SEPTEMBER 14, 2012
When Paul Anderson announced that his next film, in theaters on September 14th, would be a thinly disguised story about Scientology, I was quite intrigued. Since the last film in this series basically had no plot at all, I figured he too was getting bored with these things and needed to go outside the box a bit in order to keep both himself and the audiences invested in the proceedings. But it still had to be a Resident Evil movie, so I was quite curious how he would marry the two in Resident Evil: Retribution - would the Scientology stuff overshadow the usual battles between Alice and the undead?
Well, to be honest, I think Paul Anderson did a great job masking his metaphor for the controversial church. In fact I was a bit worried that they might sue him for making a mockery out of their beliefs or something, but the nearly non-stop action and 3D presentation (much improved over its predecessor) are probably enough for even the most devoted member of their organization realize that it's harmless, and if they actually think about it, they'd realize it actually stays true to their beliefs and even comes down on their side. But they're cleverly disguised, so if you don't know or care anything about Scientology, you won't even realize it's there.
But if you DO know these things, I think you'll admit it's pretty clever how Paul Anderson managed to stick to their basic ideas without betraying what has been set up in the previous entries of the series (which, to my knowledge, were never supposed to be Scientology metaphors). For example, most of the movie is basically about "auditing", the process in which Scientologists re-experience painful or traumatic events in their past in order to free themselves of "engrams" (painful memories, threats to their survival, etc). Through her auditing process, Alice (Milla Jovovich) more or less relives the events from the previous films, including having to re-kill long-dead foes as she finds herself in the same locations she battled through in the 1st and 2nd films of the series.
The reappearance of several characters that were killed off also ties into the idea that people's souls (or "thetans") reincarnate, so we're able to see everyone again, though they are a bit different. Carlos and Rain both return twice, in fact, one time as enemies to Alice, another as regular folks (Carlos is married to Alice in one scenario, while Rain is just another suburbanite like her). In one of the film's more upsetting scenes, Alice and her daughter find themselves in an area that is home to the "assumption" process, seeing hundreds of copies of themselves, ready to be born again once their current host body is destroyed and their thetan is transplanted once again (this was hinted at in the 3rd film, where we saw Alice die several times and a pile of old, thetan-less bodies).
And it plays heavily on the idea of "dynamics", which relate to the importance of survival. The first dynamic is the individual's desire to survive, and the 2nd involves procreation and family. Alice is clearly guided by these two primary dynamics, as she spends the entire film constantly under threat from a variety of monsters and anonymous soldiers, doing whatever she can to not only live to fight the next battle but protect her family (the little girl) as well. In Scientology, rationality is favored over morality, and we see this reflected time and time again as no one ever seems to care much when their friends die, as it's often beneficial to their own survival. For example, one character graciously opts to stay downstairs shooting at some bad guys so that the others can ride an elevator up to safety. Do they thank him for his sacrifice, or even mention him again or inform Alice (who was off saving the little girl) about what he did for the greater good? No, because it was the rational decision to save them, not the moral one. He was merely being a good Scientologist.
Another principle of Scientology that Paul Anderson deftly weaves into his tale is the idea that people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature. Alice is still lacking some of her powers that she had gained in the 3rd film, and this time around she is more or less aligned with Wesker (head of Umbrella, which like Scientology itself merely wants to improve life using the principles of science - if you recall, they started out making anti-aging creams and the like), who needs her to rediscover her true nature as a human weapon as they wage their battle against the various creatures that have taken over the world. Like the church, Umbrella's main goal now is to clear the planet of the undead creatures (or engrams) that are coming at them from all sides, with (spoiler) Alice's completed audit at the end of the film being a major victory for their side. Like the last couple entries, the end of the film merely sets up the next one, and I liked the little nod to (Scientology founder) L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, as the final battle will seemingly take place in Washington DC, an important location in that story.
But, as I said, you can ignore all that, and merely watch it as the rather silly but entertaining 5th entry in a video game movie series. Most of it has improved on its predecessor, the tomandandy score is incredible, and Anderson is seemingly much more comfortable with the 3D process than he was in Afterlife, which felt stiff and ill-fitting for the most part (though he still employs way too many "comin at ya!" shots that will just annoy viewers watching in 2D). Kevin Durand makes a fine Barry (finally!), though I was disappointed they didn't have him repeat any of his memorable lines from the game. And it really embraces the source material for the first time since Apocalypse - not only do they lift sequences from RE5 and Code Veronica, but the plot as a whole is quite game-like; Alice and the others have to get from A to B, passing through a few different levels (simulated cities) and even using a little map to guide them, just as in the games. And there's a recurring monster who they have to fight several times before it is finally killed, similar to the Nemesis in that game, and the Red Queen makes an appearance after sitting the other sequels out.
And that's what's cool about it - it's just as indifferent and passionless as every other entry in this series, but I've finally just accepted that's the way it'll always be with these things, and thus it totally works as dumb fun, like the others. But it can also function as a "Cliff's Notes" on the basics of Scientology if you want to look for them, giving it an extra layer the others lacked. I admit I was skeptical that Paul Anderson would be able to pull this off, but I think he did a fine job of making his movie serve two very different functions. Well done, sir - you are "the master" after all.
What say you?