After five films, the "Resident Evil" movies are moving towards what director, writer, and producer Paul W. S. Anderson is calling a "spectacular climax" for the series. "Resident Evil: Retribution," the latest movie based loosely on the Capcom video games ends as so many of the other entries in the series have--with a pyrotechnic, mind-boggling finale pushing its heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) towards the next stage in her battle against the seemingly indefatigable Umbrella Corporation.
Anderson is the director behind "Event Horizon" whose first foray into video games to film was "Mortal Kombat" for New Line. But his bread and butter in recent years have been the "Resident Evil" movies. "The franchise is kind of coming full circle," Anderson told me by phone. "In a way, it's going right back to the first film and that's why you see the return of characters [from 2002's 'Resident Evil']." The conclusion represents the final steps of a formula, one that Anderson says is deceptively simple: you just put a big gun in the hands of a beautiful actress and the fans will keep coming back.
"Resident Evil: Retribution" starts minutes after the conclusion of 2010's "Resident Evil: Afterlife," jettisoning sibling zombie killing Chris and Claire Redfield along with a boatload of survivors in its opening shootout. Typical of the series, it's like a soft reboot or Alice's character, changing up her status quo in a way that recognizes the previous film's questions and mysteries and then promptly moves away from them. From the top down, each movie doesn't so much continue the previous films' stories as drop Alice into a new adventure, with new kill boxes filled with murderous infected, a new look for her, and an updated cast (at three films and three entirely different characters, Oded Fehr is maybe the only actor who could be considered a veteran, besides Jovovich).
"It's definitely a conscious decision to change the films and the nature of the films," Anderson explains. He says that it keeps the series feeling fresh, his way of drawing in audiences to a new adventure featuring their favorite genetically modified heroine. This time around, the dynamics for Alice are a little more challenging: not only is she trapped in a sprawling underground Umbrella complex, but she's now forced to protect a little girl (Aryana Engineer) who believes Alice is her mom.
Anderson is right when he says "Retribution" calls back to the first film inasmuch as it traps its heroine in a complicated underground installation populated with a handful of familiar faces out to kill Alice and the anti-Umbrella resistance. Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon are back after meeting respectively tragic and sticky ends in the first movie in a setup whose initial trailer had some of us thinking "Is Anderson playing with us? Are we going to find out it was all a dream?" The director doesn't fall into that particular trap, going with something a little stranger that calls back to the image of tubes filled with Alice clones in Russell Mulchahy's "Resident Evil: Extinction" back in 2007. And that's the thing: these movies are cyclical and self-referential to an almost obsessive degree--its strange continuity built of the byzantine plots of an evil corporation that has more money than sense when it comes to world domination.
Those kinds of twists in the film's stories are likely what keep its lead actress onboard. I ask how tough it is to get his lead actress and wife Jovovich to come back for subsequent movies and Anderson says that it's never a challenge since the "Resident Evil" movies have avoided the Tugg Speedman effect of "Here we go again... again" (here, Anderson namechecks the Ben Stiller character from "Tropic Thunder" who's introduced through a series of mock trailers for an increasingly played-out series of post-apocalyptic action films). "With Milla, there's no sense of fatigue--she really loves the character that we've all created and the world we've created." He says if that ever changed, he doesn't think they could make any more "Resident Evil" films.
The return of Rodgriguez, Fehr, and Salmon was also a little bit of a nostalgia kick for Anderson, who regretted killing off the Rain character back in 2002. "I remember when we shot Michelle Rodriguez in the head in the first film, she said to me, 'We're going to regret doing this,' and I did, because I really enjoyed working with her and her chemistry with Milla was incredible."
At the very least, the two actresses had a great time working together if the commentary on that first movie is any indication, but throughout the subsequent entries, Anderson kept thinking about ways to bring Rain back. Anderson also enjoyed the opportunity to throw Rodriguez for a loop in dual roles as the Umbrella-controlled Rain and a gun-control advocate elementary school teacher caught up in one of the corporation's controlled zombie outbreaks. "That was an interesting challenge for her," Anderson says--one the actress thoroughly enjoyed.
If the plot I'm laying out here all seems circular and a little contrived, maybe it is, but that's not putting too much daylight between the films and the games that inspired them. While Anderson's films bear only a superficial resemblance to the movies, they share the same fondness for elaborate weirdness to get zombies after their respective heroes (seriously, if you get a chance to pore through the history of the "RE" games, it's a chronicle of weird corporate ambition, pseudo-incest, mutant children, and villages filled with plague-worshiping cultists). Anderson says that there was a sense that around the time the first movie came around, the video games had kind of been in decline--it would be another three years before people were excited about the games with 2005's "Resident Evil 4."
Anderson sees the influence between the game and movies going both ways, with many of the surface elements of the films being drawn from the console counterparts. And that's maybe why they're so successful (they've done something like $800 million globally since the first film): they distill the zombies plus elaborate plots of the games down to their essence and then put it all on Jovovich, who seems game to play dress up action heroine every couple of years. Each film typically does double or triple internationally what they do here in the States, owing, I suspect, to the simplicity of the concept, to the purity of a girl and a gun onscreen fighting an endless horde of monsters.
Looking at the games, "Resident Evil 4" was more of an action game than previous entries, possibly owing to the contribution of the films which dressed up the action in horror movie elements. "We took certain liberties with the 'Resident Evil' films, and I feel like that empowered [Capcom] to do the same. They radically changed what 'Resident Evil' is over the years." Anderson credits the developers at Capcom with taking new risks and being willing to tell new kinds of stories with new characters (the series reached its own explosive conclusion with part 5 before a baffling return to some of the same tired, worn elements with the poorly-received "Resident Evil 6").
Anderson credits the success of his take on "Resident Evil" with what he sees as a discredited line of logic that plagued Hollywood when he first got there: "A female-led action movie won't work," he was told, and then he'd be pointed to a handful of failed examples. "And my argument was, 'I just don't think they were good movies.'" For Anderson, a sexy girl with a gun should be a winning combination, and a no-brainer to boot. "To me, that's the real reason to go see a movie, he jokes." Anderson said this last part with a laugh, but it's true that, at least for me, the "Resident Evil" movies are worth coming back to precisely because it's so rare to see dangerous women onscreen out in front of the action in Western films. There's a certain electric purity to it. More than the story or whatever twists in the plots the films contrive, it's seeing Jovovich in carefully choreographed, highly implausible, and thrillingly violent action that makes them work so well.
"Resident Evil: Retribution" is available now on DVD, 3D Blu-ray, and VOD.