Review of a dystopian survival drama.
Squid Game is a Korean-language series on Netflix. Around 400 indebted people are lured into participation in a sequence of childhood-based games on a purpose built island. There is a multi-million Won prize for the eventual winner. As for the losers, they are killed by an army of identically clad mask-wearing minions, under the control of a front man who works on behalf of the shadowy game master. The stakes are high. Fiction? Yes. However, we live in a world where reality TV is constantly competing to outdo itself in shocking viewers. Billionaires like Jeffrey Epstein own islands where they brutally exploit young women. Workers in factories die from overwork or throw themselves off balconies and the poor everywhere are in debt and/or forced to sell their labour to bosses every day in order to live…Squid Game isn’t really such a leap to imagine.
One way in which the series draws us in, is that we are drip fed the information at the same time as the participants. We know no more than they do about what will happen, so discover it in real time. It’s a clever technique as it does not privilege us, but allows us to be there with the ‘players’. There are 6 events that comprise the deadly activities. The players are encouraged to form alliances prior to each event and will play in various combinations, but with no hint as to whether it will rely more on intellectual or physical prowess.
Along the way we are introduced to a cross section of types. These include an elderly man with early onset dementia, a token foreigner from Pakistan, a decent man, a gangster, a young defector from Nth Korea, the loner, the cynical woman etc. There is time in between events for us to gain some understanding of their backstories and for some genuine friendships to form, sometimes with tragic results. This allows the drama to breathe, so we develop further sympathy and emotionally invest in the outcome of the ‘game’, rather than relying on the cheap thrill of each activity itself. As for the latter, you may need a strong stomach to take the level of violence and blood on screen. To add depth and as a device to gain us greater understanding of what exists behind the scenes, there is a police spy who infiltrates the island as a guard. The narrative is tightly plotted, the acting is strong and the characters are believable, even in translation.
The sets used for the game space are intriguing. We see large rooms, some deliberately designed to simulate real life, but not enough so we would ever mistake them as such. The stairs that interconnect the rooms resemble a kind of pastel coloured Escher drawing. You suspect that the makers are exploiting a limited budget to make a few places look greater in number. If so, its cleverly done.
Squid Game has been criticised for having echoes of Hunger Games (2012), and the Japanese movies Battle Royale (2000) and As The Gods Will (2014). It is not a simple knock off of any of these, but has its own distinctive voice and can in no way be seen as plagarised. If it deserves any kind of criticism at all it is perhaps the choice of winner of the competition. Not wishing to spoil this, lets just say it seems unearned and a bit too pleasingly out of synch with the overall random philosophical harshness of the rest of the proceedings. There is also a twist at the end that isn’t loudly signposted but like leaving crumbs in a minotaur’s labyrinth, is possible to anticipate if you’re paying attention. You could also argue that there is a logical problem with the idea that 400 people could go missing every year, with nobody asking questions. Yet, that is actually the point. In today’s world, those who count for nothing become invisible and forgotten.
Squid Game is a well-made, bloody and accurate indictment of capitalism. Watch it now.