The Resident Evil series’ biggest strength has been succinctness. They tend towards the 90-100 minute range, long enough to not overstay their welcome. Each successive installment uses familiarity to race over exposition, recycling themes and incidents from predecessors (as well as the video games) to contrast Alice’s past with her present. Retribution is no different, in this regard, but it is the first in which its short length feels like a hindrance.
Alice, once again captured by Umbrella after the closing moments of Afterlife, awakens in the belly of an Arctic facility designed to stage trauma over and over. Previous outbreak hotspots are recreated to test out viral mutations, inflicting death and torture on a conveyor belt of duplicated franchise players. The Red Queen is brought back to micro-manage this memory lane deathtrap. Dual Michelle Rodriguezes lurk at the plot’s edge. Paul W.S. Anderson even takes another crack at Apocalypse‘s failed attempt at intertextuality with an anti-Umbrella strike team made up of Leon Kennedy, Ada Wong, and Barry Burton–winking references to the former pair’s spotty relationship and propensity towards death fakeouts.
Duplication and iteration are a prominent fascination with Anderson’s Resident Evil scripts. Up through Extinction, the films were bookended by the awakening of a nude Alice (or clone of Alice) to some fresh horror. Afterlife bucked the trend, teasing an escape from this vicious cycle, only to cruelly pull its heroine back into the fray. For all her superhuman (occasionally godlike) skill, Alice is very much a victim, locked into a struggle with something monolithic and automated. She’s able to weather, but her friends–even the planet–are dying off despite her efforts. Retribution confronts this with a squad of cloned fallen comrades, led by a brainwashed Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, allowed a more interesting space than before). Most notable in this crew are former love interest Carlos and Alice’s first bestie Rain (Rodriguez)–whose alternate is a civvie implanted with pro-gun control memories. The move reads as deliberate, an attempt to throw Alice’s own guilt back in her face, but the miscalculation is obvious: Alice has gone through this all before, and has hardened in response to it. The simple confrontation with known doubles is shrugged off.
Instead, it’s the deaf child, Becky (Aryana Engineer), of yet another of her clones which troubles Alice. Introduced in one of Umbrella’s zombie test sequences, she later appears clinging to her dead mother’s lookalike. Unsure of how to deal with this child, Alice is adamant about protecting her, but quick to leave her in another’s care. Her pause following an “I love you” (spoken and signed) is Milla Jovovich’s best acting in the film, a brief, cutting moment of tangled emotions processing something innocent. While it’s an Aliens rip, the idea is good: the alternate possibility of life ruled by something better than violence and death being more alien to Jovovich’s badass superwoman than any of the monstrosities she fights.
Retribution teeters on moments like these, overstuffed with meta-ideas about its subjects while racing through sets alternating lavishly detailed city/suburbia with stark, glossy white hallways and dank industrial sectors. Lost in the shuffle are the twin Rains. Anderson almost toys with making Rodriguez a figure similar to Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a haunted shell sussing out her confused half-existence. When told about her “sister,” Good Rain stares, as if a bomb exploded in her mind. A confrontation is teased here, Rodriguez given a prime position to throw the narrative off-piste. With Evil Rain’s spotlight in the finale–beating down two allies before moving to put the hurt on Alice–and talk of many scenes cut from the assembly, this might even have been Anderson’s intention. It never happens in the theatrical cut, though: Good Rain is casually disposed by a CG mutant; Evil Rain is a minor texture to an obedient goon. She’s given no response to her mechanization, losing any power her return could have provided. This becomes a first in the Resident Evil franchise, in that it would have been better if it were longer, slower, and emphasized its ellipses.