Not as good as the first or 'Extinction' but better than 'Apocalypse' and 'Afterlife', the fifth entry in the "Resident Evil" franchise begins with its best foot forward. Picking up directly from the end of last entry, the action starts with a fleet of Umbrella gunships descending on the survivors of the last film.
What makes these opening credits so effective is that it pulls off the simple trick of playing out this explosive attack sequence in both slow-motion and reverse. Combined with a military action thriller style opening theme from tomandandy, this visual effects ballet is actually one of the best things this franchise has done. Pity then the entire film can't be played out this way, as what comes next proves easily as convoluted and messy as all the previous entries - even with a lengthy and exposition heavy recap of the first four films at the start.
The earlier films can be differentiated by their distinctive looks, the first with its underground labs, Extinction with its desert setting, and Afterlife's combo of bright white Apple store and grungy Los Angeles. 'Retribution' defines itself by avoiding that kind of categorisation - changing up its environments every few minutes. As a result, the first half-hour seems so utterly random as to be nonsensical.
One minute Alice is a suburban housewife with a loving family, then she's in a white torture chamber wearing napkins, then she's in downtown Tokyo. The infected show up but so do past characters. Is it a holodeck? Almost. It turns out we're in an ex-naval base which has been converted into advanced bioweapons testing facility. The conceit allows Anderson to create several quite different environments for our heroes to make it through on their way to the surface and escape - from those two aforementioned locales to Moscow's Red Square, New York, the icy outside and the bowels of the ex-Soviet facility itself.
Unfortunately that approach also adds to the disjointedness of this entry as a whole, more than ever it feels like a video game with a bunch of preset action set pieces strung together and a storyline roughly built around them. That doesn't necessarily stop a film from being entertaining, rather that particular problem is due to the repetitiveness of the action. There's only so many ways one can spin generic gunfights and Milla Jovovich flip kicking CG enhanced extras in make-up. Every now and then a cool idea will emerge, a Rolls Royce monster chase in a subway or a tsunami engulfing the Kremlin for example, but they are only brief sparks amongst a sea of ashen cliche.
Like a more economically prudent Michael Bay, Anderson is all about overkill. It can't just be any testing base, it has to be buried under the icy waters of Kamchatka. There can't just be zombies in the New York simulation, there has to be Skyrim-esque giants with combination hammers and axes. The Moscow simulation? The zombies are Nazi stormtroopers who can fire gattling guns. It's not enough to escape through the naval base, there has to be an "Aliens"-inspired cocooning and child in peril situation. Why? The same reason this universe has an abundance of ammunition and bulletproof fetish gear - in the eyes of teenage boys it looks cool.
There's a couple of throwbacks to the first film, from the return of the Red Queen as the villain to appearances by the likes of Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon. Yet they're there purely for the sake of fan service - no real driving reason other than to pad out the runtime which already feels overly long at just 84 minutes. Jovovich remains as committed as ever to her action heroine status, while Rodriguez is solid, but everyone else is awkward - especially Sienna Guillroy's mind-controlled and violet catsuited Jill Valentine.
There's little point in dissecting the film too thoroughly as, much like the "Saw" franchise, fans love these films in spite of the painful acting and woeful scripting which mistakes over plotting for cleverness. Like that series as well, this one feels well and truly past its prime. Anderson has visual chops which allow for an impressive look, but style isn't his problem - its substance…of any kind.