So if you’re following along in the rewatch, I really hope you skipped this one. This is going to be a scrambled review because Retribution broke my brain and left me sputtering feebly. I have come up with a rule of thumb for measuring the quality of these movies: how good they are depends on how soon Alice confronts the zombies. The sooner she does? The worse the movie. The longer they let her wander around interacting with people, the better.
I love Milla Jovovich, not least because she seems to really groove on being a B-Movie queen, an action heroine, and all that jazz. She throws herself into every role with a convincing physicality and attitude. I remember hearing that she broke a stunt man’s arm sword-fighting in Ultraviolet and that movie was also a stinker. She cares about her work is what I’m saying.
But not this time.
She wanders through the movie looking peeved to be here, and why wouldn’t she be? Retribution is an awful movie. It sapped my will to live. I got through Resident Evil: Apocalypse in one cranky session. Retribution took multiple viewing sessions and a whole damned bag of Boom Chicka Pop Dark Chocolaty Drizzled Sea Salt Kettle Corn. (Delicious!)
There are a few good things in Retribution, a very few. But they had the potential to be such interestingly good things that the movie’s failure to expand on them makes me want to cry.
The glimmers we get at how broken this world and the Umbrella corporation have become are amazing.
I loved the clones. They’re brought to life over and over again, implanted with basic memories, and set to run tasks or tests. The same fifty faces. It’s kind of awesome. A weird social nightmare. The same faces could be friend or foe or neutral. Stranger or lover or enemy or even your own reflection.
Alice sees herself as a dead housewife, finds a girl who gloms onto her as “Momma,” meets Rain clones (Michelle Rodriguez, who might be the only actor having fun here,) both good and evil — one a pacifist who doesn’t know how to fire a gun, one a vicious killer. Alice’s dead lover Carlos is both a zombie and an evil Umbrella strike team member. The same man, three ways: long-dead, dead-alive, and alive but needing to be killed. Extrapolating defeat of the zombies, these clones will probably be the ones to repopulate the world. Talk about a borked gene pool. On the one hand, the best physical specimens around. Real survivors. On the other hand…. fifty people! Can you imagine the weirdness? An Alice who lives with a Carlos and are parents to a Becky living in the same apartment building as an Alice living with a Chris or a Luther or a Jill also parenting a Becky? While down the street a Luther and a Claire make a family…. it makes my fingers itch for a pen.
What does Umbrella use these cloned people for? Well, for one, testing. The underwater facility has a series of false cities where they run violent scenarios of zombie attacks to see what changes or doesn’t. The idea of clones being born, imprinted, and implanted into a city only a few blocks wide, only to live or die, is very creepy.
And for two, staffing. As far as I can tell, Umbrella has bled staff so badly that they’re using clones as soldiers with the captured, brainwashed, and computer-controlled enemies as their commanders. But these clones are technological marvels as well. When Umbrella’s system is hacked and reboots — somehow all their human soldiers go into sleep mode. Bizarre, unexplained, yet interesting. What kind of humanity are these clones, really?
Doesn’t matter to Retribution though. All this chewy, interesting stuff is just set dressing. This movie is all about setting up cool fight scenes (their definition, totally not mine) and echoing earlier scenes from previous movies to fill in emotional blanks. Carlos died like a bad-ass, smoking a joint, sacrificing himself to give Alice and her team a chance to infiltrate Umbrella? Random good guy Barry will do it too, but with a cigar! And he’ll get shot five times in the chest and fall down, but get back up again to take out one last bad guy!!!! And for no real reason! Oh, it’s dumb.
The Red Queen threatens that they’ll all die? She’ll do it again here without any menace.
Anyway, I’m backsliding. We’re talking about the good bits.
Actually, this movie could be considered a “useful” movie. There are a lot of writing rules people harp on and harp on, but there’s nothing quite as illuminating as showing them how breaking all those “rules” can go so horribly, horribly wrong.
So, Retribution is a teaching movie. As author Jennifer Crusie has her character Gwen Goodnight say, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”
Action without context? See, watch this and learn why it’s bad!
Characterization? Who needs that? Action will make the audience love the team!
No, no it won’t. Yes, we need characterization. Yes, even if we’ve met half of the characters before. Maybe especially if we’ve met the characters before.
A clear through-line? You really need one of those?
If you don’t want me getting to the hour mark and thinking, Oh god, we’re done, the movie is finally over… wait, what do you mean there’s 20 minutes left??? Then, yes. Yes, you need a clear through-line. Obstacles are no longer obstacles if they’re as mechanical as clockwork, and the heroes don’t really have a reason to be any place. This movie is the most video game feeling of them all, and in this case, it’s not a good thing.
Dialogue. I don’t think this movie actually has dialogue. It has talking. People say things. Rarely do they say them to each other. Often they say them around each other. This is not the same thing at all. Dialogue is a facet of characterization. Talking is just words.
See, all good teaching moments! Fiction has rules for a reason, people! Look upon this horrible warning and despair.
I liked Alice hanging out with Becky. They actually had dialogue together. That counts as a good, right? And I liked that the casting director chose a young, hearing-impaired actress (Aryana Engineer). Nice to see sign language matter-of-factually presented in an action movie.
Okay, now I give up. Let’s talk about the bad.
It’s all of the rest.
The basic flaw of this movie is that it feels like a retooled Apocalypse which was, up to this point, the worst movie in the series. Apocalypse had a decent premise that fell apart on execution: in a city overrun by zombies, fenced in by the Umbrella army, two sets of people are promised escape if they rescue an Umbrella bigwig’s young daughter.
Apocalypse suffered from a scattered plot, a failed confinement — when your heroes have superpowers and are really motivated, fencing just doesn’t do the job — and characters who mostly died without name or personalities. The goal kept changing. The bad guys behaved irrationally. Retribution looks at all that mess and says, well, okay, it would all be better if we confined them underwater! And gave them a two-hour timeline instead of a twenty-four hours! And hey, we’ll bring back a kid! So Alice can take care of a kid!
It’s all very lazy conceptually. It stayed very lazy in the execution. They took out all the entertaining stuff and left us with a bloated video game showing us meaningless action scenes. There’s no way for the audience to connect with the storyline. They gave us people reciting stupid sentences, failed quips, and truncated infodumps in place of dialogue.
An example, Evil Rain injects herself with a syringe, and they all stand around watching her do it like dumbasses. “That’s the Las Plagas parasite!” Leon S. Kennedy says. Which, 1) how can you tell that from ten feet away? It’s not like the syringe is labeled. And 2) when did the Las Plagas Parasite become a thing anyway?
Rules. Rules. Some rules are made to be broken. Some. But when your movie runs around randomly breaking all of the rules that they set up in five previous movies, then you have a problem.
Zombie “Lickers” (the ones that lurk like gargoyles) leap on people and eat them in two bites. We’ve seen it happen in three movies. Except when they apparently grab ten year old girls and cart them off to be stored alive in their egg sacs — wait, WTF are the zombies breeding? — when did they turn into spiders? Don’t expect Retribution to answer.
Zombies are dumb. Even the “smart” ones that Dr. Isaacs was trying to create tended toward sudden frustration when they couldn’t complete simple tasks — so where did the army of zombies come from? The ones who drive jeeps and motorcycles and shoot powerful machine guns and ambush trained soldiers?
Zombies die if their brains are squished. Five movies of Alice breaking necks and brainstems and taking headshots has established this. Jill Valentine has established this. Clare Redfield has established this. It’s a world-fact. But the axeman’s back in this movie, because Retribution is determined to bring back ALL THE STUPID. This time, he brought his twin brother. And they both have big ol’ nails running right through their skulls. Where their brains are. Apparently that’s no longer a problem.
Zombies are predators that don’t interact with each other. Except here, apparently they feed on each other. The Licker happily devours the Army Zombie guys. Since when?
The zombie “scenarios” last an hour, so Ada Wong says. But when the strike team wanders into Moscow and is attacked by the army of zombies, those zombies never ever stop coming. So much for the hour-long scenario. That’s all right, though, Retribution never bothered to explain how they wrangled/shut down/or killed the zombies post the hour-long scenarios anyway. Off switches? Who knows?
Basically, the zombies can do whatever the writers want them to do. Move fast, move slow, drive a motorcycle while shooting. It’s just arbitrary and that’s a mood killer.
Retribution abounds in bad characterization. We have the good guys:
Barry’s a low-rent Carlos. (Sorry Kevin Durand. You’re nifty; this character’s not.)
Leon S. Kennedy gets a middle initial and a last name so he must be important, except he’s not. He’s a grunt who thinks Ada is awesome. That’s it. He has the thankless task of looking at Ada — cuffed, helpless, mostly passive — and saying, “Told you she’d have a plan.” This is a plan?
Luther, who I loved in the last movie, is pretty much a non-entity here. He also looks annoyed most of the time.
Ada, the supposedly kick-ass assassin, seems to be a plot McGuffin. She knows the plan, except for when she doesn’t. She’s unstoppable, except for when a pair of handcuffs totally incapacitates her for multiple scenes. She’s a fighter who lies down and plays dead for most of the last act.
And Alice… Alice has zero emotional arc here. She’s a prisoner; she doesn’t want to be a prisoner. Stupid face Wesker sends a team to break her out — she goes along, why wouldn’t she? Out is out. She wants Becky safe. That’s pretty much the core of it. “Can I get this kid out of the horrible testing zone into the horrible outside world that’s been overrun by zombies so she can die there instead….” In all the other movies, Alice has had a certain level of hope: she’s looking for someplace better for people. Hope is lacking from this plot utterly.
The bad guys:
Jill Valentine. I don’t recall her acting being that stilted or having that much problems with volume control before. She was painful onscreen. Painful. How painful? She was so stilted she made Wesker (of the sunglasses at night, of the robotic posture and voice) sound dynamic. I assume Jill was supposed to sound artificial to echo the computer controlling her, but it didn’t work.
The Red Queen. In the first movie, the Red Queen, an AI in the shape of a child, was both petulant and terrifying. Here, she’s just dull. Sulky and temperamental without any sense of menace.
Wesker. I shouldn’t actually put him in the bad guys, because he’s the hero here. The one who broke Alice out of prison and gave her back her superpowers. Because… the writers said so. Because he needs her to save the world, even though they’ve apparently got an unstoppable zombie army that can take out all the lesser undead. What do you mean you want your bad guys to be consistent?
Then there’s the nonsensical clothing:
Alice gets a black catsuit that looks all right, minus the ankle-breaking wedge heels, until you get close- ups and realize half of it’s mesh.
Ada is inexplicably wearing a ballgown, slit up to her hip, and spiked heels. Even if you weren’t expecting combat, which she was, this movie is set beneath the Kamchatka sea in a barely subarctic zone. Maybe you want a shawl with your dress? She deliberately sneaked into this environment wearing a bright red dress. And no one noticed.
Jill is wearing a tacky purple catsuit that exposes the one weakness she has—the mind-control bug. Also consider, she, too, works in a place that is winter from October to May.
There is no conflict or drama here. Instead there is posturing for the sake of the Dramaz! I used to watch anime (the Get-Backers was a favorite) and what finally broke me was how long everything took because each character talked about how they were going to defeat their enemy instead of actually attacking their enemy. Retribution suffers from that exact same posturing, which is utterly ridiculous in a live action movie with a countdown. There are multiple scenes where everyone stands around watching something bad unfold instead of you know, trying to nip it in the bud. Rain injects herself with a parasite? Maybe you could throw a rock at her or something, break the syringe. Brainwashed Jill unfolds a complicated weapon while Alice stands there and waits for her to finish? Alice, you’re better than that!
And here’s a rarity for me. The soundtrack was awful. I will notice if a movie does the music particularly well (Jupiter Ascending was great; The Fifth Element was perfectly matched to its story), but I rarely notice the music beyond that. If it matches the tone of the movie, we’re good.
But here, the music is painfully noticeable partly because the incidental music is as choppy as the plot. And just as prone to posturing. The nuclear sub rises through the ice; the bad guys step out — Jill Valentine, Rain, and a captive Ada Wong. They strut across the ice; the music swells, then abruptly stops. The dramatic moment is over. It’s so incredibly jarring. It happens repeatedly.
The ridiculous bad, which I actually enjoyed. Ridiculous bad is better than boring bad any day: The cliffhanger ending. Did you know there are dragon zombies now? And the last stand is going to be at the White House in DC? Which is now housing Wesker in the Oval Office?
Oddly, I am really looking forward to the final movie. I feel like the one thing that Retribution has done is set the bar very very very very very low. God knows the reviews are bad. Here’s hoping that the final movie will work hard to redeem itself, or at least let Alice’s world end with dignity.
All screencap credit to Shadow of Reflection.