I had more or less given up on the entertainment potential of the Resident Evil franchise after its fourth installment, Afterlife, wasted its entire runtime treading water & showing off its The Matrix Zombified aesthetic for a 3D lens. In a way, I had also given up on Paul WS Anderson as an auteur, since that entry tore down a lot of the good will established by Russell Mulcahy’s contribution to the franchise, the Mad Max-riffing Extinction. I was wrong to lose faith. The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.
It takes a few minutes of housekeeping exposition before Anderson feels comfortable with mashing the reset button in this way. The ending of Resident Evil: Afterlife teases an Umbrella Corporation attack on a ship of uninfected zombie virus survivors and this follow-up delivers that action set piece upfront . . . twice. The attack is first shown in reverse motion, starting with Milla Jovovich’s lead badass floating in an underwater void before being sucked onto the ship & downing a helicopter. She then explains the plot of each Resident Evil film to date in a detailed recap before the same Umbrella Corporation attack is shown in a more linear, traditional fashion. That’s when Anderson mashes the reset button. Project Alice (Jovovich) awakes from her underwater grave to a reality-shift, apparently living an alternate life as a housewife in the Raccoon City suburbs at the start of the zombie outbreak. This traditional George A. Romero scenario is revealed to be a simulated experience, in essence a video game, staged within an underwater facility where The Umbrella Corporation is holding Alice captive. The brilliance of this premise is that it allows Retribution to incorporate all of Resident Evil‘s past lives & themes of cloning, virtual reality simulation, and supernatural beasts in a single, interconnected location Alice must escape as if she were clearing levels on a video game. Where the movie really gets interesting is when pieces of these simulations, including the clones, begin to overlap and the narrative bleed-through finds the series finally reaching its own sense of distinct purpose that doesn’t feel like a riff on a pre-existing property.
Figuring out exactly what makes a franchise special and how to retread old ground without merely going through the motions five films in is no small feat and it actually reminds me of the way Fast & Furious movies similarly took their sweet time figuring their own shit out. Curiously enough, in both cases actress Michelle Rodriguez plays a badass toughie retroactively raised from the dead after a long absence (this time through cloning), which is just about as small of a genre niche as you’ll ever find. Other old characters like the rogue cop Valentine from Apocalypse & the axe-swinging giant from Afterlife also return, giving the film a distinct The Gang’s All Here vibe that’s been absent in its search for consistency. All that’s missing now is Vin Diesel raising a Corona to toast the makeshift family as they fire endless bullets into the zombie hoards that threaten to wipe out what little is left of humanity. Retribution ends in the same frustrating way all Resident Evil films insist on ending: shamelessly setting up a sequel (this time concluding at a zombie & dragon-surrounded White House) and fading out to tacky nu metal era tunage (this time supplied by Deftones singer Chino Moreno teamed up with some dubstep dweeb). Even that aspect feels like a tried & true feature of a series that’s finally come into its own, though, one final adherence to its already-established genre tropes before you leave the cinema. I’m not exactly sure how he did it, but Paul WS Anderson slowly turned me into a fan of his own bullshit just when I was on the edge of giving up on him as recently as one film ago. Even if he doesn’t stick the landing with the franchise’s sixth entry, The Final Chapter, he had already cohesively pulled it all together in the fifth, so the mission was already, in effect, accomplished. Retribution was Resident Evil‘s de facto resurrection, its sorely needed saving grace.