Resident Evil–Cool sci-fi, clones, kaiju, and zombie horror converge in Netflix series

Review by C.J. Bunce

In the world of zombie stories, Resident Evil has more than established itself as the big winner.  Box office billions aside, after this year’s better than expected, big-budget fun zombie flick Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (reviewed here) and last year’s anime Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, the most successful video game tie-in franchise ever only gets better.  Netflix’s eight-part Resident Evil live-action television series isn’t perfect, but fans aren’t really looking for perfect.  What you get is the ultimate genre-bending mash-up.  Sure, you’d expect the sci-fi horror, but full-fledged kaiju monster action?  Edgy-Terminator level cautionary themes?  Orphan Black-inspired clones?  Evil Dead-level action and fun?  Skip the drama of The Walking Dead–this is the kind of action, acting, and storytelling game fans really want.  And you don’t even need to care about the zombie genre to dig it.

The action is nonstop for the first three episodes, introducing two stories: one is a coming-of-age family tale of a man and two daughters in a very aware post-COVID 2022 in the franchise’s replacement Raccoon City, the new gated community home of mistake- and risk-prone pharma company Umbrella Corp.; and the second following one of the daughters as a survivor in her late twenties, trying to save elements of the past in future England in a Mad Max dystopia, the world Umbrella leaves behind years later.  Perfectly shifting between now and the future, the most compelling thread follows the two leads as teenage students in the present.

If you want to learn how to make a female-centric action blockbuster with the kind of choreographed battles we saw in Atomic Blonde, this is it.  The breakout star of the show is young Billie, played by Hawaiian actress Siena Agudong (F9: The Fast Saga, Hawaii Five-O) (an actual 16-year-old playing a teenager instead of the typical casting of a twenty-something for the part!).  She gets the most interesting and twisty character arc–think Reileen Kawahara in Altered Carbon.  Viewers meet her as a friendly, likable girl who gets menaced at school by her peers–someone you can’t help but root for.  But the prime storyline follows sister Jade, played in the present by Tamara Smart (Artemis Fowl, A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting), she defends her sister and is quick to resort to violence and be the screw-up of the family, which also makes her better prepared to be the story’s survivor of the future, played by Ella Balinska (Charlie’s Angels).

The monster/zombie/video game action kicks in in the fourth episode with gore and shoot ’em up choreography courtesy of the girls’ father, played by ubiquitous TV actor Lance Reddick in an Orphan Black-inspired, multiple role performance.  Chapter 5 has some great story payoffs, and chapter 6 is a turning point–the kind of choice in story elements you’d normally see in the second season of a genre series.  Then there’s the kaiju.  You’ll just have to watch and see, but expect a finale like The Book of Boba Fett’s.  

Resident Evil is very good at villainy, and a nomination for the year’s best belongs to Paola Núñez′s Umbrella Corp. CEO Evelyn Marcus, who certainly puts the “evil” in Evelyn.  She is ruthless and multi-faceted, the kind of character we loved to hate like Hannah Ware’s Gordon Gecko-ish CEO and murderer Rebecca in the Netflix series The OneKeep an eye out for Ayusha Chhabra as Amrita, an actress who seems to be waiting for her breakout role, recently appearing as Pel on Star Trek Picard.

The series’ obvious head-to-head competition is Paramount Plus’s video game tie-in series Halo, which was good, but Resident Evil is more compelling with more to offer.  Pacing, situations, and some characters indicate some of the story might have been inspired by George A. Romero’s The Living Dead novel reviewed here.  It’s not comedy–not silly fun–or I’d compare it to the truly brilliant Shaun of the Dead or iZombie or even Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead.  But there’s room for all kinds of zombie stories, right?

Put aside the bumpy final two episodes, which are overly ambitious efforts to both wind up a season in case the studio didn’t greenlight a second and throw everything at the viewer the writers could think of.  It’s just too much of a good thing and too many denouements.  But those first six episodes are the stuff of great sci-fi TV.  In parts it’s as good as Netflix’s Altered Carbon and Prime Video’s The Man in the High Castle, which made our Top 25 of the past decade here at borg, although, as the zombie genre goes, it’s not quite up to the level of that sharp first season of the South Korean historical fiction series Kingdom (also on Netflix).

Jade is tough, like Ash’s daughter in Evil Dead Billie is the friendlier, more likeable sister, who you want to succeed.  She’s the rule follower, the good kid who gets infected in her dad’s lab at Umbrella Corp, by the franchise’s infamous T virus.  That’s the same virus made by Umbrella for the U.S. government, the same that can make Evelyn Marcus’s proposed trillion dollar pharmaceutical Joy the drug choice of tomorrow (when used in moderation).  Echoes of this year’s Chris Hemsworth Netflix sci-fi thriller Spiderhead?  Definitely.  A brilliantly executed set of surprises turns the tables on who the story is about and even what the story is about.

A fantastic international slate of actors and good action make the series a worthy addition to the franchise, which Milla Jovovich dominated for so long as badass superheroine Alice, from 2002’s first film through five sequels–Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)–the 21st century version of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner.  The tie-in to the Japanese survival/horror-themed video game Biohazard (renamed for the U.S. market) is a staple in the action movie genre–not only one of the world’s bestselling game series since arriving in 1996, it’s the world’s most successful video game tie-in movie franchise ever.

In short, the series is a blast–a great summer retreat.  A must for fans of action movies, zombies, sci-fi, the teen coming-of-age genre, and yes, even kaiju monster mayhem, a solid first season of Resident Evil the series is now streaming on Netflix.

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