Paul W.S. Anderson has never been a great filmmaker, but he used to be a fun one. Movies like 'Soldier', 'Event Horizon' and 'Mortal Kombat' don't scale any cinematic heights, but they're a good time (to varying degrees). The first 'Resident Evil' film was a surprisingly solid adaptation of a beloved video game franchise. Anderson did have a hand in all the subsequent films, but didn't take the reigns again until 'Resident Evil: Afterlife', the fourth film in the franchise. As one might expect, the fourth entry in a series isn't going to feel as fresh as the first, and now that we're on the fifth, it's time to ask if perhaps 'Resident Evil' is on life support, and whether it might be more humane to pull the plug.
Milla Jovovich once again returns as Alice, the indefatigable ex-Umbrella soldier who is the heart of the series. After the events of the last films, she finds herself once again captured by the evil corporation (that somehow seems to persist despite the complete and utter annihilation of civilization), and must find her way out. She's assisted by Ada Wong (BingBing Li), another ex-Umbrella operative, and is being hunted by Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), a former ally who has been brainwashed into becoming an enemy. Alice has to contend not only with an endless horde of zombie monsters, but also the clones of former teammates who are hot on her trail.
The truth is, the plot of 'Resident Evil: Retribution' hardly matters, it's just a flimsy excuse for an endless barrage of mind-numbing action sequences. There are a total of two sequences with exposition, and the rest is virtually all action. Even the spartan 'Dredd' manages to give us more to go on than 'Retribution' does in the character department. However, with the actors Anderson has assembled, perhaps it's better that they aren't given much opportunity to perform. Aside from Jovovich and the always-enjoyable Colin Salmon, the rest of the cast does not impress. BingBing Li as Ada Wong sounds wooden even though her accent, while Johann Urb as Leon looks ridiculous and that's the best thing about him. Even the normally interesting Michelle Rodriguez comes off as stiff, probably the result of making a movie with a focus on effects instead of character.
The effects are often very good, although a few shots are hilariously bad. Overall, it's clear that most of the production's time and effort was spent on making the movie look and sound amazing, and it does. But it's an empty shell. Watching the special features on this disc, it became clear that Anderson's idea of innovation is making a character talk instead of fight (seriously), and beyond that, it's all about how to make the movie bigger than the ones that came before. Bigger, mind you, but not better. The plot of the film is a lame rehash of the first movie, using cloning to bring in actors who have died in previous installments. But the script does nothing interesting with this. Anderson thinks that the audience will simply go nuts to see familiar faces, regardless of what the characters actually do. So Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Salmon, and Oded Fehr return and do nothing. Less than nothing. The actors all talk about how great it is to be back, but not one of them talk about how great it is to have such a meaty role to take on. Anderson re-uses multiple elements from previous entries in the series, from the Red Queen computer AI to specific monsters. But other than playing on nostalgia, there's no point to these callbacks.
The one attempt that Anderson makes to inject humanity into the film, by introducing a young child who is the daughter of an Alice clone, is a complete rip-off of 'Aliens', with Alice as a stand-in for Ripley and the girl as a Newt substitute. Problem is, unlike James Cameron's sci-fi classic, 'Retribution' does not establish Alice's desire for motherhood, making her sudden protectiveness of the child feel forced. The film also unfolds at a breakneck pace, meaning there's no chance for Alice or the girl to develop a realistic bond. By the time Alice has to go back and save her would-be daughter from a monster who cocoons her in an organic egg sack, the comparisons to 'Aliens' simply cannot be avoided. Instead of making me care about Alice or the girl, it simply made me want to watch the superior movie and turn this one off.
The action at least is certainly stylishly choreographed. A particular sequence involving Alice and a bike lock on a chain comes to mind, although occurring as it does in a long hallway bears unflattering comparisons to 'Oldboy'. The conceit of this film is that the particular installation that Alice finds herself in has 1:1 recreations of several iconic areas of multiple international cities, including Tokyo, Moscow, and New York (funny how Gamestop seems to have such a big presence in all of these places). This allows the movie to have its cake and eat it too, putting Alice in an isolated environment, while also allowing for expansive action sequences that take place in major metropolitan areas. It also has the effect of lowering the stakes. When the world is ending, who really cares what's happening in some building under the Arctic Ocean? It doesn't help that it's clear that the movie was designed to be seen in 3D, and watching it in 2D robs the movie of much of its visual power.
Stripped of 3D effects, which Anderson actually does do very well, 'Resident Evil: Retribution' comes across as nothing better than a made for SyFy movie with a bigger budget. The acting is poor, the dialogue laughable, and the action ridiculous. I know it seems like I'm taking the film too seriously when I start comparing it to 'Oldboy' and 'Aliens', but damn it, these flicks used to be fun! That's really what's missing from 'Retribution'. Alice can shoot as many monsters as she likes, but without even a semblance of character or plot, there's nothing to connect with, and the movie becomes impossible to enjoy. I'd say it's like watching a video game, but that would be doing a disservice to the great gaming series that this movie is meant to represent.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Resident Evil: Retribution' comes on a single 50 GB dual layer Blu-ray disc with an insert that has the code for an Ultraviolet copy of the film. There are several skippable trailers that can also be accessed from the menu.
Filmed with Red Epic cameras, the 2.40:1, AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is flawless. The opening, an action sequence played at slow motion in reverse, shows off everything the image has to offer. Starting in deep blue water, Alice is propelled onto the deck of a ship, where she has a shootout with dozens of helicopters. Bullets fly, sparks shoot out, canisters explode, and the whole time the transfer is solid as a rock. Not only that, but it's exquisitely detailed. You can make out stray hairs draped across Alice's face, or make out the finest gadgetry of the electronic spider on Jill Valentine's chest. If you were so inclined, you could count all the stubble on Leon's chiseled face.
Colors are strong and vibrant. The gore stands out, a deep crimson that catches the eye. Fleshtones are perfectly accurate, and with this diverse cast, you'll see practically every natural shade of flesh you could think of, and then some unnatural ones on the zombies as well. Blacks are deep, but there's plenty of shadow detail, and not a hint of black crush or white blooming. Contrast is expertly balanced. I didn't detect even a hint of transfer artifacts, banding, macroblocking, or other technical issues. This transfer is 100% demo material.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is another stunner. From the opening frames you're treated to an aural buffet. As the opening logos appear, you hear the far-off sound of gunfire and spinning helicopter rotors. Once the action proper kicks in, hold on to your ears! The heavy LFE track will rattle the house, while all the sounds all ably fall within the disc's impressive dynamic range. Balance is, amazingly, not skewed but perfectly aligned so that you can always hear the dialogue over the roaring effects and score.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this mix is the imaging. For a track that has so many layers, you'd think it would feel artificial and built-up, but instead it all sounds incredibly organic. I'm not saying that I felt like I was there, but if I were in that situation, I imagine it wouldn't sound terribly different from what we get here. The soundstage is so expansive that it simply feels like you're right in the center of everything as it happens. The clarity is astonishing, with even the tiniest sounds coming through clear as a bell. The perfect complement to the stunning image transfer.
The 'Resident Evil' series used to be fun. 'Retribution', the franchise's fifth installment, is running on fumes. Recycling ideas from the first film and mixing it with plot and character elements from 'Aliens' isn't the way to keep things interesting. Paul W.S. Anderson seems to have lost all handle on character and plot, but his action is immaculately choreographed. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray presents it in 2D, robbing much of the best sequences of their bite. If you need something to show off your home theater though, you can hardly do better than this. The image and sound are both reference quality, among the best discs of the year, and there's a healthy helping of special features, including many exclusive to the Blu-ray. Why is it that the weakest films sometimes make the strongest demo discs?