Saturday, September 15, 2012

Insert Coins to Continue: RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION

After five movies in ten years, Paul W.S. Anderson has these Resident Evil movies down to some sort of science. Each installment, of which he’s written and directed three, moves forward with constant motion, but little movement. The plot advances just enough to be called a movie, ending with nothing more than the promise of more. Based on a similarly long-lasting video game series, the movies eschew resolution of any kind at every turn as they tell the futuristic, action-packed sci-fi horror story of Alice (Milla Jovovich), a superwoman of sorts who again and again runs afoul of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. This company has unleashed an apocalyptic virus onto the world, a virus that creates all kind of shuffling zombies and slimy creatures. Not exactly undead, these zombies can operate weapons and heavy machinery and have sharp, snaky tendrils that slide out of their mouths in place of normal teeth and tongues. They’re creepy obstacles for Alice to mow down in acrobatic ways.

Each of these movies starts concurrent with the end of the one prior, which you think would be a problem for someone like me who can barely remember the four that come before Resident Evil: Retribution, the latest in the series. It’s not. The opening here is striking. It’s an elaborate action sequence running backwards in slow motion over the credits, breaking down hyperactive continuity into an abstraction of physical movement. Before you think that Anderson’s gone fully aesthetically experimental on us, he treats us to a longwinded monologue in which Alice explains the continuity of all that has come before. Does it help familiarize a non-fan like me? Maybe. It helped me remember that once Alice punched a zombie dog. That was something.

But enough about the past. This movie is in a constant state of present tense, a whirl of narrative conceits that double in on themselves. It’s a game inside a deus ex machina inside a dream inside a clone’s implanted memories inside an experiment inside a chase sequence. Anderson finds moments of unexpected visual pleasures, symmetry of light and shadow, of color and blank white space, of bold geometric shapes and expressive splashes of CGI viscera. He’s pushing the movie into an abstract sense of chaotic movement, layering the screen with digital readouts, picture in picture, and side-scrolling nonsense. The plot that contains all this finds Alice trapped in an underwater bunker in which Umbrella continues to test the virus in recreated cityscapes like convincing replicas of Time Square, a Moscow thoroughfare, a Tokyo intersection, and a slice of suburban sprawl.

Her escape finds her constantly on the move, collecting allies (Boris Kodjoe, Bingbing Lie, and Kevin Durand among them) and enemies (like Michelle Rodriguez and Sienna Guillory). As the characters move through each environment, annotated by Umbrella’s menacing computer that scans a green schematic of the sprawling bunker’s architecture, it’s clear that the movie functions as a video game. In each new space, the computer unleashes hordes of faceless zombies and monsters for the heroes to fight past on their way to the flesh-and-blood villains who are the ultimate final foes. Each environment cleared of obstacles, they literally move to the next level, working their way through tasks of increasing difficulty as they try to fight their way to safety. In a series that last time included coin-shower aftermaths of injuries, this new entry is the fullest expression of the material’s video roots.

Maybe that explains why the series is perpetually running in place. There’s no need for any variation beyond weaponry and creatures when the characters can just show up, fight, and leave the plot dangling until next time. Press pause. Reboot. Play the levels again. I like Anderson’s style here. He makes the movie all about nonstop action expressed through interchangeable physical details, textures of colored lights and foggy debris fields. Anderson’s visual imagination is notable, but that’s not quite enough to make this a satisfying movie. The film grows monotonous and deadening, a series of repetitive sequences in a series that is endlessly repeating itself.

The one glimmer of humanity here, cribbed from James Cameron’s Aliens, is the addition of a little girl for Alice to protect. It’s a thin compelling thread that makes the movie probably the best of this particular bunch by a slim margin, but even this is undercut. There’s a telling scene late in the movie in which Alice stumbles into a massive warehouse of clones containing hundreds of copies of many of the franchise’s characters. No matter the outcome of this game, we can play this again and again and again with new expansion packs and new character options. Maybe with Resident Evil 6, Anderson can win a higher score.

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