“Resident Evil” week – divine “Retribution”

Evil goes virtual, more like…

So it’s come to this – the fifth movie in the now absurdly contorted narrative Gordian Knot which is the “Resident Evil” series.

“Retribution”, for that is its subtitle, pitches heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) into possibly the most meta film in the sequence to date – to those glancing at it with disdain from the outside, this is a dumb-as-a-box-of-hammers franchise frippery, a tossed-off horror action mash-up with only nominal differences to distinguish it from the other movies in the series which they are only too happy to ignore.

To those of us in the know, this is possibly the world’s first example of cinematic downloadable content – a fan-service add-on which borrows from the business model of modern console gaming to provide cinema goers with an added value bolt-on to the series which doesn’t advance the storyline in any meaningful way save to pitch Alice into new, themed combat arenas, parachute beloved characters from the games like femme fatale Ada Wong into the film continuity and act as an amuse-bouche before the planned final entry in the franchise gets properly apocalyptic on our collective derrieres – the traditional, eye-popping final shot promises nothing more than a climactic battle to end them all.

Yes, that is a bloody ridiculous outfit. You can’t tell that these games/movies are made by horny nerds, can you?

The real issue which seems to have set the decaying, T-virus infected feline amongst the clueless avians is that apparently deliberate lack of story – whereas critics have set about previous “Resident Evil” movies for lacking purpose and eschewing plot to concentrate on high-octane fight sequences and explosions, there’s a very real sense with this entry in the series that writer/producer/director Paul W.S. Anderson has deliberately and knowingly jettisoned such niceties as narrative and characterisation to offer a curious cross-media construct which is neither game nor film – a flashy piece of entertainment which looks like a movie but has more in common with the connecting cinematic vignettes which bridge levels in contemporary video games.

For my part, as a gamer and somebody who loves movies, this latest Resi is a bold and cavalier acknowledgement that audiences experience narrative in a different way than our parents did – I find as much value and enjoyment in a brisk ten minute episode of a YouTube show as I would from slogging through 22 episodes of the latest network drama.  I know tropes, I can appreciate genre convention (and decode the subversion thereof) and I don’t need to have my entertainment framed in the kind of classical structures which many critics seem to require film makers to slavishly ape.

If nothing else, this latest instalment of the franchise fully embraces its source material (if only as a jumping off point) and is the most explicitly video game-inspired film that Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt have yet presented – watch this movie for more than ten minutes and you’ll be able to tick off the influences – Valve’s “Portal” and it’s test chamber structure presided over by a homicidal, female-identified A.I. is front and centre, with a hilariously prolonged ‘rugged heroes vs. soldier zombies’ gun battle in one level scene being utterly synonymous with the ‘Nazi Zombies‘ sub-games from the last few “Call of Duty” games.

It must almost have come as a relief for the film school crit-crowd to have a major plot line in the film blatantly lift the ‘Ripley/Newt’ surrogate mother riffs from James Cameron‘s “Aliens” – at least there’s something to aim their hipster scorn at which doesn’t require a degree in survival horror continuity and recent video game history to appreciate.

Yep, just your everyday tale of post-apocalyptic, V.R. training simulations and massed clone armies…

A word, if we can, on the use of 3D in this film – Anderson’s third consecutive feature to be shot using the Cameron/Pace rigs and certainly the most technically accomplished utilisation of the technology that I’ve seen outside of “Avatar”.  As this is a sci-fi/horror/action flick, there’s the requisite number of “Look! An axe flying at your head!” camera shots and mutant undead beasts leering into the front row but Anderson and Director of Photography Glen MacPherson manage to do some interesting things with perspective – Alice’s Umbrella prison cell, and the use of space in the frame are as diverting as the showier stuff and the New York level/sequence has neat perspective use to justify the price premium inherent in seeing a 3D (or IMAX 3D, for my sins) presentation.  And that’s before mentioning the stunning reverse/slo-mo/3D opening sequence – it makes arguably not a lick of sense in the great scheme of things, but it’s very pretty indeed.

Such is the full-tilt insanity of this fifth movie that it’s hard to know how Anderson could hope to top the constant barrage of action, cheap jump scares, fan-serving cameos, 3D eye-candy and zombie-punching ass-kickery that “Retribution” serves up unless he aims to abandon formal cinematic structure altogether and frames the next flick as an uninterrupted, ninety-minute long battle sequence against the undead harbingers of the apocalypse with only minimal dialogue and plot sketching to guide the uninitiated along.

That crazy disregard for convention extends to the acting – is Bingbing Li channelling her character’s voice acting from the games or is she really that wooden (I’d say not – she was perfectly fine in the Jackie Chan kids adventure, The Forbidden Kingdom)?  Returning “R.E. Apocalypse” alumnus Sienna Guillory is similarly…variable in her return to the series as Jill Valentine – she’s playing a character under mind-control, which does give her something of a pass, but her villainous turn here suggests less a ultra bad-assed warrior chick and more of homicidal sixth-form prefect who can somehow kill you with a flick of her pinky:  Dem line readings, kids – something to treasure if you see this film on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The last, apocalyptic and seemingly unending shot in the movie promises much – let’s see if Anderson can keep up his end of the bargain and deliver the movie which perhaps gives us the full-on, sense-assaulting future war epic that, say,  the “Terminator” franchise has long promised audiences but significantly failed to deliver.  Who knows?  On the evidence of this most video-game inspired entry in the series, the next “Resi” might just come with Quick-Time Event prompts on-screen and an Xbox 360 joypad free with your 3D glasses.

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