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The Never-ending Quest to Adapt ‘Resident Evil’

The latest take on the horror franchise—this time a series on Netflix—may explore familiar territory, but it’s a respectable genre effort nonetheless

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a new Resident Evil project has dropped. This time, Netflix has created a live-action series based on the Resident Evil video games that is also called, simply, Resident Evil. The TV adaptation shouldn’t be mistaken for the six-part film franchise from shlock god Paul W.S. Anderson—the first of which was also titled Resident Evil. As for the show’s first episode, “Welcome to New Raccoon City,” which jumps between two timelines in 2022 and 2036, it’s worth stressing that it bears no relation to Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, the 2021 big-screen reboot that takes place in 1998. (I mean, for starters, the movie is set in Raccoon City, not New Raccoon City.) It’s important to get this all out of the way because when it comes to the Resident Evil franchise, it can often feel like history is repeating itself.

There’s an almost Sisyphean quality to the sheer volume of Resident Evil adaptations that have made their way to the screen. The projects are continually greenlit because they happen to make a good amount of money—Anderson’s series collectively grossed over a billion dollars—but at the same time, there’s a prevailing sense that none of them have cracked the code. Anderson’s films, while enjoyable exercises in vulgar auteurism, weren’t connected to the video games as much as it used them as a launching pad. (I’ll always go to bat for Anderson’s work, but given that every one of his movies have a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it remains an uphill battle.) Conversely, Welcome to Raccoon City tried so hard to recreate the games, the movie received backhanded compliments that it seemed fan-made.

The tension over how faithfully a video game adaptation should follow its source material is perhaps why they don’t have a stellar track record in Hollywood. You can’t please everyone. But while video games continue to languish when turned into movies, they’ve fared much better on the small screen. (Aside from Stranger Things, one of Netflix’s most successful original series is The Witcher.) With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to give Resident Evil the TV treatment. Despite the films having a mixed reception, their success at the box office highlights their broad appeal. A streamer like Netflix could do far worse than catering to a built-in—if somewhat fickle—fan base.

Netflix’s Resident Evil follows two new characters created for the series: Jade and Billie Wesker. In the 2022 timeline, Jade and Billie are teenagers who move with their father, Albert Wesker, to New Raccoon City, a company town in South Africa formed by the mysterious Umbrella Corporation. (Considering Albert’s history in the games as an over-the-top villain, it’s a bit jarring to see him introduced as a dad managing two angsty teens.) Meanwhile, we also touch base with a grown-up Jade in 2036, when the planet has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland littered with zombies, or “zeroes” as they’re called by Earth’s survivors. Obviously, the Wesker family is the connective tissue between the two timelines—the thrill is discovering how the events in 2022 lead to the collapse of civilization, and why Billie and Albert aren’t anywhere to be seen in 2036.

Between these time periods, Resident Evil is essentially two shows in one. The earlier timeline is more of a slow-burn, underlining the sinister nature of Umbrella: the sleek-yet-soulless sheen of New Raccoon City feels like what would happen if Amazon or Facebook took over an entire community. (Naturally, there are both surveillance cameras everywhere and kombucha available on tap.) Albert is working on a drug called “Joy” for Umbrella that has the potential to eradicate anxiety and depression—the only problem is that it could lead to some unpleasant (read: zombie-like) side effects. Of course, all Umbrella cares about is that Joy would revive (no pun intended) the company’s reputation after the old Raccoon City was destroyed in an on-site accident, or so they want the public to believe. (If you have even the faintest idea of what Umbrella is like in the video games, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the company is withholding information about its experiments.)

But while the New Raccoon City timeline has the vibe of a corporate thriller, the events of 2036 will be quite familiar to longtime devotees of on-screen zombie mayhem. Every check-in with adult Jade sees her fending off hordes of the undead and other monstrosities mutated by the T-virus, including the franchise’s infamously creepy Lickers. In fact, the character’s progression is not unlike a video game: the threats become bigger and badder, and there’s a grimly comical pattern of expendable characters joining up with Jade before being devoured alive or ripped into pieces. It’s not going to satisfy the same part of your brain intrigued by a shady company’s pharmaceutical testing, but watching Jade decapitate a zombie with a chainsaw has its own gnarly charms.

The balancing act between these timelines isn’t seamless, but Resident Evil offers the best of both worlds: the intriguing genesis of a zombie outbreak in an eerily sterilized company town, and the action-packed global ramifications that come from it. Throw in some grisly creature designs and serviceable special effects, and it’s a recipe for a respectable genre effort. But even before the show’s release, Resident Evil couldn’t completely satisfy parts of the fandom, which didn’t approve of the series straying so far from the source material, or for changing Wesker’s race. (I, for one, agree with showrunner Andrew Dabb’s reasoning: If Lance Reddick wants to play an iconic villain, you let the guy do it.)

At this point, it’s become inevitable that Resident Evil fans will have gripes about how their beloved source material is handled, but that doesn’t mean each adaptation has failed. (Again, the movies have made a buttload of money.) Frankly, the best thing about the franchise’s many on-screen incarnations is that they find new avenues while exploring familiar territory: Anderson’s films began with a handful of characters encountering zombies before scaling up to an outbreak taking over an entire city and, eventually, the rest of the world. (Along the way, Milla Jovovich’s protagonist Alice basically transformed into a superhero.) Even the much-maligned Welcome to Raccoon City from underrated B-movie director Johannes Roberts had its moments of kitschy artistry, including a flaming zombie walking into a police station to the tune of an era-appropriate pop song.

In the grand scheme of zombie-led franchises, Resident Evil has taken more creative swings over the years than contemporaries like The Walking Dead. (If you can believe it, the AMC drama is in the middle of its eleventh and final season.) For fans who’ve felt previous Resident Evil adaptations haven’t lived up to expectations, the Netflix series probably won’t buck the trend. But when removed from the experience of the video games, Resident Evil has continued to endure as knowingly trashy fun that isn’t as mindless as the creatures that inhabit it.