Contains mild spoilers.
Twenty Five minutes in, watching Alice (Milla Jovovich) in full black leather glory leap, spin, slash, kick and shoot her way, with sumptuous control and style through one group of slobbering flesh eaters to another, to only finally come up against the equally resplendent Ada (Bingbing Li) ready for another whirlwind CG cat-fight, it came to me director / writer Paul W.S. Anderson had finally, metaphorically and literally lost the plot. One very much for style over substance I'd noticed a general decline in actual coherent content as the budget rose and technology caught up with his flamboyant far reaching designs, and with Resident Evil: Retribution, he's finally reached a new high (or low depending on where we start) in cinematic superfluous superficial silliness. There's no attempt any more to try and provide any rational reason for the series of high octane combat sand box set ups, no attempt whatsoever to reign things in, and totally no remorse for any of it.
This is where I'd normally talk about the story but honestly I could put it all down on the back of a postage stamp. Alice, captured after the fight at the end of Resident Evil: Afterlife gets some help and escapes. That's it. Ok, I'm being a little trite, but if I embellish, adding her escape involves traversing and fighting through a series of connected virtual cityscapes with a vindictive computer AI throwing increasingly absurd and implausible bioengineered opponents at her, it doesn't make it sound any more rich in narrative. Don't get me wrong, it looks spectacular; with grand sweeping virtual camera pans and some jaw dropping virtual sets and ideas, it's just the endless grind of combat and gratuitous drive for the most extravagant of set pieces on the biggest baddest scale, it just all ends up coming across flat, and dare I say all too precariously close to feeling like a series of rehashed scenes all done before.
The problem with with this all action approach is there's no longer any real emotional engagement, character depth or sense of danger. Watching the now seemingly invincible Alice plough through a set of zombies, a pair of executioners and even a gargantuan Uber-Licker one never feels she's ever really in any trouble and the experience feels sterile and even mundane. I'm not sure who's to blame; but whether it's Jovovich or Anderson finally tiring of their cash cow there's a very humdrum and by the book feel to the film as if (re)producing a series of sterile high staged action scenes with CG abandon would be good enough.
Anderson does try, with arguably the best set of sequences of the film; a genuinely engaging ground zero scenario played out with 'real' people in suburbia and it is one ray of hope in the wash of tedium that the series can be saved. Jovovich is now mum and wife and not the uber-fighting killing machine we're accustomed to, and the siege of their little safe world is the one heart pumping moment where there's real dread and anxiety. Her movements to desperately make sense of the whirlwind she finds herself in all the time keeping her little girl safe, with palpably intimidating and chilling, real traditional zombies smashing their way through her living room, is moving and utterly absorbing. Ok it's not Alice's memory, it's those of a clone grown to research and showcase Umbrella's biological weaponry, so it's not a real part of her story any more, but it demonstrates that should Anderson ever feel the need to return Resident Evil to its roots he could do so quite admirably.
By now, five films in, we understand that alongside your more identifiable fast moving Boyle-esque flesh eaters there will be an assortment of other undead / mutant proponents Alice and crew will have to fight. Majini zombies (the ones with the parasitical face thingie) are back along with the executioners I mentioned, but all new are a rather macabre army, literally, of machine gun toting, rocket launching and chain sawing Las Plagas aka Red Army zombies who pack a real mean punch and look like something that could have crawled straight out of Outpost. As said, the connected biodome / narrative of Retribution grants Anderson licence to finally play as much as he likes, so each area is filled with the rafters with all the zombie types the series and games are known for. Yes, it's probably closer to the games, but call me old fashioned, I liked it all better when the main enemy simply wanted to rip into a bit of flesh and hang out in number.
An undoubted CG showcase, cinematically Resident Evil: Retribution is off the scale with lavish effects, perfect make-up and spectacular fighting choreography, but big dial up to eleven effects alone just won't cut it. With a woefully superficial story the whole film comes across as a lazy half-arsed way to include all the daft over scripted fights he could think of, and while the story has never been central to Resident Evil at least with the previous films it tried. The action itself it so sterile to be uninteresting and tedious, and with no real danger, or cause for any of, the audience is utterly unable to engage or care with what's happening. Arguably the worst of the five, Retribution is not style over substance, but style instead of, with a narrative so contrived and perfunctory to be an insult to the viewer, 3/10.