Resident Evil is ridiculous. As a franchise, it houses some of the goofiest shit to ever be put to, and accepted by, mainstream audiences. Absurdity is at its core, gestating there for the better part of nearly thirty years now without ever once trying to hide that fact. And yet, amid a flurry of zombies and grimdark aesthetic work, fans tend to forget that the roots of the franchise are schlocky fun as much, if not more, than genuine drama and horror.
Netflix’s latest streaming series, simply titled Resident Evil, takes this absurdity and seeks to emotionally amplify it with a generational trauma narrative. Amplify being the key word there, as while the show certainly has richer aspirations for its ensemble cast, it never forgets what sandbox it’s playing in. This contrast between vision and execution, origins and future, makes for an uneven and strange outing that finds steady footing by the finale thanks to a killer cast and sense of propulsive fun.
Ella Balinksa leads Resident Evil as Jade Wesker
Resident Evil follows two timelines throughout its eight-episode run. In 2022, Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick) along with his twin daughters Jade (Tamara Smart) and Billie (Siena Agudong) attempt to adapt to life in New Raccoon City, a company town built by Umbrella. Wesker is consumed by his work, kept on a short leash by Evelyn Marcus (Paola Núñez) as they attempt to stabilise a new wonder drug dubbed Joy for its ability to cure several mental health issues. Elsewhere, Jade and Billie struggle to adjust to the sleek, ultra-white (see: caucasian) way of life in NRC, grappling with school drama, boy troubles and their strained but ever-present sisterly bond.
Flashing forward to 2036 and the world has been fractured by, of course, a viral apocalypse that has birthed zombies and all sorts of monsters. Umbrella has risen to fascistic government levels of control over large swaths of land, effectively abandoning the rest of the planet to its gnarly fate. In these wilds, we find Jade once more (Ella Balinska), desperately searching for a way to cure, or at least manage, the outbreak and restore order to things. This future is almost post-post-apocalyptic, with Jade moving through functioning towns and economies, political and social factions and more. Jade’s mission is complicated by Billie’s (Adeline Rudolph) reappearance and the lengths to which she’ll go to bring her sister back into the Wesker, and Umbrella, fold.
Billie and Jade struggle with life in New Raccoon City
The dual timelines attempt to create the dramatic backbone for the series, a prolonged arc of revelations and beats that idle for slightly too long before becoming genuinely satisfying in the show’s concluding moments. Pacing is Resident Evil’s biggest hurdle and it only barely clears it thanks to a hugely talented ensemble cast doing their best with unevenly distributed storytelling. The show is packed with decent ideas and imagery that strain over the requisite eight-episode Netflix structure, lending the whole thing a bloated feel that is only really an issue in the middle lag. Even then though, the show uses this overlong run to give its characters (Jade and Wesker especially) quiet moments to breathe and reflect. For a series known for bombast, Resident Evil understands the importance of taking your time.
Resident Evil’s greatest strength is its characters and overarching thematic work – a thoroughly surprising statement about this franchise if there ever was one. The show brilliantly subverts the expectations you have of Wesker, shifting the character from a cartoonish Übermensch to a flawed father trying his best to outrun his own lore. Reddick’s casting as the historically White villain leads the way for the show’s diverse rewrite of the franchise’s history. This adds some very light but still present racial tension to the world presented and only serves to deepen the human element of these typically action figure-like characters.
Smart and Agudong thrive in the 2022 timeline, fully embodying moody teens turned corporate victims. Initially, the sheer amount of high school subplot drama is mystifying but only because Resident Evil has ambitions beyond its namesake. The show dedicates lengthy periods to Jade and Billie’s relationship and the things that make it tick and turn. Boy troubles, bullying, and of course, their Wesker blood and all the weight that bears. It asks you to invest because, without a fully fleshed-out image of the sisters, the show’s thesis and eventual dramatics are rendered inert.
Resident Evil’s two timelines allow for interesting family drama
This is, in actuality, a show about family and the damage done within them. It’s incredibly heightened, like the characters themselves, but Resident Evil fully commits to telling a generational trauma story, just with zombies, mind control and clones. Wesker’s calculated but sincere attempts at raising a family, Marcus’ legacy on his daughter and her utterly broken perception of familial love, followed years later by Jade’s disastrous ambition to fix the world for her daughter in turn; Resident Evil takes the staples of the franchise and recontextualizes them into a wheel that inevitably turns, only this time it crushes semi-genuine people.
Paola Núñez delivers a show-stealing turn as Evelyn Marcus, a woman thoroughly committed to girlbossing too close to the sun. The daughter of Dr. James Marcus, one of Umbrella’s founding members, Evelyn’s entire life is geared around rehabilitating the company’s image after the first Raccoon City incident. She is, for all intents and purposes, the exact type of person who would want to lead Umbrella, but Núñez imbues Evelyn with feverish ambition that isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Much like the subtle but present racial tensions of this world, Evelyn feels like she’s fighting one that doesn’t give much stock to women, let alone a queer one. It’s buried deep beneath the unhinged eyes and casual violence but undoubtedly in lockstep with it, creating a rich, compelling antagonist.
Paola Núñez devours scenery like a talented zombie
Speaking of, the Umbrella of it all is surprisingly much more in line with Paul W. S. Anderson’s vision of the evil corporation than any other adaptation. The bones of the story are broken and reformed from the games, including some deep-cut references, but aesthetically and tonally this world feels of a piece with the divisive, super successful live-action films. The 2036 timeline especially has the same generic grunge violence and rapid cut editing, an effective if crude way of obscuring the show’s hit-and-miss make-up and visual effects. Fans of the games will also find a trove of reference points here, especially a short but delicious Resident Evil 4 homage and a throwaway line of dialogue about Wesker that pushed this reviewer off his chair.
It’s a very crunchy adaptation this way, a mismatch of washed-out greys and effectively sterile corporate world building. There are times when the show looks fantastically B-Grade, when giant CGI monstrosities are clamouring along beach fronts and eerily empty streets are lined with meticulously alike white housing units. Elsewhere though, the zombies look particularly lacklustre, more fitting in an emo rave night than one of the walking dead genre’s greatest franchises. Easily the most drastic stylistic choice the show makes is its licensed music soundtrack that feels better suited to Gossip Girl with its current hits and genuine bops overlaying horrific scenes of violence and chaos. Don’t misunderstand, it’s clearly an active decision to court a sense of discord in tone and it largely works, giving the show an odd but distinct vibe.
2036 sees the world torn apart by the inevitable
Resident Evil’s myriad strange tonal and character choices make for an altogether odd but compelling adaptation of the source material. It is not entirely successful in its ambitions, idling too long at times and fumbling the execution of its iconic monsters, but for every misstep, there is a thoughtful attempt to move the franchise forward into emotionally rich new places. An incredible cast elevates these ideas to entertaining heights and with goals like this, we can only hope they’re given a second season to mutate even further.