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Review: Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil: Retribution 3D”

The world’s least pretentious auteur makes his most generic—and most playful—movie yet.

Paul W.S. Anderson makes lively, unpretentious mid-budget genre movies fixated on video-gamey "cool" and distinguished by their leanness and their inventive—and sometimes even poetic—use of space. 

His last film, The Three Musketeers 3D (2011), was the crassest, most ludicrous adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel imaginable: quick, silly, chock full of mechanical traps, flamethrowers, air ships and other cheesy sailpunk bric-a-brac. It was also the most personal, because in the process of chucking out Dumas' knottiness and ambiguity—along with the deaths of several major characters—Anderson transformed The Three Musketeers into a barely-recognizable vehicle for his own aesthetic predilections. 

Anderson's work may not have a lot of narrative substance, but his visual sensibility is so well-developed that it often doesn't matter; form is substituted for theme. Composed in crisp visual shorthand, Anderson's movies are about images: strong, stoic-faced women meting out violence; characters executing somersaults through the air; tiny figures venturing into vast, foreboding spaces. 

It's certainly a lot of fun, though not exactly profound. A lot in the way of characterization and development gets sacrificed to make Anderson's style work; his movies tend to be about stock characters talking in clichés in familiar situations—and, unlike the work of a Pop / camp fetishist like Roland Emmerich, it's all done with a completely straight face. Anderson's latest, Resident Evil: Retribution 3D, takes this even further: it's his most generic movie, in every sense of the term. In certain ways, it's also his ballsiest and most playful.

A video game adaptation that is also emphatically about video games, Retribution could be described as Anderson's answer to David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) or Brian Neveldine and Mark Taylor's Gamer (2009)—though, if you can believe it, Anderson is actually even less high-falutin' than the dudes who directed Crank. It also recalls Drew Goddard's Joss Whedon-scripted Cabin in the Woods; both films place generic characters in generic situations, and then turn the cliché narrative machinery into spectacle. 

Retribution opens by playing its first scene backwards and in slow-motion, and then forwards at normal speed. Then there's an extensive summary of the events of the preceding four (!) Resident Evil movies, addressed at the audience by the disembodied head of series lead / Anderson muse Milla Jovovich (the technique recalls the info-dump opening of David Lynch's Dune). Anderson goes out of his way to make it clear to the viewer what has happened and to whom and why—which makes the rug-pull that follows all the more potent. It's emblematic of Anderson's genre ethos that when he chooses to deliberately confuse a viewer, he wants them to know that they're being confused.

For the next twenty or so minutes of the movie, Anderson toys with the audience's perception, subverting the clean and crisp spatial sense of his style (exterior scenes are revealed to be set indoors, etc.) and playing with the interchangeability of his characters. People who died in earlier Resident Evil movies reappear with different personalities; one sequence finds Jovovich seemingly reincarnated as a suburbanite getting her daughter ready for her first day of school.  

Anderson's obsession with space isn't limited to his visual sensibility; it's also at the center of his plots (Anderson wrote the screenplay for Retribution, as well as the other four Resident Evil movies). His films have a locked-room quality, where "story" is often synonymous with "setting;" many of them are set largely in a single (preferably cavernous) location: a prison (Resident Evil: Afterlife), a vast underground temple (Alien vs. Predator), a spacecraft (Event Horizon). As eventually revealed, the same is true of Retribution: its doppelganger-populated spaces-within-spaces-within-spaces are all part of a massive testing facility / live-action video game that pits the characters / players against a sinister computer—the Red Queen, named after the character from Through the Looking-Glass (Jovovich's character is, of course, named Alice).

After introducing (and over-explaining) this premise, Anderson spends the rest of the movie cutting between three perspectives—that of Jovovich, that of the team sent to rescue her, and that of the Red Queen (shown through security-camera footage and wire-frame models of the facility). Retribution foregrounds the mechanics of the Red Queen's testing facility, which constitute a parody of game design: scripted events, "city" locations that are laid-out in a way that obscures their small size, non-player characters with one-note personalities (the film has a lot of fun with casting Michelle Rodriguez as two different characters—one programmed to be a Whole Foods hybrid-car sort of liberal, the other a relentless killing machine).

This is not, however, a po-mo genre indictment like Gamer or Cabin in the Woods; rather, Anderson celebrates the clichés and the mechanical storytelling, and sets up the game so that the audience can better enjoy watching Jovovich beat it. Aside from a distrust of Big Corporations (present in most of his films, including all of the Resident Evil movies)—an attitude that is in and of itself a genre cliché—Anderson is uncynical. His work is eye stuff: entertainment that rewards the viewer for watching rather than for being clever. 

And there's, frankly, a lot to look at.  Anderson's style is tailor-made for 3D, and Retribution—his third film in the format—further confirms his status as the most surefooted filmmaker working in this young and often fickle medium. He avoids all of the current 3D technology's weak areas—murky lighting, shallow focus, shaky handheld, strobic cutting—and concentrates on its strengths: wide shots, visual depth, dollies, rain, slow motion. Anderson makes especially fine use of the latter. Though slow motion is used by most filmmakers to distort or subvert action—think, for example, of Sam Peckinpah's sad, languid slow-mo violence—Anderson's use of the technique is appreciative. Often framed wide, his slow-mo sequences savor every drop of choreographed movement (in this sense, he has a lot in common with another Anderson—Wes, who shares his fondness for slowed-down deep-focus tableaux). 

Nothing in the film registers as kitsch or camp—in part because Anderson, unlike many of his genre contemporaries, never gives the impression that he thinks he's making art. No scene feels drawn out, no image (not even a slow motion one) overlingers its use, no moment feels like a filmmaker imposing something on his audience, everything fits neatly and tidily into the setting / premise—and yet nothing about the film feels remotely routine, or workmanlike, or impersonal. Certain moments are pure, unaffected B-movie poetry: Jovovich teaching someone how to use a gun ("It's like a camera; you point and shoot."); a submarine's conning tower breaking through a sheet of ice; a pyramid-shaped swarm of zombies swimming up to the surface; the "sky" rebooting in a simulated New York City. It's guileless visual pulp—pleasure with nothing to feel guilty about.

I like Ignatiy’s reviews. Although I practically never agree with him on the whole, he always provides singular new thoughts about some of the trashiest, kitschiest cinema around (even making a virtue out of it). And that’s the beauty of actual criticism: not some unconsciously reactionary platonic ideals check-listing, but bringing light into the work, or in some cases exactly the opposite: opacity.
Armond White agrees with Ignatiy… No seriously, I am just about to watch Universal Soldier: Regeneration purely because of him, I’m looking forward to seeing the director’s “serious trad action chops, acuity for ’scope framing, and a disarming sense of emotional gravity”. I have only seen the first Resident Evil film, but will check this out also because of Ignatiy.
This whole idea of “giv[ing] the impression of making art [or not]” has always struck me as too vague and subjective to be used as the backbone of any praise or criticism of a film or filmmaker. What does it really mean, and is it really a sin to be a creator and aspire towards “art?” Why is it seemingly preferable to make things feel tossed-off and relaxed rather than utterly serious? Isn’t engaging with the world in a serious manner what we should all strive for? Just questions for open consideration. Haven’t seen any Paul W.S. Anderson films, so I can’t comment on them (though this piece certainly spikes my interest!), but making presumptions about a filmmaker’s attitude towards his work is always a dicey situation to be in.
I’ve tried to like Paul W.S. Anderson’s films, but I actually find his visuals nearly as lacking as his content. His framing is almost always distractingly sterile and empty. It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why, when comparing similar shots in other directors’ work (the only time he seemed to have avoided this problem was in his Death Race remake, maybe b/c he used more long lenses?) but it’s almost always apparent. His overuse of poorly integrated green screen (in which you can immediately tell the actor is not actually situated in the supposed setting) mixed with an insane amount of slow-motion photography don’t help one bit. Also, although I appreciate it when critics bring to light the work of certain genre filmmakers who are doing great work, but don’t get the recognition they deserve simply because of the kinds of films they make—Michael Mann and Tony Scott are two worthy examples—there seems to be an awful lot of critics nowadays who champion the work of lesser filmmakers simply as a way of standing out or being different. Not every filmmaker with a supposed authorial voice or recognizable style is automatically a good filmmaker. Kudos to them for being true to themselves, but bad films are still bad films. Michael Bay’s films are very clearly his own, but no matter how hard I try they’re always very hard to sit through both on a physical (they all give me headaches) and intellectual level.
Carson: I think there is a difference between expressing an attitude that one’s work is “artful” and simply being serious. Though yes, it is a subjective and hard to properly identify attitude.
hocetheo: It’s interesting that you assume that identifying a director’s qualities inherently makes the identifier a champion. I’m not sure how one can judge if such a person is performing criticism in order to stand out or be different; I suppose the main criteria there would be whether the critic’s observations are actually valid or not. I don’t want to speak for Ignatiy, but doesn’t your observation of Anderson’s framing as “sterile and empty” work well with the article’s observation about Anderson’s interest in cavernous space?
I had a bunch of fun with this movie, and I esp. liked how that protracted franchise catch-up at the start was almost instantly upended by all the clone business, though I think there are serious ideas here despite the unpretentiousness of the shooting. The manner in which Anderson presents Umbrella’s hosts of clones actually upset me, with the implication that actual, breathing creatures were essentially programmed to be NPCs in simulations. It actually made me think back to when I played video games as a kid and how some games that let you make your own levels bored me bc when I made characters just to kill I got no enjoyment from it bc they didn’t run and scream like A.I. characters. The idea that people are given just enough awareness to react viscerally to their orchestrated demise is pretty troubling for a film that otherwise plays some of its doppelganger reversals for pure cheek. I actually think this series, which rips off the Alien franchise up to and including the Ripley-Newt dynamic contained in this movie, has become sort of the heir to that series’ mainstream nihilism. Even so, these movies manage to get across a giddy ridiculousness thanks to Anderson’s slo-mo 3D and his clear enjoyment of action for its own sake. He can still get across ideas, he just does so within a taut storyline that gives precedence to its action-horror.
Too much corn syrup for the cortex makes for an obese mind. Please be advised and limit your intake. Observe moderation. It sounds like some of you like to gorge.
I enjoy IV’s writing and I enjoy people devoting serious attention to filmmakers and films that are either frowned upon or totally ignored. However, every now and then we can go a bit too far. I don’t want to read a review of the direct-to-video Universal Soldier, Part 7. I guess I can survive a review of theatrically-released Resident Evil, Part God-Knows-What.
Here’s an interview between R. Emmet Sweeney and Dave Kehr on Paul W.S. and this film in particular:
I’ve got bad news for you, Bobby: the next Universal Soldier movie is getting released theatrically. And it’s in 3D.
Dammit. I guess I HAVE to read your review then. Oh, and I’ll probably never watch another Universal Soldier movie, no matter if they make it to part 20. I don’t want to ruin my fond (yet faint) childhood memories of the original.
It’s really gratifying to read something like this, a serious consideration of popular and genre cinema. I really find it insufferable when critics or cinephiles insist only on “serious” or “quality” films. Usually it makes them sound pretentious, pedantic, nonhuman (unable to enjoy “base” pleasures), or, at worst, dishonest. I’m glad that MUBI appreciates all the nooks and crannies of cinema and isn’t obligated to the tyranny of so-called good taste. Kudos! Now I’m looking forward to revisiting the Resident Evil series. I thought Mortal Kombat was supremely underrated.
“Nonhuman”? Got it. So you have to to be more of a humanist to truly enjoy movies about zombies.
Or just plain human. If Adrian Martin can enjoy teen movies without ironic distance and write about them intelligently, why shouldn’t the Resident Evil series be seriously enjoyed by critics and cinephiles? To place limits on what kind of movies to watch and consider strikes me as the worst kind of aesthetic fascism.
No problems here. I’m all for removing borders and limits. And honestly, I’d rather read a good review about Resident Evil than actually watch it. Maybe it’s wrong to assume quality or lack thereof but I would like to retain that right for movies named “part 3” on up (we all know there are some masterpiece “part 2s” out there).
Great review, as always. I find it strange that you contrast RE:5 with Cabin in the Woods like you have, claiming that Cabin holds up its genre-cliches to be ridiculed rather than celebrated. Gamer certainly does that (lazily) but while Cabin in the Wood pokes fun of horror movie conventions, it celebrates them at the same time, and even suggests their validity. The protagonists, after all, eventually embrace a far worse horror than the “manufactured” ones they’ve been experiencing, suggesting that evil in the world informs “evil” (and horror") in art. It’s the inverse of the creative process for horror movies, in which someone(s) see/experience evil in the world and then portrays it as “horror” in a movie. In Cabin, the characters experience the movie and then decide to unleash the evil in response. Cabin asks the same questions most horror movies ask: if these horrors exist in our imaginations, their must be some realistic validity to them, right? It only asks the question backwards (or, through the looking glass).
Ideally, we shouldn’t really even have to conduct the debate about the significance of writing on every film out there – I mean, it’s sorta self-resolving, that issue. At any rate, elevation of camp into profundity isn’t really a novel idea – taste is what it is and people like what they do. This is the era of post-art in that now that we’ve spent years building a canon, it’s time to destroy it and then reassemble it. Or at the very least, permit a reconstitution. Since I haven’t watched the film (I am not sure if it will ever release in the country I live in), I can only discuss this present essay. I think Ignatiy’s doing a fine job of championing filmmakers he likes, but even then, the writing seems to be overtly aware of their popular status – it’s as if it’s functioning as a response to the larger collective opinion of Paul W.S. Anderson’s work (whose Event Horizon is a genuinely terrifying film) than to the film itself. And in that, Ignatiy pre-empts inquiries from the reader and then answers them one by one. For instance, ’It’s guileless visual pulp—pleasure with nothing to feel guilty about.’ True, perhaps, but who said anything about guilt at all? I think the perfect approach to write about filmmakers who may be considered hacks/cookie-cutters/ordinary journeymen is to think of them as independent artists (whether they aspire to ‘art’ or not) and not in the context of what the big ‘uns do or don’t. That is unfair to both the categories of directors – a more sincere appreciation would mean talking about them for the film they made and we saw, instead of the one we managed to see.
That’s an admirable approach, Walt, but isn’t important to acknowledge the public and critical perception of the objects of inquiry? I think that’s what IV’s doing in the parts you note. These films are objects abstracted from the discourse that surrounds them. PWSA’s films, like Michael Bay’s, are often used as emblems of certain kind of mainstream American cinema.
Hi Daniel, ‘…but isn’t important to acknowledge the public and critical perception of the objects of inquiry?’ Not always. For instance, when a number of writers on film write on the work of a director or a professional in film, the nature of this engagement is solely with the work-at-hand or (since we are all closet auteurists) with the whole filmography as a means of then arriving at the present work-at-hand. Moreover, one also addresses the personal pre-occupations of a filmmaker and then, perhaps, the social or historical context in which a film was made so as to forge a greater understanding of the work. Essentially, if a film were to be present in our midst, its discussion is often-times inwards-out, i.e. flowing from the film into the direction of widescale public discourse – the film, as such, infects the world and not the other way around. As an example, if one were to discuss Mambety or Scorsese (or any of the thousand ‘masters’ of cinema) one would talk about the film they made and not the larger perception about them – Ignatiy’s essay on the other Paul Anderson’s film is in itself an example of this trend. But in this case, as in many other cases, if the discussion is of a director conventionally derided, then it is conducted outwards-in, i.e. a public discourse that infects the film – in that, the film is burdened (by the writer or by its audience) by the task of adequately addressing and then overcoming (and if it does that, it’s ‘a great film’) the most usual criticisms directed at it. In that, I can see where Ignatiy’s coming from, it’s just that I happen to feel that if we must really celebrate these ‘other’ directors, we must do it without thinking of them as great rebuttals or stick ’em ups to the popular perception of them. These films should be discussed like any other, instead of films that we are salvaging. ‘PWSA’s films, like Michael Bay’s, are often used as emblems of certain kind of mainstream American cinema.’ I agree, but by those who cannot perhaps see them for what they are. As champions of these films, atleast we must lose that knowledge, IMHO. If we cannot, I think we are causing them to fall into an endless regurgitating loop of belonging-severing to this ‘certain kind’ as you mention. As I said in my first post, I think it’s imperative that we think of them as independent artists first-up; criticism of any usability based on categorisation is impossible at any rate – for it can result in only two things: a confirmation of the work’s place in the category or a rejection of it. Nicole Brenez, I presume, would say as much. To end it (and well, all discussions of cinema should end with a mention of this guy), when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by the French guys, he was as someone pointed out, an artist of ‘low-brow’ mainstream fair; when they were done, he was thought of as an emblem of nothing but Hitchcock himself. So much so that conventional wisdom till now doesn’t think of Hitchcock as being a British or an American filmmaker, a filmmaker of the Golden Age of Hollywood or even a genre filmmaker – he is just an independent artist – I think authentic re-thinking of cinema would mean that connections (to a kind, category, genre, movement) aren’t just severed, they cease to exist. I understand that this may seem altruistic, but hey, it’s been done before!
But Hitchcock transcended all of those categories because his films were transcendent. You can’t call Vertigo a typical genre film or your usual classical Hollywood film. By comparison, do we want to argue that Resident Evil part whatever is a giant among mainstream Hollywood video game action films? As far as I understood, it was always a lower-tier franchise. The very fact that the film is part 3 or 4 in a series means that connections cannot be severed, let alone cease to exist. By the very nature of the material, the director is not trying and cannot try to transcend (especially if he directs all of the installments of the series).
I don’t think it’s ever about whether or not the director is trying to or is able to transcend the material. I think we should look at the film itself to determine its value. To simply rely on directorial intent as a gauge is to be on shaky critical ground. Many great films have been work-for-hire jobs.
Bobby, I personally feel the material doesn’t have to do anything with this discussion. Also, I feel it is rather restrictive to impose iron-clad rules on what can be great and cannot be great in cinema – is it to say that video-game action films cannot be great as an inherent shortcoming? And if that’s the case, are we merely supposed to discuss Paul W.S. Anderson’s films in terms of what he has achieved within the limited scope his source material offered him? I think that’s a self-defeating exercise and one that doesn’t lend itself to any useful discussion. This is exactly the kind of thought that I am, for the lack of a better word, rallying against on this thread – to not be able to treat a single film by a single director as just that and writing on him while taking into account a thousand other concerns about him that you then believe his film attends to/responds to/confirms or rejects. My point is, if you gotta genuinely champion a film by a director, is it not possible to approach his work as an entity completely independent of his reputation or his status (such as in the case of your argument, a ‘director of video-game adaptations’)? To me, for the sake of re-clarification, that can really help change views of a guy’s work. Too much awareness of ephemeral factors concerning a guy’s work can, I feel, lend itself to a steady feeling of irony or at worse, ‘oh no, you’re wrong, i see what you can’t hommie!’ As for Hitchcock, this reputation of him as an artist who could transcend classification is, while not exactly a result of the latter-day critical re-evaluation of him, majorly because of that. And that’s the point I am trying to make. When Wood or the Cahiers dudes approached Hitchcock, they could manage to look at him ‘for the first time’ (post-War France allowed them the chance to look at a lot of directors as discoverers and then crusaders, not as guys who just bought a ticket to be on a cruise ship already going around the world). As such, they could afford naivete and genuine exploration while the rest of the world was already wallowing in conventional wisdom about Hitchcock – that sort of, say, willing unawareness of the popular stand on a director is crucial if one is to write something that hasn’t already been written. Anywho, the fact is that while Cedric Belfrage and other such British critics did call Hitchcock ‘the Best British director’ in the 30s itself, even up till the 50s, Bosley Crowther and his NY gang refused to acknowledge him as a serious artist at all. Crowther in particular was very clear about it, going by his review of Rear Window. Also, do not forget that while Hitchcock did work with guys like Maxwell Anderson and such, he also adapted a number of cheap pennywise(s), pulp novels and such – he also took to the television in 1955 when Hollywood was a major fail up till then, and television was definitely not thought of a medium ‘as glorious as the cinema’. The fact is Hitchcock did work with a lot of media that in his days, weren’t considered fit for artistic pursuit, but he made them work. Despite this, he was considered a major entertainer and not more – this image of him as a ‘transcendental artist’ was never an automatic image at all – it took a lot of effort on the part of a lot of his fans and a major interview book to build that image.
A fine discussion; I shall attempt to contribute more once I’ve seen the new Resident Evil. The last one, though I enjoyed some of the 3D shots, was awful & boring. I’m a forgiving guy. Or a sucker. Until then, I must add that anyone, especially any action cinema fan, who doesn’t see John Hyams’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration is doing him/herself a real disservice. It’s a marvelously produced & edited feature and easily one of the top 5 action films of the last several years.
@Walt Turner: Brilliant points and rebuttals. Kudos.
IV: You add such fresh insight to film-crit. Put flesh to so many of my thoughts (on Tree of Life, Beasts of So, The Master and now Res E). I should be flattered, except that you are the one with the words. Instead I’m honored. To keep reading! Please continue to use your gift, and thank you for these so far!
The first three Resident Evil movies are passable entertainments. They are B-movies made on B-movie budgets. But the later ones have problem because they’re B-movies with A-movie production values. Trash should remain on the level of trash.

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