Thursday, September 20, 2012

Cinema 2012: “Resident Evil: Retribution” is a vicarious video game

A 40-something dude leaving the cineplex behind me was telling his friends the movie he had just watched, “Resident Evil: Retribution,” did not make sense. I silently sympathized with the man, who was obviously used to more conventional on-screen narratives. Indeed, this latest Milla Jovovich vehicle is more vicarious video game than traditional film.

The movie no doubt caters to fans of the franchise and to anyone smitten by Milla J.’s evocative beauty. Never has a skinny fashion model been so masterfully retooled into a kickass killing machine. As Project Alice, MJ is both animalistic, moving in agile silhouette like a hungry panther, and maternal as she clings to the daughter who represents the very idea of a daughter. There is no doubt that the camera loves Milla and so does filmmaker Paul W. S. Anderson, who gives us screen-filling close-ups and who splashes, literally, her lithe figure across the screen.

The storyline here basically has been reduced to characters fighting their way through enclosed replicas of major world cities -- like different levels in a video game. These simulated environments were built by the evil Umbrella Corp. to test its bio weapons breakthroughs. No major metropolises were harmed during the making of this movie. While the shoot ‘em up scenes are over the top, let’s face it, they are basically boring because this stuff has all been done before.

But there is no denying the visual wonder of much of the cinematography. A battered and naked Alice wakes in a luminous, futuristic holding cell, her white skin showing the bruises and abrasions of her most recent ordeal. It is a searing image of vulnerability that serves to humanize a heroine who is about to don black leather and dispense wholesale death in her fight to save herself and humanity. Her nemesis is the Red Queen, a malevolent supercomputer whose avatar resembles a petulant little girl.

There is also Becky, an extremely well behaved little girl, considering. Becky accompanies Alice during much of the bloody havoc, depending on her for deliverance. The mother-daughter dynamic emphasizes the underlying decency driving our vengeful Alice. It is of course a tried and true trope, think of Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley in “Aliens.” Besides reminding us of the softer side of the weaker sex, this particular mother and daughter reunion mirrors the savagery of such bonds in the animal kingdom. Don’t mess with momma bear's little cub.

Alice and the young girl, played by hearing-impaired actress Aryana Engineer, communicate in American Sign Language and those gestures add sublime visual poignancy to their expressions of love and loyalty. Along the way the astute viewer might observe Milla making a brief homage to Bruce Lee, but the many other movie references come off as just so many cribbed cliches.

The relentless musical soundtrack by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn serves the action well and also pushes haunting motifs, including one riff that harks back to the shower scene in “Psycho.”

Sadly, the exposition lacks drama and fails to mesh with the action and effects that comprise the obvious point of the whole enterprise. That disconnect with the narrative prevents “Resident Evil: Retribution” from achieving the synthesis needed to make it work as a whole. In retrospect, I should have seen it in 3D.

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