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Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness review: light on zombies, heavy on cynicism

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Remember the Riddle of the Sphinx? The impossible question asked by the mythological creature that guarded the city of Thebes, which would eat you if you answered incorrectly? The question, as everyone remembers from grade school, was a tough one: “What is the Resident Evil franchise about?” It’s a difficult one to answer. The Sphinx ate a lot of people.

Resident Evil isn’t really a consistent franchise. Hell, its individual games aren’t very consistent — even the good ones! But it’s a sprawling multimedia property, with video games, live-action movies, animated movies, and a forthcoming live-action series to its name, so there must be something there tying it all together, right? And yet it seems to succeed directly because of its incohesion. This is the odd thing about Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, the unassuming animated miniseries now streaming on Netflix: If you watch it closely enough, it presents one possible answer to the question of what makes a Resident Evil story. Watching it closely isn’t easy, though — even though it only spans four mercifully brief half-hour episodes.

Written and directed by Eiichirō Hasumi, with Shogo Moto co-writing the script, Infinite Darkness is a computer-animated miniseries that follows government agent Leon S. Kennedy after a quickly contained zombie outbreak in the White House escalates into a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China. How the former relates to the latter forms the spine of Infinite Darkness’ plot, but the answers are only compelling for hardcore Resident Evil fans. Otherwise, it’s incomprehensible.

For example: Viewers are expected to know from the outset that Infinite Darkness takes place between the video games Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5. They’re also expected to generally be familiar with the events of Resident Evil 2. Otherwise, they won’t know anything about the show’s other main character, Claire Redfield, and how she connects to Leon. (They survived a zombie apocalypse in the small town of Raccoon City together.) Leon also turns up in a trilogy of middling animated movies available to buy or rent on-demand — subtitled Degeneration, Damnation, and Vendetta — but Infinite Darkness takes place in a blip on the timeline where those stories don’t really matter. Again, this seems like a project solely for committed fans, the kind of people who would most want to see a connection to those previous stories and the latest one. That connection is close to nonexistent. Infinite Darkness is doing its own thing.

Unfortunately, that thing isn’t terribly compelling, given all the study prep Infinite Darkness expects viewers to do. On paper, the miniseries presents an interesting twist on the Resident Evil formula: It chooses to treat the series’ ubiquitous zombies almost as an afterthought, and instead focuses on the people who create them. This has always been a running thread in Resident Evil games — in the series’ fiction, zombies and other monsters are almost always a byproduct of pharmaceutical companies’ attempts to create a new form of weapon. Dubbed “bio-organic weapons,” the hordes of monsters the player fights in these games are usually the collateral damage in an attempt to create a more perfect and destructive monster, which is usually confronted in the finale.

This is the strongest connective thread uniting all of the Resident Evil games and spinoff media, which vary wildly in tone and quality: They are all, in some way, about the military-industrial complex, and how all flesh is just grist for the mill when it comes to making weapons of war. The world of Resident Evil is one where bullets, bombs, and missiles are no longer enough to satisfy the greed of war profiteers, new horrors must be introduced, and everyone suffers the consequences.

Claire Redfield sits behind a laptop with some java in the Netflix animated miniseries Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness

Image: Netflix

While Infinite Darkness has plenty of action, it’s more of a political drama than anything else. Even though it’s set in 2006, there are echoes of present-day tensions between the United States and China, and the plot centers on the fictional nation of Panemstan, embroiled in a civil war that the other two countries have an interest in. By the end, almost everyone involved — including Leon — has their hands sullied in some way, as taking on institutional rot isn’t nearly as clean as putting down a zombie.

It must be stressed that Infinite Darkness conveys all of this with an astonishing clumsiness. The animation quality varies on a shot-by-shot basis, with the occasional fight scene or closeup rendered in impressive detail, and most other scenes occupied by figures best described as lively mannequins. The English voice acting is blunt, episodes begin and end arbitrarily (it feels exactly like a movie Netflix chopped up into a series), and the script is resolutely dull. On some level, it’s great to see such a focused attempt to foreground the running themes of the Resident Evil series. But if this is how it’s going to be done, the usual thematic confusion is a better choice.

Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness is now streaming on Netflix.

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