Apocalypse or post-apocalypse? Prequel or hit the ground running? Action or horror? These are among the questions that the new Resident Evil TV series on Netflix answers with a resounding “why not both?” The zombie-centric video game franchise has been turned into a live-action film series, an animated direct-to-video film series, and some erratically released comics; now, it’s attempting something more narratively ambitious than any of the movies, at least, cutting back and forth between 2022, shortly before a worldwide zombie plague decimated humanity, and 2036, when the global population has been vastly reduced–though the zombie population remains robust.
In some ways, this isn’t so different from the arc of the movies, which went from a mostly-contained virus outbreak to a poor man’s Mad Max over the course of six films and 15 years. But most of those movies take place in some wasteland, to the point where the show beginning in 2036, “14 years after the end,” feels reassuringly familiar. Jade (Ella Balinska), like Milla Jovovich’s Alice before her, is a solo traveler through this ruined world, though she never fires two guns while jumping through the air. She has the dutiful vibe of 12 Monkeys-style sample-collecting on a dead surface, keeping her ear quite literally to the ground to stay aware of her surroundings. But she’s actually observing “zeroes,” the major carriers of the T-virus who are not, she later notes, the living dead. Their brains are “rewired” to feed and spread the virus, and while the COVID-19 echoes here are faint, the clearest one comes in Jade’s spoken hope that “if we’re lucky, it’ll get weaker,” and those infected with the virus will evolve. (In past Resident Evils, those evolutions have not been especially lucky. Nor, come to think of it, have the virus evolutions we’ve experienced so far.) In the meantime, it only takes a single bunny to activate the senses of a rampaging zombie horde.
As bad as it looks out there, there’s a surprising current of domesticity when Jade video-chats with her family, promising them she’ll be careful out there and head back home soon — a far cry from the hopelessness of the movies. The real jolt comes when the premiere first jumps back in time, as a teenage Jade (Jada Smart), her sister Billie (Siena Agudong), and their father, Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick), roll into New Raccoon City, sort of a planned community, bathed in blindingly white tones, built around the South African outpost of the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical giant working on a drug called Joy. The Weskers’ surname will set off alarm bells of whatever Resident Evil series: Albert Wesker is a major villain in both the games and the films, which squares with the fact that the wonderful Lance Reddick is probably better known for genre fare than his work playing sensitive fathers.
At first, Wesker seems a bit outmatched by his family situation: Jade, the more confrontational of the two sisters, resists everything about their move, while Billie (who shares both her first name and a general sense of style with the current musical superstar) struggles with a checkered past related to her anger issues, which Jade seems determined to goad her into expressing more directly. But when Wesker is called in for a conference at the school after Billie is accused of exacting violent revenge against her new bully, he flexes the power of his Umbrella Corporation status, quietly threatening to ruin the life of the bully’s father and extracting a “mental health day” for Billie. He comes across as nerdy — his daughters rattle off a list of his mild-mannered attributes — but he’s a far more refined form of menace than the cartoonish Smith-from-The Matrix form he took in the movies.
Back in 2036, Jade has been detected and chased by a horde of zombies before she burns them up with an actual ring of fire — and accidentally awakens a beautiful, horrible, rainbow-colored giant caterpillar-looking creature, resulting in one of those fantastic shots where the camera follows the cracking (or in this case, popping) ground as it pursues a running protagonist. Jade doesn’t escape the beast; she’s knocked out, then saved at the last minute by a band of scavengers, who helicopter her from destroyed London to a base they’ve set up in Brighton. There, they exchange some exposition, take a gander at the zombie hordes just outside their walls, and wait for Umbrella to show up because it turns out Jade has a bounty on her head, and the scavengers are willing to collect. It’s their loss: Umbrella unceremoniously lays waste to the entire group, with their head honcho (who looks a bit like a young Peter Jackson, though not quite Dead Alive-era young) cornering Jade. She’s forced to go the Full Jovovich: She leaps off an impossibly high ledge into a sea of zombies below. In a show of real bravado, the episode cuts to black with her in midair.
But that may not even be the biggest cliffhanger in play for this first episode. Before Jade leaps, she’s informed that her sister has been looking for her. This is some kind of twist, as the previous flashback sequence concludes with Billie looking very much dead: motionless, eyes open, following an attack by a fierce, gunky dog (the kind that Milla Jovovich kicked in the face to the strains of nu-metal in those Resident Evil trailers back in 2002). Billie and Jade encounter the dog after breaking into Umbrella; Billie saw hints of animal testing at the company during lunch with her dad, igniting her vegan righteousness (and Jade’s general desire to fuck shit up). Given the source of her seemingly fatal dog bite, maybe Billie’s brain is simply rewiring, or perhaps the biweekly blood tests administered by Wesker aren’t as purely precautionary as they seem.
Whatever’s going on here, it’s a dynamic that feels distinct from the film series, where a rotating cast of supporting grunts, freedom fighters, clones, and turncoats would support Alice as she evolved into a lone-wolf action heroine. (Will this be Resident Emo by comparison?) It’s also not quite the horror angle offered by the recent Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. If launching a TV series version of Resident Evil less than a year after an unrelated film reboot seems a bit like hedging bets, it probably is in the same way that multiple DC Comics characters have existed in separate TV and movie versions for the past decade. “The world ended a long time ago,” Jade muses in her opening narration. It only makes sense to see some variations on Umbrella’s strategy; corporate interests always have plenty of apocalyptic ideas up their sleeves.
Resident Evil Afterlife
• Confession: I am not much of a gamer and have never played a Resident Evil video game. But I’m a big fan of the movies, and while I’m not much for bloviating about storytelling, I do think this material has been a strong vehicle for style, whether it’s the geometric mazes of Paul W.S. Anderson or the surprisingly colorful zip of first-episode director Bronwen Hughes, whose eclectic resume also includes the Harriet the Spy movie, Kids in the Hall filmed segments, and an array of modern TV episodes including Better Call Saul, Hawaii Five-0, and, appropriately, The Walking Dead.
• If this series really wanted to pay homage to the Paul W.S. Anderson films, the shot of Jade jumping into the zombie fray would be followed by a second episode that opens with Jade swiftly finishing a mostly-offscreen zombie battle and being relocated to a nondescript bunker surrounded by additional zombies.
• Bad CG creatures come and go; for a TV show, Resident Evil has pretty decent giant-bug action. But the holy trinity of bad CG — fire, blood, and vomit — is forever. Here, it’s bad CG fire that really stands out.
• Jade tries to scandalize her Umbrella handler by off handing that she “mostly just reads Zootopia porn,” while Wesker threatens an Umbrella programmer by saying that if he blacklists him, even Pornhub will shred his resume. Lots of characters in this Umbrella gated community thinking about porn! (Yeah, I guess that tracks.)
• So weird for someone in a Resident Evil universe to be vid chatting with someone who isn’t insisting, “you’re all going to die down here.”
• The addition of “New” still can’t make “Raccoon City” sound anything like what a real city would be called.