After decades of attempts to make Capcom’s beloved Resident Evil series into a just as adored film franchise (and, for the most part, failing), Sony Pictures has returned to the hive to engineer a better-made Netflix series. The eight-episode debut season hopes to find an early renewal if viewers take a liking to the itchy tasty high school drama-meets-sci-fi apocalypse setting. Taking place in two timelines, one centered on genius scientist Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick) and his two teen daughters, the other fourteen years later, in a world where only 300 million humans remain. It’s is a clever idea. There may be no red queen (yet), but plenty of people will surely die down there at Umbrella HQ.
Note: this review is mostly spoiler-free for the entire season.
Watching the thrilling pilot reminded me of The Force Awakens. Easter eggs abound (a Cerberus zombie dog!) with state-of-the-art production value. Best of all — the chemistry among the cast is terrific. Gone are the flat-line readings of the Milla Jovovich era (to be fair, I mostly enjoyed Paul W.S. Anderson’s installments). The less said about last year’s cheaply made, poorly executed Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, the better. Netflix puts the money onscreen with lush design and a cast of characters hustling and bustling their way through two very different realities.
The first time we meet the twin siblings of Wesker, Billie (Sienna Agudong) and Jade (Tamara Smart), there’s a fun, engaging, electric banter. These fourteen-year-olds are different in personality and immediately are at odds. Billie, who’s introduced with Billie Eilish’s synth-heavy “Oxytocine,” is a zoomer through and through. Her colored hair streaks, baggy attire, and “chill but moody” aura is note-perfect as a current teen stand-in (fittingly, the first timeline is set in 2022). On the other hand, Jade has her own brand of angst – complaining to her dad about their new neighborhood’s suburban idiocy. She mentioned to Billie how they’ve relocated to a part of South Africa with no other black teens… and yet, Jade fits in with fellow classmates at Raccoon High in no time. Being popular comes easy for Jade.
That skill set means nothing in 2036. In the T-Virus ravaged world, adult Jade (Ella Balinska) is on the run from Umbrella Corp, as she tries to figure out a way for the human race to survive hordes of flesh-eating “zeroes,” aka zombies and other hellish mutations born of from the anti-anxiety med Joy, which was developed by Umbrella. The opening act, featuring the most ginormous caterpillar ever, nicely shows those new to the franchise that zombies are far from the biggest threat in this universe.
Jade’s wise enough to realize that a mere 300 million humans on a planet surrounded by 6 billion infected is a war humans cannot win. At this point, it’s not about eradicating all zombies (technically, they are not undead but just go with it); it’s about finding a way to live among them. One could see this as a metaphor for climate change, but this ain’t Children of Men, so leave your zombie-eaten think pieces at the door.
Creator Andrew Dabb (Supernatural) wisely pulls inspiration from several sources, like Alfonso Cuaron’s 00s dystopian masterpiece, by having a plot thread focused on remaining humans reaching a fabled “university” that houses relics of humankind. Too often, remakes/reboots confine themselves to just the source material (like The Force Awakens, actually). It’s a pleasant surprise to see Neil Marshall’s post-apocalyptic Doomsday used as a color scheme and gritty feel for the 2036 timeline, complete with some Glasgow survivors. Fingers crossed, Jade will receive an Eden Sinclair eye patch that, itself, was a callback to Snake Pliskin in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. A late-season episode plays into the Station Eleven sandbox with characters who put on plays and read poetry. Jade’s blood-soaked face while underground evokes The Descent. Dabb is clearly a fan of sci-fi/horror, spanning decades of pop culture.
The central narrative thread for the season is twofold: a) what happened between Jade and Bille in the past that affected their relationship in 2036, and b) what exactly was Albert Wesker’s involvement at Umbrella that brought about the end of days. The balance between teen family drama and high-octane action/gore (mostly) works. A few early episodes do suffer too many back-and-forth time switches though. Later episodes that devote entire runtimes solely to one time period are more effective.
Fans of the game know the character of Wesker is a major villain who’s pure evil. Reddick’s turn as a powerful scientist yet fumbley dad effectively makes him into a more layered person. An early scene where Albert is called into the dean’s office to discuss Billie being bullied is at once hilarious and scary. Papa Wesker does not play around. Reddick is always a commanding presence onscreen (The Wire, Fringe, John Wick). The actor must have had a ball playing various emotional ranges.
More impressive and vital to the series working are the performances by young stars Smart and Agudong as Wesker’s daughters. Witnessing these two verbally spar is never dull. Conversely, as twenty-something Jade, Balinska is the right concoction of arrogance and… let’s call it MCU quippy. Paola Núñez, who plays head of Umbrella Evelyn Marcus, is the scene stealer. Honestly, there isn’t a bad or subpar performance among the main cast, which is a big win in a series that too often got lost detailing its evil corporation mumbo jumbo and CGI monsters.
This isn’t the first time YA characters meshed with a post-apocalyptic setting. AMC’s World Beyond, a Walking Dead spin-off, tried yet missed the mark because those teens didn’t feel like teens. Young adult viewers better recognize these types in shows like the CW’s Riverdale or HBO’s Euphoria. To be fair, Resident Evil uses the timelines to divide the tonal disparity of teen shenanigans versus surviving a Thunderdome siege. But hey, if it works, it works.
As for Easter eggs, there are plenty, yet for the most part, they err on the side of features, not bugs. One scene where adult Jade is trapped in a safe room with a typewriter made me smile. Various beasties from the game, like the grotesque lickers, show up too, and for the most part, the visual FX delivers. One episode mostly focused on confinement involves the piano puzzle from last year’s Resident Evil: Village. There are even references to the Paul W.S. Anderson films. For example, head of Umbrella Evelyn Marcus’ history might just connect to Milla’s Alice. And then there’s a tanker ship is a dead ringer for After Life‘s cool rewind montage opener.
Resident Evil is a strong debut season for fans and newcomers alike. Some diehards might be clamoring for a straight-up retelling of the first three games but as seen with Welcome to Raccoon City, be careful what you wish for. The Netflix series boldly does its own thing, supplying fresh ideas on Umbrella Corp., zombies, and, most effectively, teen drama. Having music by Billie Eilish, Halsey, and Dua Lipa (with a dance number!) was most certainly pricey but totally worth it. Keeping the dialogue up-to-date like a well-timed COVID gag is the special sauce needed for a new strain of T-Virus. Bring on season two!