Director: Paul WS Anderson
Stars: Milla Jovovich, Li Bingbing, Sienna Guillory
Okay, stick with me on this.
Paul WS Anderson – a largely derided or simply dismissed director – is a man preoccupied. His career can be looked at like someone obsessively playing a video game over and over. His first feature, Mortal Kombat, is a garish, poorly-dated, immensely silly attempt in this trickiest and most thankless of genre territories. And while there have been diversions along the way since (Event Horizon, Three Musketeers, Pompeii) he has been admirably focused in his quest to unlock this particular trophy; the complete integration of video games and cinema. Like an obsessive, a perfectionist. Often his biggest limitations have proven to be his somewhat wonky scripts and working within budgetary limitations that don’t quite tessellate with his overactive imagination.
The Resident Evil movies unfold like someone ruthlessly replaying the same level over and over, each time trying to get closer to the sweet nirvana of a ‘perfect’ run. As a whole they are a massively uneven, trashy, convoluted and often contradictory bunch; something that only adds to this sense of someone furiously shaking up the Etch-A-Sketch to try again. There is a through-line, an ongoing story, but few of them individually are outright successes.
After skipping out on directing the second and third episodes (which he still wrote), Anderson returned to the series for numbers four, five and six. You can sense him getting back into the groove for number 4 – 2010’s Afterlife – but it’s a transitional piece, its pace judders and its prison-setting brings to mind early seasons of The Walking Dead. Yet within it are the furtive sparks of the remarkable form he would find and sustain for Retribution – the fifth and finest of the movies.
When people talk of recent action masterpieces, they talk of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Raid, maybe the John Wick films. All meritorious selections. I’d like to steer Resident Evil: Retribution into that conversation. Genuinely. It is exceptional. And not just because Anderson hits the stride of his career in terms of documenting action.
From what I gather, his take on the series differs radically from the unfolding plots of the video games. He picks and chooses. The evil Umbrella Corporation is ever-present, but other characters come and go. Unsurprisingly, he opts to forefront Alice played by his wife Milla Jovovich; an athletic, genetically-enhanced clone who one day wakes to discover that Umbrella have unleashed a deadly virus which reanimates and mutates the dead. A viral zombie apocalypse covers the world. Alice makes it her mission to take Umbrella down.
With the notable exception of a tedious and awkwardly staged “previously on” section (floating monitors, ugh), Retribution is the most remarkably svelte and straight-forward of the films. Exposition is kept to a minimum, tidied away in compact little breather sections, like loading screens. After the cliffhanger events of Afterlife, Alice finds herself trapped inside an Umbrella stronghold; a testing ground that utilises digitally-generated environments to play out various outbreak scenarios. Alice’s attempts to break free cause her and a number of confederates to navigate these test zones. It has the effect of zeroing the film’s nominal plot down to a run-to-the-finish, but it also makes Retribution the most video game like of all video game movies. In the process, it becomes a video game movie about video games and, in turn, a video game movie about movies themselves.
Denise Cronenberg’s costumes remain as fetishistic as ever, and adhere closely to the aesthetics of the games, but its this idea of artificially generated worlds that we’re asked to navigate that creates a kind of self-aware and self-critical echo chamber. Here are the sets. Here are the scenarios. The artifice is built into the scenes we’re thrown into and then we’re asked to care about the outcome. In Dogville, Lars Von Trier got Brechtian on us, removing the concept of believability from the ‘set’, opting for something more theatrical. Taped outlines on a black stage. Anderson isn’t quite that extreme here, but his conceit means that we’re forever following a story that takes place within this set of quotation marks.
What does he fill those quotation marks with? Well, violence. An obscene amount of bullets are expelled (in what must be a knowing aside, real-life gun enthusiast Michelle Rodriguez is recast here as a woman imprinted with an anti-NRA ethic; her very personality is a fabrication). An all-too-slick car chase out of Red Square in Moscow fulfills that particular staple of the action movie and/or driving game. A suburban setting allows for some of the zombie-sprawl nightmares of The Last of Us and Left 4 Dead. And the final (glorious) showdown atop a frozen ocean has the balletic exhaustion of the likes of Tekken or, even, Anderson’s own favourite Mortal Kombat. Resident Evil: Retribution brutally minimises any other consideration – plot, character development – in order to fulfill its razor-sharp synthesis of movies and gaming. The movie feels like it has that myopic vision of a gamer locked into their play, oblivious of the world outside of the virtual world they’re utterly absorbed in. In his attempt to create the perfect integration of forms, Anderson suggests to us that movies are no different. That total immersion is the ultimate objective. Obliteration, even replacement of the real.
His action is hyper-real. And a lot of it this time is, frankly, phenomenal. The quick cutting that is typical of Hollywood fight sequences remains a fixture, for the most part, but Anderson’s sequences are defined by their geographical acuity. There’s little confusion over who is where or how one shot interacts with its fellows. Take, for example, the bravura white corridor sequence that occurs after Alice escapes the Tokyo set-piece. In the corridor, Alice uses her immense agility to dispatch a number of zombies that have pursued her. It’s like a dance of brutality. The crisp whiteness bisected with strong black lines makes it look like this area hasn’t been texture-mapped yet. It’s a blueprint space (similar to Von Trier’s Dogville, you might say). But the action is breathtaking. Anderson uses wire-work to spin Jovovich. He uses slow-motion and CG to ape the Wachowskis’ bullet-time (these Resident Evil films owe a lot to The Matrix). It’s like watching the replay of someone pulling off the perfect ‘combo’ move. All to the propulsive techno of Tomandandy’s relentless, mechanically repetitive score (a limited number of themes expressed in a set of basic variations). In terms of movie nodding, the sequence also owes a debt to, of course, Oldboy, but also TRON. The corridor is like The Grid. But Anderson creates a very different aesthetic. The aura is almost serene.
The sense of gaming and movie-going is blurred in the aforementioned Tokyo sequence that immediately precedes the corridor scene. Alice finds herself in the opening title sequence from Resident Evil: Afterlife (one of my favourite credit sequences). Anderson even borrows shots from his previous film. In this film’s world it is a ‘test sequence’, a recreation, a fabrication, a game of sorts. For Anderson, movies are games and vice versa. Both are better than the real.
Later, Alice discovers a chamber filled with her clones; an impossible room in which her likenesses hang like merchandise on spiraling tracks. It feeds into the larger plot of cloning and the concept of eroded self, but its also as though she – and we – are being asked to face her ‘infinite lives’. The privilege of endless resets in a video game. Do over after do over after do over, presently coldly, frankly, with a thousand blank expressions.
Not everything hits perfectly. Pretty much everything involving the gun-toting men who rush into the facility to rescue Alice and co. feels a little flat compared to whatever Jovovich is up to, and the cliffhanger coda at the White House teeters on self-parody and ends on maybe the most garish shot of the entire franchise. But the remainder feels eerily, icily beautiful. Resident Evil: Retribution is so complete in its hybridisation of movie and video game that it feels programmed, robotic, dystopian in a way that stretches beyond its post-apocalyptic vision. As though Anderson himself has merged with the machines of his trade, like Tetsuo: the Iron Man. The completeness of this artificiality is so coherent that it even allows lumpy dialogue and stilted performances to feel ‘right’; as though the actors have been possessed by their NPC counterparts.
It wouldn’t last. The subsequent series closer Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is arguably the worst in the six-film run and finds Anderson skidding once more out of lockstep with his goal. That’s frustrating when you look at the series as a whole, but if you allow yourself to zero-in, like Anderson does, on the end-to-end sprint of Retribution, you’ll find cold, voyeuristic commentary on our desires in entertainment and an over-indulgence in those same vices all at once.
I genuinely think this is one of the great action films of the last 20 years. Aside from its almost meta-conceptual expressions (there for the taking as intellectual Easter eggs – an indulgence of another kind), it leaves room for absolutely nothing else. It is as ruthlessly functional as Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Terminator movie. Most video game movies fail because they try to adhere to a different set of rules. Resident Evil: Retribution uses the tools of cinema to just keep on playing.