Last year, Netflix decided that they were going to attempt to go viral in the literal sense by offering up their interpretation of the vaunted Resident Evil series.
Starring Ella Balinska, Tamara Smart and Lance Reddick, it takes place across two timelines. The first, an Umbrella community based out of South Africa, where a pair of daughters unravel the shady dealings of their father’s employer; and the second, 14 years in the future, where the zombie outbreak has plunged the world into peril.
The response was, in a word, unenthused. It shambled towards a critical rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the fan response even worse; it presently sports a 26% audience score. After one season, it was unceremoniously scrapped, hucked into the junk pile with a growing number of unsuccessful RE adaptations.
It will almost certainly fade into the background of this far-reaching franchise, but as a self-professed zombie enthusiast myself, I figured I would at least give it a cursory look, post-mortem. Please note: this article may have some light spoilers, and potentially some light spanking, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Unfortunately, I cannot say with any honesty that I went into this with an open mind. I’d seen and heard the reactions, surmising that based on the fan backlash, it didn’t operate well as a tribute to the source material, and based on the critics, it wasn’t even functional as a narrative piece.
So when we opened with the Jade Wesker (Balinska) of the future conducting zombie research with a rabbit that was all too calm, zombies that moved in unison like they were a particularly shabby dance troupe, and a mutated subterranean beast that I could only describe as a sand word (I hate ’em!), I could feel a tangible lump growing in my throat.
Was I really going to sit through eight episodes of this? Was this going to be one of those adaptations that was looser than a teenager’s first suit, where the license was more of a detriment than an honour? Why must God give his toughest battle to his strongest soldiers?
Then, we hit the reset button and returned to Jade’s youth, set in the modern day. This younger version of the character (Smart) alongside her sister Billie (Siena Agudong) are forced to uproot their lives when their father, Albert (Reddick) takes up a new position in New Raccoon City.
Here, we are presented with the Umbrella Corporation’s idea of the ideal town: pristine, white houses and the pristine, white lives that live within. It seemed an apt descriptor for what the villainous monolith would champion, completely sterile and uniform. Also, there was a guy wearing a Kyrie Irving jersey, so you know something evil is going on here.
The sisters are a lot to take in at first — I can’t imagine how many people tuned out the moment they heard the Zootopia porn line — and I bristled at the presentation of Albert Wesker that was taking place before me. An Umbrella scientist with a hidden agenda, who otherwise seems to be a conscientious family man who loves his daughters?
It was William Birkin to a tee, and I surmised that the only reason they had assigned the name of Wesker over Birkin was due to the familiarity with the former. It bothered me so much, it was actively taking away from Reddick’s stellar performance. In my notes, I feverishly typed, ‘I do not want sympathetic Wesker. Nothing wrong with Lance Reddick’s character, make him Birkin if you want. But this is NOT Albert Wesker. Lance is being wasted. All it takes is a name change and I’m satisfied. MAKE HIM FUCKING BIRKIN.’
We’ll circle back to this point later on, but I was fast growing convinced that this show was going to be Resident Evil in name only, otherwise pressing on with whatever it really wanted to be unimpeded.
Back and forth we would go between the past and the future, with 2036 defined by drab colours and paint-by-numbers zombie apocalypse tropes. Though it did present some interesting tidbits on the science of the infected, I just kept waiting for things to return to the more engaging scenes set in the past. How often in a zombie story do you find the pre-zombie content superior?
It wasn’t a great sign, but that’s where I sat, especially as we got to learn more and more of the Umbrella Corporation. Netflix’s Resident Evil really nails the brief on what Umbrella is supposed to be, with their cheesy advertisements for the upcoming product ‘joy’ and the introduction of CEO Evelyn Marcus (Paola Núñez). Evelyn is very much a moustache-twirling ‘mwahaha’ type villain, but the melodramatic history of RE fits her like a glove. Her closest comparison would be a more fleshed out version of RE5’s Excella, and that’s selling her short.
Núñez commands attention in every scene she is in, and the tense interactions between her and Reddick provide a view into the best this show has to offer. Additionally, Wesker begins to display a bit more nerve, including a spectacular conference between himself, Billie, the principal of her school, a bully and her father. Here and there, we get to see Wesker being Wesker.
The more I watched, the more I was becoming certain that this show could have actually succeeded without the future segments whatsoever. For every fascinating and true-to-form plot beat the past would integrate, it would then transition to an uninspired world of generic action set pieces and disposable side characters.
Balinska does an admirable job of carrying things, but she’s fighting an uphill battle as she simply doesn’t have anything worthwhile happening around her. Turlough Convery has an amusing turn as a sleazy Umbrella rep, but just as he begins to grow on you, his character arc is scrapped and things click along to the next destination.
Fundamentally, the future continuously fails to offer stakes of any significance. In one particularly egregious instance, a character we’ve just recently met courageously sacrifices themselves to buy time for their allies, only for the threat to press onwards without anything having changed. The next series of events played out exactly as they would have if this ‘fallen hero’ had tripped over their shoelace, or just not died at all. Scenes that are presented as exciting or emotional are neither, because beyond Jade at the centre of things, we aren’t given any reason to particularly care.
Despite this, those who stick with it will eventually be rewarded. Once Wesker’s big secret is unveiled, the justification for his personality and portrayal are finally made apparent. I did a complete 180 on my ‘this isn’t Wesker’ stance, and Reddick really shone in completely unforeseen ways. Again, I won’t spoil things, but the line that ends with ‘he wasn’t very nice‘ is absolute perfection.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with Netflix’s Resident Evil is that it doesn’t become very ‘Resident Evil’ until a point in which many would have already given up on it. Later on, we begin to see concepts that are entirely in line with this franchise, alongside gratifying references and easter eggs, with many of these being found in the future scenes — in other words, the parts that most desperately needed them.
By the conclusion of the season, I had very much enjoyed the past, and found an appreciation for the direction the future was headed. The way they conveyed elements of the zombies (the crux of any RE narrative, at least until 2005) was fantastic, integrating familiar motifs with unique wrinkles that didn’t feel at all out of place.
The tragedy is, whatever upward trajectory the show may have been on, we’ll never get the opportunity to see whether it continues to climb. Beyond being dropped by Netflix, the devastating passing of Lance Reddick leaves the show without a key component, secondary only to Ella Balinska herself.
As such, we’re left in a state of limbo, hinting towards series staples that we will never get to see play out. So Resident Evil on Netflix will just go down as a failure with untapped potential. It would perhaps be a stretch to say I liked it, though I absolutely liked things about it. The time I spent watching was not time wasted, and I will ponder what else could have been. At the very least, I would recommend Resident Evil fanatics give it a shot.
Also, this surely means that Billie Wesker joins Billy Coen as similarly named characters relegated to the RE archives as one-offs. I swear that name is cursed.