Monday, September 17, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012)

The Resident Evil movies have elevated the "It was all a dream" conceit into the longest-running Simpsons rake gag in cinema. In the series' expansion ever outward, continuity bends and narratives repeat themselves with minor variations that culminate in massive, butterfly effect divergencies. Afterlife, the previous film in the franchise and the first since the original film to feature Paul W.S. Anderson back behind the camera, gave this tendency an extra push by incorporating some of the distinct styles of the preceding three films. It brought back the claustrophobia of the first film's haunted-mansion setup, Apocalypse's street war congestion of bodies, and Extinction's sense of sheer scale and devastation (taken one further by going from a national backdrop to a global one). In folding back the series into this new film, Afterlife revealed itself to be more concerned with the self-reflexive, and video-game-like, aspects of this franchise than its straightforward upheavals with each film.

Nothing in Afterlife, however, can compare with Retribution. In a defiantly metacinematic opening, Retibution plays a sequence in reverse, instantly calling attention to the falsity of the image even before it zooms into into a black void filled with screens dotted with scenes of the Resident Evil films to this point. Alice (Milla Jovovich) pops up on one of the screens and directly addresses the audience, providing a recap of what has happened so far. I'm not one for lengthy exposition, but in a series filled with convoluted repetitions, incessant reversals and an increasing amount of clones, every little bit helps. Yet Alice's clarifications become amusingly irrelevant mere moments after she concludes her spiel, as Anderson soon plunges into constantly shifting levels of false reality that render moot an awareness of the story from sequence to sequence, much less across films.

Following the gorgeous opening and extended narration, Retribution dissonantly cuts to suburban placidity, with Alice waking to a comfortable life with a loving husband (Oded Fehr) and a deaf daughter, Becky (Aryana Engineer). All is well, until someone turns around and comes face to face with a zombie invasion. Alice frantically fights off the hordes of undead as long as possible, and just when all seems lost, she wakes up in a facility run by the Umbrella Corporation, Resident Evil's own Weyland-Yutani. Or is the Alice in suburbia the same one in a prison cell? This is bewildering stuff, made yet more confusing by the fact that this information, and a rescue attempt, is helpfully conveyed by Alice's overseeing nemesis, Umbrella head Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) and his operative Ada Wong (Li Bingbing). What's more, Wesker sends a team to extract Alice, featuring a character from a previous film thought dead. Other characters return as well, such as Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), only to find themselves the villain thanks to mind-control devices.

But to worry about the plot of Resident Evil: Retribution or even how the larger pieces fit together is to focus on the precisely wrong aspect of the film and the franchise as a whole under Anderson's guidance. The hows and whys of Alice's unlikely partnership with her enemy and how some characters can return from the dead (to say nothing of Michelle Rodriguez returning as two characters, a "good Rain" and "bad Rain") hardly matter compared to the grandiose funhouse in which Anderson places these characters. True to Umbrella's outsized corporate greed and unlimited resources, Retribution takes place in a remote underwater facility that houses several zones that recreate major cities as a means of running test scenarios for the companies biological weaponry. As such, Retribution operates less through a linear plot than a routine reset of setting and even character as some figures change between the vast rooms. Having started with a tonally faithful adaptation of one of the most cinematic video game franchises, Anderson at last pulls back so far that his camera captures the conventions of video games themselves. Every room is its own game level, with the only sense of linearity in the arrangement of baddies in increasing threat levels. Where the New York mock-up is in relation to the Tokyo recreation is not immediately apparent, but the presence of massive, weapon-brandishing creatures in the former and merely the average zombies in the latter suggests a path of progression toward the intended escape.

Yet for a series already marked by an overwhelming sense of nihilism, this casual use of false environments and a cloned populace to fill them finds new areas of troubling implication. Overseen by the organizing artificial intelligence program known as the Red Queen, this collection of simulation hubs serves only as a killing field for clones programmed with just enough intelligence to react to their own slaughter. In video-game terms, they are NPCs, there to interact superficially in an environment before inevitably dying. This grim revelation could be seen as a commentary on action film as well, in which the same basic character types are reused time after time, occasionally altered as a means of adding "originality" to stale formulas while still keep ing all the components basically unchanged. Anderson even adds a wisp of melancholy to this human recycling, regularly placing Alice with someone she recognizes but who, as a clone of that deceased person, does not remember her.

Elsewhere, there is something darkly amusing about the largest location hub of this testing floor, and the central passage that links all, is not the fake Moscow or New York or what have you but merely Suburbia. It makes a strange kind of sense: suburbia contains all the oblivious, bourgeois contentment that makes a military-industrial complex possible. Suburbia built Umbrella more than all the national governments represented by their replicated cultural centers, just as idyllic suburbia is where bored, inactive children pass their time playing the sort of hyperviolent, vicariously energetic video games that spawned this franchise.

Take away these clever, insidious ideas, however, and Resident Evil: Retribution still works as a crackerjack action film. If the plot is so deliberately convoluted that it makes next to no sense on a surface level, Anderson's direction has a fluidity and coherence to it that makes following along to the spectacle simple. Anderson's love affair with slow motion, not quite at Zack Snyder-levels of obnoxiousness but close on Afterlife, is not so much reduced here but refined, made less into an awkward crutch than a part of the visual rhythm of the shots. Those shots are also frequently breathtaking, such as the holding cell in which Alice awakens early in the film, a geometrically precise, seemingly endless tower that dwarfs the heroine as the director looks down from far away. Light and color within Umbrella's artificial microcosm is used with audacious control, whether in the rush of red lasers down a brilliant white corridor as the hall turns to darkness behind the wall of beams or in the literal blackening of the "sky" when a massive explosion tears through one of the zones. Perhaps the most self-consciously beautiful shot in the film shows zombies underwater floating up to their prey, the frenzied, feeding mass around the poor soul growing so dense it sinks into the pyramidical rise of fresh feeders below.

Nevertheless, even that moment, lit and framed like a demented but magnificent painting, does not distract from the crowd-pleasing momentum. If Anderson brings auteurist tics to his work, he never allows the immaculate framing and self-reflexive cheek to distract from the simple pleasures of putting together a good sequence. He dots Retribution with homages—Becky being drawn into a sort of Newt-Ripley relationship with Alice, a short burst of spaghetti western music played during the confrontation between Alice and Jill, perhaps a vague nod to Extinction's style but also a fun placement of an arid desert duel in the Siberian tundra—but these are all just one more part of the show, metatextual winks to those who spot them but also valid plot directions and stylistic flourishes in their own right. Retribution, like its predecessors, suffers from stodgy dialogue that locks the actors into wooden deliveries. As a simultaneously unpretentious and surprisingly analytical work of popular art, however, this is one of the most fascinating pictures of the year, and Anderson's finest work to date. Given the manner that these films always find new levels of spectacle, thematic darkness and gloriously shot sets, however, perhaps that designation should be reserved until Anderson finally puts a shotgun blast of quarters through the head of this franchise.