why they exist. Certainly one doesn’t expect high levels of acting with a project of this nature, but some of the performances here rank among the most embarrassing you’ll ever see. That doesn’t include Jovovich thankfully – she gives it her all, as always – but even normally stalwart character actors like Kevin Durand phone it in rather than investing their parts with the energy that might have saved it.
The most exasperating part is how it finally starts to come together, with the return of an old foe and a brilliant set-up for Part Six. Then, just as we feel the groove the way we should have ninety minutes before, the credits roll. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing the next film… which only makes it harder to watch this one putter around in circles. We know what this series is selling and we don’t ask for anything more. Just a comfortable collection of zombies and explosions to while away an afternoon. Resident Evil: Retribution can’t even deliver that in a satisfactory manner: another empty jumble of images in search of a reason to exist.