‘Resident Evil: Afterlife,’ could have – with a few minor changes – worked as a satisfying end to the Resident Evil film series. But with the cliffhanger ending of Alice, Chris, Claire, K-Mart, and other survivors facing a fleet of Umbrella VTOL’s while armed with nothing more than handguns, shotguns, and the power of positive thinking, it was inevitable that we’d get another followup (that, and earning 300 million at the box office). Sure enough, we got ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ two years later.
Let’s take a look and see what the fifth entry in the series does well and what could use some improvement.
What does the story do well?
It has a memorable title sequence
It has no ultimate impact on the film’s story, but ‘Retribution’ features the most unique opening of the series, depicting Umbrella’s assault upon the Arcadia, but played in reverse.
It’s a great way to get the viewer’s attention by showing Alice’s defeat and the end of the battle first, and then depicting how it got to that point. Having a great soundtrack helps, too!
It has a great cold open to grip the viewer
After the Umbrella attack and Alice’s defeat, ‘Retribution’ cuts to Alice waking up in a suburban home where she’s married to Carlos (who blew himself up two movies ago) and has a deaf daughter. Unfortunately, her suburban bliss is interrupted by a zombie attack that ends with Carlos becoming a zombie and then killing Alice.
Much like the opening to ‘Extinction,’ this is a great sequence because the audience is trying to figure out just what’s going on because it flies in the face of everything we know about Alice: is it a dream? A hallucination? Something from a parallel universe? As a bonus, it also lets us see different versions of Alice, Carlos, and Rain, all three of whom have no combat skills or fighting experience, making their fight to survive all the more gripping. It’s a great way to get our attention while setting up the reveal about the cloning facility later on
It has a great setting
Although the film’s tagline is ‘Evil goes Global,’ ‘Retribution’ actually takes place almost entirely within Umbrella Prime, an underwater Umbrella facility off the frozen coasts of Russia, which houses recreations of famous global cities that are used to test the T-virus. Now trapped inside, Alice and her allies have to fight their way back to the surface before everything is blown to pieces. It’s a great setting for an adventure story that allows the characters to visit a large variety of locations instead of a single environment like the previous films (an underground lab, a city, a desert, etc.).
It has the best ticking clock yet
‘Retribution’ continues the series’ tradition of having a great ticking clock to keep the plot moving, and this is arguably the best one: Alice and her friends have just an hour and a half to escape from Umbrella Prime before it’s destroyed, taking them with it. That countdown gives every action they take and every delay extra weight.
It has more characters from the games
‘Afterlife’ was one of the most entertaining films in the series due to having more elements from the games (Wesker, Claire, Manjini zombies, the executioner, triple-barreled shotguns, and Chris Redfield). ‘Retribution’ continues that trend by having series regulars Leon Kennedy, Ada Wong, Barry Burton, and everyone’s favorite, Sergei Vladimir (you remember him, right?) joining returning faces like Wesker and Jill, the latter of whom gets a much bigger role here as the main antagonist. While these newcomers may not have great characterizations or much to do besides mowing down zombies, it’s still fun to see them on the big screen,
It shatters the status quo
One of ‘Retribution’s best scenes takes place at the end of the first act, where, in a little over five minutes, the narrative of the series is expanded and changed in interesting ways that shatters the status quo.
Among those changes are:
1. The Red Queen has taken over Umbrella and seeks to destroy all life on Earth.
2. Because of this, Wesker has defected from Umbrella and now fights against the corporation.
3. Wesker, Alice, and everyone else must unite to stop the Red Queen, or humanity is doomed.
These changes mark a turning point for the story of the Resident Evil film series, and smartly lays the groundwork for the series finale. We’re not there yet, but we now know what’s at stake and this helps wet the audience’s appetite for said finale.
The main antagonist is now an ally
I’m a sucker for enemy mine stories, and having Albert Wesker now working with Alice and the others against Umbrella has incredible storytelling potential: There’s nothing quite like having an antagonist deciding to join the victims, and seeing their different outlooks, personalities, and histories clashing against each other, which has endless opportunities for not only drama, but the possibility of the antagonist achieving redemption. And one little touch about Wesker’s turn is that he’s now effectively the leader of the United States. In other words, the series’ most awesome villain is now the president of the United States! Awesome!
It brings back the coolest enemy
It’s always a risk to bring back fan-favorite characters, especially if there’s not a good narrative reason to do so, but thanks to Umbrella’s cloning powers we get to see the Executioner return from ‘Afterlife,’ and watch not one, but two of them battle Alice and Ada in the streets of (fake) New York.
While the scene ultimately doesn’t contribute to the story, it’s still great fun to see a great monster come back for an encore performance.
The final battle is different from all the others that came before it
In all the previous films, the climaxes involved defeating a single, overpowering monster or escaping an explosion, often with a hefty dose of CGI. ‘Retribution,’ however, features a massive melee battle between Alice, Jill, Rain, Leon, and Luthor in a snowy field where they have to rely on their fists and hand-to-hand combat abilities and find a way to stop an almost unkillable Rain without relying on guns.
Unlike previous battles where Alice had the upper hand or won fairly easily, she is resoundingly beaten by Jill and would have died if not for freeing Jill from Umbrella’s mind-control at the last second. And as a bonus, it’s satisfying to see Jill – who has always had her thunder stolen by Alice in previous films – get her revenge. Or, rather, her retribution, if you will.
It has the best ending and the best cliffhanger of the series
Cliffhangers are an inherently risky storytelling trope, but when pulled off well they leave the audience excited and eager to see what comes next. ‘Retribution’ does so with flying colors, ending with Alice, Jill, Ada, Leon, and Wesker joining forces in the ruins of Washington DC and preparing for their last stand against an army of undead sent by the Red Queen. Freaking. Awesome.
What could the story have done better?
It could have removed the opening flashback
Though it’s a tradition for each Resident Evil film after the first to recap what happened in the previous movies, it is starting to wear a little thin. And after four movies, it’s safe to assume that people who are coming to watch ‘Retribution’ are fans who know what happened already, making the flashback summary unnecessary.
It could have removed Alice’s bleeding
At two times in the film, Alice looks down to find herself bleeding from a wound in her side… but nothing ever comes of it. Cutting these shots out would have freed up thirty seconds that could have been invested in character moments.
It could have eliminated the cloning aspect
‘Retribution’s biggest draw was the return of several deceased characters from the past films, including Carlos, Rain, and One, via the magic of cloning. However, the film doesn’t do anything with them: the characters show up, shoot bullets, and then get killed. While it’s a stretch to imagine that a zombie action movie would explore the moral delimas of cloning, it doesn’t use the cloning idea in any meaningful way: Pacifist, anti-gun Rain never meets her cold, heartless self, for example, and at one point Ada talks about how Umbrella uses clones and how they’re all disposable; you’d think it’s setting up some interesting moral ideas that will be explored later on (such as Alice seeing clones as people instead of disposable test subjects), but nothing comes of it. In hindsight it might have been better to remove the cloning aspect entirely and perhaps have all the test subjects at Umbrella Prime be prisoners that Umbrella has captured, which would force Alice and the others to decide if they could risk spending the time to save them or continue on and leave them to die to ensure Alice’s survival.
It could have removed the Las Plagas parasite and the enhanced zombies
Another selling point for ‘Retribution’ was that the Las Plagas parasite would make an appearance from the fourth Resident Evil game, which allows zombified people to keep their intelligence and the ability to use weapons and tools. As such, we’re given scenes of Russian zombies using assault rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, chainsaws, and even driving cars and motorcycles.
The problem is, zombies are supposed to be mindless killing and eating machines who are dangerous because of their resistance to physical injury, immunity to pain, and sheer numbers. By giving them guns and vehicles, they’re essentially normal human enemies with bad teeth and rotting skin. A good solution would have been to have the T-virus continue to mutate, giving zombies more abilities and intelligence, which could have been followed up on in the next movie. But the Las Plagas parasite doesn’t return in the final chapter, and aside from making Rain impossible to kill with bullets, it ulitmitly has no impact on the story.
It could have given characters time to breathe
‘Retribution’ is the most action-packed film in the Resident Evil series, with a breakneck pace that never lets up. While this – in conjunction with the ticking clock – is great for keeping the film moving, it would have been nice if the story took a few moments to breathe between action scenes and invest in letting us get to care for the characters, or develop their relationships between one another. It would have been nice to have Luthor and Alice have a longer reunion, given their shared experiences from ‘Afterlife,’ but they only get a few seconds to speak before we’re off to the next action sequence. While well-done action scenes are fun, caring about the people in those sequences is more important.
While ‘Retribution’ exists to set up the final chapter of the series instead of being a standalone story, it at least offers some good action, has a story that is never slow or dull, and while it doesn’t do anything meaningful with the cloning aspect, or giving characters much to do beyond shooting guns, it’s still an enjoyable entry in the saga. More importantly, it sets the stage for the final film; come back next time, where we’ll take a look at how the series ends. With all the elements in place for a truly epic grand finale, there’s no way the series could mess it up!