Considering how crowded this summer’s streaming release field is, it might’ve been easy to overlook the debut of Netflix’s new Resident Evil series last weekend — especially considering how bad most of the film adaptations are. As someone who enjoyed the video game franchise on a very casual level, the series still piqued my interest enough to give it a watch.
To my surprise, this mutation of the Resident Evil franchise was actually good. Not just good for a video game adaptation (where the overwhelming majority of efforts fail), but a genuinely entertaining, well-produced show. There were still some issues, but nothing that would keep me from eagerly awaiting/hoping for a second season.
Before we dive into what did and didn’t work for the series, I should preface things by admitting that I’m not a hardcore fan of the video games and their surrounding lore. I greatly enjoyed the small amount I’ve played, but there are much more knowledgeable folks out there if you want an in-depth look at whether or not this series achieves its proclaimed canonical status.
That said, I’m also a pedantic Star Wars fan who greatly appreciates it when franchises respect the mythology they’re built upon.
I should also mention that this review will be filled with spoilers for the entire eight-episode first season, so proceed with caution if you haven’t watched them yet.
The series takes place during two different time periods: In 2022 mere days before civilization fell and in 2036. Both storylines revolve around Jade Wesker, who is portrayed by Tamara Smart (2022) and Ella Balinska (2036). Aside from one major issue beyond their control (which we’ll get to in a bit), both actresses are phenomenal series leads.
Tamara imbues the 14-year-old version of Jade with razor-sharp edges that are sparingly balanced by a bigger heart than she’d ever admit. On the flip side, Balinska starts off as your standard Badass with a Heart of Gold, but eventually reveals a severe blindspot toward her own ethical and empathetic failings.
By the final episode, we finally begin to see how these two versions of Jade are bridged across the 14-year time gap. It’s not enough in one season to work like the writers clearly hoped it would, but it does lay the groundwork for an intriguing and tragic future narrative.
By the way, when I described Adult Jade as “badass,” it didn’t mean she was able to take down everything in front of her without batting an eye. On the contrary, she’s often scared out of her mind by the horrors coming at her. But she also has a resolve and determination that refuses to quit no matter how hopeless things are. It’s a trait that at first seems heroic, but later proves to be a driving force behind her more selfish qualities.
If you want an over-the-top action hero type (and don’t mind if he isn’t exactly in great physical shape), then Turlough Convery has you covered via Richard Baxter — a character I initially despised as lazy before becoming one of my favorites. He’s definitely a villain, but an artfully absurd and bizarrely likable one.
And then we have Albert Wesker, whose casting and inclusion in Resident Evil has caused a bit of controversy.
The original Albert Wesker died inside a volcano in the Resident Evil 5 video game. His death was confirmed as being part of the series’ canon, both by showrunner Andrew Dabb and within the show itself. Wesker was also white, which made Lance Reddick being tapped for the role a bit confusing — especially when he showed up in an episode seven flashback as the original villain.
I normally don’t care about race or gender swapping in media adaptations as it doesn’t blatantly contradict a franchise’s mythology or if the actor is good. In the case of the latter, Reddick is phenomenal. While he does his usual good/typecasted work as an imposing intellectual, a cloning subplot allowed the actor to show off his impressive range as multiple versions of the same character.
Even without that plotline, however, Reddick’s portrayal of Wesker as a flawed-yet-ultimately-caring father was superb.
As for the race issue… *steps carefully onto eggshells* …you can definitely make the argument that race-swapping Wesker undercuts an important aspect of his character’s backstory.
There are a TON of Nazi undertones surrounding the Umbrella Corporation‘s work in eugenics. While eugenics and creating a “master race” isn’t an idea exclusive to North/Western Europe, Wesker’s Aryan appearance certainly ties it there.
That said, Reddick is so damn good in this role that it’s easy for a casual Resident Evil fan like me to let it slide — especially when his brief portrayal of the OG Wesker was so jarringly accurate. The series also provides a solid explanation for the cloning/eugenics side of Umbrella Corp. being deemphasized, thus making it much less important to the overall story.
I can still understand why longtime fans of the Resident Evil games may have been bothered, but hopefully we can all agree that Reddick did a great job with the role in the context of the series.
Let’s move on from racial gatekeeping to the decidedly lighter subject of horrific/mutated monsters.
The zombies (or Zeroes as they’re called in the series) do serviceable work as mutated, undead abominations. Where Resident Evil truly shines, however, is with its creatures. While you never know what you’re going to get in the VFX department with Netflix, this series’ production budget was enough to give us some truly fantastic beasts. The giant spider was my favorite, but there were plenty of terrifying monsters to enjoy — especially the all-too-brief action sequence featuring the infamous Lickers.
There’s a giant crocodile at the end that has a few dodgy frames, but it looks good for the most part. Considering the low-quality effects many of us feared when this project was announced, that’s a relatively small complaint.
The monsters also interacted well with the humans, providing us with some viscerally terrifying action sequences.
As for the story, the split timelines work extremely well as individual narratives. It’s debatable if they intertwine enough, but at least I never found myself wishing for one to end so we could go back to the other — which is really saying something considering the 2022 plotline’s lack of creatures.
A meathead like me is almost always going to pick monsters over teenage angst, but Reddick, Smart, and Siena Agudong (Billie) never allowed the pre-apocalypse narrative to stop being compelling. It also informed us of Jade’s darker/selfish impulses as they came to the forefront in 2036, which zipped us from one thrilling escape sequence to the next.
There are still plenty of fun surface plotlines about surviving factions, corporate espionage, and finding ways to combat a zombie plague amplified by nightmarish creatures. By the end, however, we’ve witnessed a tragic tale of the pain that can be inflicted by one’s own family.
What Didn’t Work
While Baxter provided just the right amount of camp (without saturating the series’ otherwise serious tone), Evelyn Marcus often felt like she was part of a completely different show.
I’m not sure why so many television/movie scripts seem unaware that sci-fi villains can be played straight. Heck, this very series had a perfect example via Marcus’ top lieutenant, Roth (Anthony Oseyemi). Unfortunately, Paola Nuñez’s character made Cruella de Vil (who she was unironically compared to at one point) seem subtle by comparison.
It’s a shame, because Nuñez was given a few brief moments that proved she could portray Evelyn Marcus as a much better and more layered character — especially when she interacted with her family.
From a production standpoint, the studio music selection/placement was all over the place.
Sometimes it worked perfectly, like episode seven ending with deadmau 5 and Skylar Gray’s “My Heart Teeth.” Also, my Gen-X self enjoyed the heck out of one of the series’ best action sequences being accompanied by Jamiroquai’s “Feels Just Like It Should.”
But unlike Stranger Things or Ms. Marvel, the recorded tracks in Resident Evil often felt forced — like a music supervisor was making sure they got their money’s worth and/or a promotional quota had to be met. Lest you think this is just an old man shaking his fist at the sky about pop music, I thought the inclusion/placement of music from Mozart’s The Magic Flute was the worst offender by far.
Sticking with the production side of things, I’ll reiterate again how fantastic Tamara Smart and Ella Balinska were as Jade Wesker. They were so good, in fact, that it helped make up for the fact that the actresses don’t look A THING like each other. Even with a 14-year time gap, their dissimilarity in appearance was distracting.
The actresses who played Billie weren’t a perfect match by any stretch, but at least Siena Agudong and Adeline Rudolph could have been family. Certainly not sisters (or the same person), but maybe distant cousins. Meanwhile, every jump between 2022 and 2036 served as a reminder to reset my suspension of disbelief on what should have been one of the series’ few grounded aspects.
Oh, and before anyone starts chirping about a correlation between this and the Albert Wesker-race issue, just don’t. There’s a monumental difference between visual continuity within a series and an adaptation from a different form of media.
As far as the story is concerned, Resident Evil‘s narrative nearly went off the rails in the third act. While much of that can be attributed to setting up a second season, it shouldn’t have come at the expense of a fully formed and satisfying conclusion to the previous episodes. Additionally, there needed to be significantly more connective tissue between the 2022 and 2036 storylines than we actually got.
The final episode in particular felt a bit disorganized. I love giant mutated crocodiles as much as anyone, but poor Lyle was freed from his restraints only to be saddled with an addiction to plot pheromones. Whether it was going back and forth on the island to put the right characters in danger or hastily revealing that Jade tampered with her daughter’s DNA, the big dude was working harder than Umbrella’s PR department.
Also, what was up with Adult Billie making decisions based on the James Bond villain handbook? Maybe she left Jade alive for a good reason, but it felt like lazy writing in the moment. Hopefully I’m proven wrong in a second season. In the meantime, we’re all left to wonder why Billie didn’t utilize the drones on the zombie horde earlier. Perhaps a script supervisor reminded her that they needed time for Lyle the Crocidile to show up.
I’ll fully admit that I went into this series with low expectations. That said, I was still impressed by the great acting, high production values, and compelling story that played out over eight episodes. While there were several things to nitpick or second guess, there was a whole lot more to enjoy.
I understand that hardcore Resident Evil fans may be frustrated that this series feels so different from the games. To be fair, though, none of the live-action movies followed the games, either. Netflix also had to produce something that could draw in outside/casual viewers to the franchise — something that this series has a much better chance of doing than any other screen adaptation to date.
Assuming a second season gets made, it should interesting to watch how Jade and Billie’s relationship broke down so horribly while the sisters go head-to-head in the future.
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