The year is 2036. The T-virus has run rampant over the globe, turning billions of people into fast zombies only technically alive, and mutating the world’s fauna in catastrophic ways. Jade Wesker (Ella Balinska), daughter of the infamous Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick), wanders the wasteland in search of defenses, a cure, and indications the virus is evolving. She is hunted by Umbrella at every turn because her blood holds secrets.
The year is also 2022. 14-year-old Jade (Tamara Smart), “twin” sister Billie (Siena Agudong; same dad, different egg donors, delivered at the same time by the same surrogate), and their father move into a South African Umbrella facility so he can continue work on Joy, Umbrella’s next big thing. It promises to cure depression, anxiety, OCD, and general unhappiness with no side effects or withdrawal symptoms. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t true. Jade and Billie discover some of their father’s and Umbrella’s secrets as they struggle to contain the disastrous results of one bad night.
Netflix’s Resident Evil’s 8-episode first season has large shoes to fill. First, there’s the original game series from Capcom that continues to release immensely popular AAA RE games. Then there’s the Milla Jovovich “Alice” series that made little sense after the first two but provided some great setpiece battles. And there’s last year’s Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, a decent action-horror flick that more closely resembles the original games. This newest interpretation mostly succeeds, buoyed up by a strong cast, black humor, and bonkers effects that look great so long as you don’t examine them too closely. But there are a number of caveats too big to be ignored.
We’ve all got that one friend who can’t make a good decision no matter what, right? Given a choice between A and B, they weigh their options, assess the pros and cons, and then put their head through a plate glass window. They learn nothing and react the same to the next crisis, no matter how many times it hurts them or others. If you don’t have a friend like this odds are good you are that friend. I often am! Despite that — or possibly because of it — I get frustrated when characters make too many dumb decisions in a row. It annoys me in both seasons of Locke & Key. And Jade Wesker makes Bode Locke look like Sun Tzu. In every situation but one (“push the damn button”) Jade makes the wrong call and someone dies. Every. Time. Often they die in groups, but sometimes it’s just a single stranger or friend who pays for her repeated mistakes. To be fair, primary responsibility for the T-virus outbreak lies with father Albert and Umbrella CEO Evelyn Marcus (Paola Nuñez), but young Jade and Billie set everything in motion. Even so, Jade’s a very sympathetic, engaging character for the first 6 episodes or so until one selfish, catastrophic decision leads to disaster for her friends and family. Jade’s momentary guilt for her actions doesn’t come with a moment of clarity; instead, she continues down the same disastrous path as always. I think it’s intended to demonstrate the similarities between the girls and their father, but it’s too much.
Balinska and Smart share primary duties in pushing the plot along, so it’s a good thing they’re both great at it. They look and sound similar enough to sell the illusion that they’re the same person, and they do a very good job. Young Billie, on the other hand, is more a plot device than a character. She exists to get bullied and act as a pawn between Wesker and Marcus and push Jade into bad decisions. Paola Nuñez isn’t given a ton to do apart from smirk and monologue, but it’s enough. Her obsession with getting Joy to market despite the numerous, often violent side effects doesn’t make a lot of sense. But then again the tragic rates of opioid addiction didn’t stop Perdue Pharma and the Sackler clan from marketing Oxycodone to an unsuspecting nation, so maybe it’s not that unbelievable. The final episode gives her the chance to show more range, and the look of horror and despair on her face is chilling. Lance Reddick does most of the heavy lifting, of course, particularly as we learn more about his past. It’s confusing and not terribly well-written, but he sells it. One scene puts Wesker in the long black coat and glasses of the game character and it’s a bit ridiculous. My wife and I couldn’t decide if he looked more like Neo or a bargain basement Blade. Otherwise, Reddick is as great as he’s always been, in everything from Lost and Fringe to Horizon: Zero Dawn. His calm, implacable demeanor is intimidating as hell when directed toward those who threaten his daughters.
Jade’s also not the only idiot; the cartoonishly evil Umbrella Corporation is also incompetent. Everything goes wrong because Umbrella, employer of innumerable goons, doesn’t put a single human security guard in its top-secret facility. Jade and Billie are able to break into the complex’s most secure labs using nothing more than their father’s cell phone. It’s absurd, particularly given that later episodes show the facility aswarm with guards. It’s obvious that the writers often went with the easiest plot device, no matter how ludicrous. The show also chooses odd moments to skimp on the action. A climactic battle that had my wife chanting “Zombie Croc!” like a fan of the world’s weirdest soccer team rushed through what should have been a gory masterpiece. It was the show’s best use of CGI and maybe they didn’t have the budget for more, but it was a letdown nonetheless.
Still, the action scenes are mostly well-cut and frightening, drawing on fears of the dark and claustrophobia as well as jump scares to provide thrills. The zombies act with a swarm-like intelligence that is deeply disturbing, the few times we see the effect. It’s closer to the games than the Paul W.S. Anderson movies but still not faithful enough to please gamers. Then again, what is? Someone’s always going to be unhappy with new interpretations of beloved material. It’s built into fandom. That said, the movie is well-lit for the most part. The white or pale pastel colors of the facility, company town, and the clothes most of the citizens wear are too pristine, a paper mask over the ugliness that is Umbrella. It pairs well with scenes drenched in blood, gore, and flashing red lights. The advertisements for Joy are appropriately creepy, especially the “uncanny valley” CGI and robotic toys intended to get parents to dose their kids. There’s a hint of cultlike behavior in the employees and families of the town that only the adolescents avoid by going all Lord of the Flies on new kids. There are cliques and bullies, and Billie’s shy manner draws them in like flies to honey. But characters appear and disappear without reasons. It seems in the first episode like Albert has a girlfriend; she never shows up again. Billie’s bully is an important antagonist who vanishes like she never existed.
Despite its many flaws, Resident Evil is a lot of fun. Cheesy, to be sure, and thin on plot. But the performances by Reddick, Balinska, Smart, and Nuñez are worth watching. The action is fun and the effects look decent. If you’re a fan of the movies or gory, occasionally funny horror, you’ll like this. It’s far better than my previous assignment. There’s no word yet on a second season, though the last episode’s twists, reveals, and cliffhangers are very open-ended, and it’s proven quite popular for Netflix so chances are good. I sincerely hope Jade gets her shit together in the off-season because I want to root for her character again. And bring back Zombie Croc! He deserves better.