Depending on one’s familiarity with the Resident Evil franchise—which now includes bestselling games across countless systems and nearly a dozen films both animated and live action—the mere announcement of a Netflix series based on the brand could be cause for both celebration and confusion. Where would this newest iteration fit within the framework of the brand? How would it approach the various characters, timelines, creatures, and gunplay? The answer, it seems, is to forge a path ahead with only minimal connective tissue to the what came before. With the first four episodes in my rearview and as a self-professed aficionado of all things Resident Evil, I am happy to say that this Netflix horror show gets a hell of a lot right. Yet in the same breath, the simply-titled Resident Evil will doubtless piss off a certain subset of people to the point that, like the namesake “zero” zombies, they will be foaming at the mouth.
This Resident Evil is a tale of two halves. The first, set in a decimated London in 2036, follows a 30-year-old version of Jade Wesker (Ella Balinska, Charlie’s Angels) as she navigates survival in the wake of relentless horrors. The world is swarmed with countless zombies and mega-sized creatures, meaning Jade is at odds with nature for nearly every second of her existence. She video chats with her husband, Arjun, and her daughter, Bea, as she observes the zombies, trying to uncover signs of leadership and higher brain functionality. Essentially, this part of the tale is post-apocalyptic in nature. The majority of the action-packed, propulsive sequences are born from this segment. In the first episode alone, Jade faces off against what I assume is inspired by Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’s giant Gulp Worm. A big tunnel set piece with infamous and horrifying Lickers, as well as another with an intimidating Chainsaw Man in a confined prison-style setting, earn this segment of the story major brownie points.
During each episode, we alternate between the 2036 timeline and one set in 2022 at “New Raccoon City.” 14 years before “The End,” a much-younger Jade Wesker (Tamara Smart) moves to New Raccoon City with her sister, Billie (Siena Agudong, F9: The Fast Saga), and her secretive father, Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick, John Wick, American Horror Story: Coven). New Racoon City presents itself as a haven and a fresh opportunity to write the wrongs of the past. New Umbrella CEO Evelyn Marcus (Paola Nuñez, USA’s The Purge, Bad Boys for Life), whose father helped found the company, is secretly working with Albert to test a new miracle drug known as “Joy” for mass-market consumption. There is just one big problem: Joy contains a derivative of the T-virus. Taken in large doses, it is a recipe for disaster. As Jade and Billie adjust to their new surroundings, they dig deeper into the shady nature of Albert’s business. For Jade, this means using the help of hacker Simon (Connor Gosatti) to get past Umbrella’s firewall; Billie on the other hand wants to expose Umbrella’s horrific animal testing. This being Resident Evil, chaos ensues after a rabid zombie dog bites Billie on the hand as it escapes from the facility.
The primary concern for me is that the past timeline is nowhere near as engaging as the 2036 action. The 2022 section better have a damn good payoff to warrant its existence, because as far as I am concerned, a 2036-set Resident Evil has seemingly endless potential. It remains to be seen whether any of the big OG characters like Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield will pop up for surprise appearances, but as of the halfway point, there is no sign of them. The 1998 Racoon City “incident” is mentioned in passing a few times, indicating to me that the series is respectful of the games while trying to forge its own path. However, if this is the case, why is the characterization of Albert Wesker so wildly inconsistent from his video game counterpart? I don’t need a sassy blonde in sunglasses to pass as Wesker, but there should still be a semblance of the fragile coldness he is known for. Nevertheless, I loved Reddick’s family-first version of Wesker.
Many new additions to the Resident Evil canon are intriguing as hell going forward to me. Resident Evil 6’s concept of “evil goes global” is finally taken quite literally, as the T-virus has spread across the entire world. I was afraid this series would fall into the trap of feeling like every other post-apocalyptic show or movie about zombies that exists in the ether, and that it would lose that Resident Evil magic touch. Mostly, my fears ended up unfounded, since Netflix at least stayed close to the feel of the game series. We have secret labs, tongue-whipping Lickers, big scary monsters, intense gore, and a lovable heroine in Jade. If the back half of the season throws in some puzzle-solving and big boss battles, I will be a happy camper.
Cinematically speaking, Netflix’s horror show has a different tone to Paul W.S. Anderson’s films, or even last year’s slavishly faithful adaptation from director Johannes Roberts. Two separate segments with different actors certainly left me feeling slightly disoriented. I think this easily could have been told in a more straightforward manner. It is almost as if the creators wanted to rush to get to the goods with the 2036 portion so they tried to cram two seasons worth of content into one season for binge-watching convenience. If it can stick the landing in the home stretch, Resident Evil is still an easy recommend in spite of minor flaws. Jokes about being the “master of unlocking” and the appearance of fan-favorite monsters should appease a bloodthirsty fanbase ready to nitpick every detail to death. I could foresee a promising run of several seasons, and if Netflix can latch onto another win from fans, I have no doubt the demand will be aggressive for a follow-up. Lock and load a Magnum and get ready for a wild time!
Resident Evil unleashes a new outbreak of terror when the first season hits Netflix on Thursday, July 14th.