Monday, September 17, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

I didn't make it to my 10 year high school reunion, but I imagine it would have been a lot like this movie: familiar faces, stilted dialogue, some really fun moments, and a lot of things that don't really make sense.

Resident Evil: Retribution starts us up seconds after the last film ended, with Alice (Milla Jovovich) having just rescued dozens of white-clothed humans from the Umbrella Corporation, on a boat in the middle of an ocean. Their happy ending clearly didn't last long, as we see - in slow-motion, time-reversed montage - the refugees come under fire first by airships and then Umbrella Corp commandos, led by Alice's one-time friend and current nemesis Jill Valentine. The attack knocks Alice overboard and we get one final image of her submerged body, silhouetted against the ocean's surface.

The first scene is an example of what to expect. It's beautiful and haunting on the one hand, but sometimes comes across as cliched on the other. I had a blast watching some of this film, but I really couldn't recommend it to anyone except other zombie/resident evil fans, and while it got my heart pumping now and then, I feel like the film had some missed opportunities to really feel like it was a satisfying zombie flick.

First, the good: Alice kicks ass. Jovovich inhabits the role perfectly, moving from action scene to quiet character moments fluidly. The film only truly comes alive when she's in action, especially in the earlier scenes where she's mostly unarmed and has to make do with whatever weapons she can scrounge up, like a heavy chain, perfect for bashing zombies in the face. Because of the central conceit of the film - that she is trapped in an underwater testing facility with different environments created to replicate places like Manhattan, Tokyo, and "suburbia" (where fans like me can watch the standard set-piece of civilians trying to escape a newly-unleashed zombie apocalypse) - we see Alice in a bunch of different scenarios so that the action doesn't really get too stale.

And it was fun to see some familiar faces, especially Michelle Rodriguez, who takes on a couple of different characters, including an anti-gun protestor, which leads to one of the few genuinely funny exchanges in the film. I wish Rodriguez had had more to do, because she was certainly one of my favourite parts of the first film.

Actually, aside from the obligatory "Alice is dressed in a medical napkin tied with string" scene, the best parts of this film belong to the women. The film passes the bechdel test early on, and while there is an all-male task force assigned to rescue Alice (why can't we see any of those guys in napkins?), Alice does quite well on her own, later having to rescue her would-be rescuers in a Moscow car-chase scene complete with James Bond-esque music, soviet zombies weilding rocket launchers and, oh yes, a giant "licker" monster who pursues them into the subway system.

If the movie were able to keep this manic pace going, it would have gotten a much better score from me, but unfortunately the weak paste that holds these awesome parts together is filled with wooden acting, leaden dialogue, and plotting that alternates between non-sensical and ripped off from other movies.

Alice is eventually stuck with "Becky", a young hearing-impaired girl who was Alice's daughter in one of Umbrella Corp's simulations, and while the kid who plays her (Aryana Engineer) isn't too annoying, the fact that she is simply meant to be to Alice what Newt was to Ripley in Aliens, is grating. At one point I fully expected to hear Alice growl "Get away from her, you bitch!" while she rescues the girl.

The movie suffers in the last half, too, because of it's slipshod plotting and characterisation. In the final fight scenes, there really isn't any reason to fear for Alice's safety, and there's no emotional resonance with the other characters. This sapped away the kinetic feel of the action, so that when we're supposed to feel most engaged in the outcome, I felt the opposite, I was just waiting for the fight to be over so we can move on to the next bit.

The door is wide open for a 6th installment, which I'll probably want to see. The character of Alice, as portrayed by Jovovich, is someone that I'd happily follow through the rabbit hole over and over again. At this point, the franchise has its established strengths and weaknesses, so if you've seen previous Resident Evil films, you know what to expect from Retribution and any further installments. I'm giving this film 2.5 severed thumbs out of 5 (I may be grading on a curve), and I'm definitely excited to return to the first 4 films over the next few weeks. Coming soon!

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