Reviews

SQUID GAME (Netflix series, Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

All right, I’m going to push the envelope a little bit here: talking about Squid Game, the Netflix series that became an instant success and is the focus of very animated discussions all over the web, might sound a bit “out there” for SciFi Month, but I reasoned that its deeply dystopian overtones (think Hunger Games on steroids) and some details from its premise might make it an intriguing candidate. So here I am…

Just in case you have not heard about Squid Game, it’s a story set in South Korea (where it was produced) and deals with the harrowing experiences of a group of people recruited to participate in a series of games whose winner will take home a huge jackpot. The players are all individuals with great financial problems: there is the addicted gambler weighted by debts he cannot pay and living on the shoulders of his old, ailing mother; the promising young market trader who fell into the embezzlement trap; the runaway from North Korea desperate to bring the rest of her family over; the Pakistani immigrant struggling to make ends meet because his employer has not paid wages for some time; the petty criminal lord who skimmed too much from his bosses, and so on. And also a few others animated by different drives, like the old man who’s dying of cancer and is unwilling to simply wait for the end to come.

What these players don’t know, is that they will be taken to an unknown location (we learn later it’s a remote island) and that losing any one of the six scheduled games will result in physical elimination: yes, they will be killed without mercy, which puts a horrifying spin on the competition, made to look even more appalling when, after the shocking first elimination, many are willing to go away and allowed to do so, but not before being shown the amount of money already accrued. The expression on many faces at that point, the sheer element of assessment and desperate greed on them as they ponder these terrible odds, chilled me even more than the actual scene of the mass killing in the first game.

And what’s worse is that as the episodes move forward, so does the cruelty of the games which force the players to actually kill their opponents or drive them to their death, pitching them one against the other despite the alliances and friendships that were tentatively forming among the various groups. Not to mention that there is a number of rich and bored individuals who are watching the “show” and betting on the players’ survival as if they were racehorses, which adds a further layer of grotesque unreality to an already heavy mix.

Given this premise you might wonder about the huge success that Squid Game is enjoying, and I wondered myself, coming to the conclusion that it must be because of the human factor involved, of the psychological study offered by these people placed like rats in a maze and observed (both by the fictional spectators and by the ones behind the screen) for their reactions to the extreme situations they are facing.  The message seems to be that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in life, that circumstances can turn even the friendliest, most gregarious person into a merciless killer, and that after a while the money becomes only a vague goal, eclipsed by the far simpler need for survival: in the end, the winner of the competition has been so changed by the experience that money loses all its attraction and remains unspent in the account where it was deposited.

There are also some elements that made me compare Squid Game to another darkly dystopian series, Black Mirror, where the otherworldly coexisted with the grotesque: the backstage of the games’ fields is made to look like a psychedelic dreamscape with its bright, highly saturated colors and mazes of stairs and passageways through which the players are led – truly like sheep to the abattoir – by masked and armed attendants, while classical music (mostly Strauss’ Blue Danube) plays in the background. 

Another unsettling visual is that of the coffins in which the losers are incinerated, shaped like black boxes tied with an incongruous pink bow. The game themselves are versions of children games, like tug-of-war, marbles or that game (I don’t know its name in English) where one player turns its back to the group who can advance until the count of three and must stop at three as the first player turns around, with penalty inflicted on those still moving. It’s the dichotomy between the original innocence of these games and their deadly consequences in the series that offers the real horror here, compounded by the realization that the players joined the game to escape from the adversities of their lives, only to be met with a deadly struggle that makes those adversities look like a picnic by comparison.

In the end, despite the heavy atmosphere and the cringe-worthy situations depicted in each episode, I can say that I appreciated Squid Game – not enjoyed, of course, because using that word feels like blasphemy, but I was hooked from start to finish and it made me think a great deal about the human mind and soul, what drives us and the extremes we can reach when facing drastic, life-threatening circumstances. And any story that can make me think is always a good find…

My Rating:

ARTWORK by Liu Zishan from 123RF.com

25 thoughts on “SQUID GAME (Netflix series, Season 1) – #SciFiMonth

  1. I’m thinking about watching it, and yours is another voice that it’s worth seeing… but harsh, as most Korean movies/TV seems to be (does it say sth about the society? if I ever get a chance to visit, should I risk it ;)?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The show does indeed offer a very bleak commentary on Korean society and the profound differences between social strata – or so I gathered when looking for more information about the background – but I think it’s also an interesting learning exercise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. People watch this for the same exact reason those fake rich people in the show watched. To get the thrill of the kill without any consequences or possible harm to themselves.

    What actually disturbs me though is peoples’ reactions. I have a coworker who is a young guy and his reaction is that the show is “cool”. No thought about what exposing himself to such violence can do, nothing but “it’s so cool!” I don’t have a problem with violence (I like Neal Asher after all and love the John Wick franchise) but there’s something different about this. I think some of it is that it is so possible. No one watching John Wick could think they could realistically do all of that. But this?

    Sorry. I don’t mean to rain on your parade.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No rain, Bookstooge, and there was no parade to speak of: shows like this one force people to *think* and maybe learn something about different kinds of society, which for me somehow balances out the bleakness and the horror of the situation. “Cool” is really not the word I would use for this story: it’s shocking and inhuman and monstrous, but at the same time it allows for a deeper look into people’s souls and the extremes they are willing to go to reach a given goal. No edifying, not at all, but thought-provoking, and that’s what made it worthwhile, even if I spent most of the time cringing …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And if your reaction was what I was hearing from others, I probably wouldn’t be reacting the way I am. But as you say, “cool” isn’t.

        And that is ALL I hear/read when dealing with this show.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. LOL I watched the first episode with my kid and I know I’m in the minority but I just didn’t get the hype. The violence seemed to be the only hook but it was so over the top it was more goofy than anything, and paired with the bad acting I had to keep myself from bursting into laughter so my daughter wouldn’t get mad at me. If she wants to keep watching, I guess I will but haha, I guess this train’s not really for me 🙂

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    1. The over-the-top acting (or at least what I perceived to be over-the-top, since this is my first Korean production) was something I struggled to deal with, since it’s parsecs away from what I consider acceptable acting technique 😀 and the violence, particularly when it erupted so unexpectedly in that first episode, would have been enough to make me run for the hills, but it was those facial expressions I mentioned, the ones people had on their faces while they were balancing the deadly risks against the potential gain that made me stay and witness the lengths people were ready to go to see it through.
      That said, I don’t think I will remain on-board for the already-in-production second season…

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  4. Your comparison of the show to “The Hunger Games” is fitting, and I would add Stephen King’s novel “The Long Walk.” The idea of signing up for a competition rather than be forced into it. But the competitors in “The Long Walk” know they will be shot if they walk slower than a certain speed. Like that novel, “The Squid Game” gave food for thought about the lengths that people would go through to get a big prize. True, the competitors didn’t know the violence of the games in the beginning, but the survivors chose to come back to the games with that knowledge. I thought of gambling addiction as I watched, and of people spending a lot of money on playing the lottery. Of course, those people aren’t killed if they lose at blackjack and the lottery — but a desperation is there. Maybe some watchers of “The Squid Game” enjoyed the “thrill” of violence, but I thought the violence showed the extreme of what the competitors faced. The night when the competitors fought each other was fascinating and deeply troubling — what some of them would do to get closer to winning the game. However, it also showed the goodness in some competitors to not lower to the level of causing violence themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your mention of gambling addiction is spot on, considering that a number of players (including the main character) were indeed addicts who sacrificed everything (family. loved ones, personal integrity, and so on) to be able to play another game, to challenge fate once more. Even those who were not compulsive gamblers had tempted fate and the odds in different ways (by embezzling, by running away with only the clothes on their backs, by defying the wrath of mob bosses) so I guess they were all already prone to take chances, besides being driven by necessity. The night fight you mentioned was another way of showing how the players were handled like rats in a maze, and those flashes of integrity some showed were the only rays of hope I could perceive in such a bleak scenario….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm… I’ve heard of it, of course, but not enough before this to know what it was about, only that it was popular. I’m not sure if it’s something I’d appreciate anymore given I’ve already seen several movies/stories that sound somewhat similar in theme. I’m thinking back to a Japanese film called Battle Royale where a group of students were taken (by the corrupt government) to a remote island and coerced to kill each other. It was very controversial when it came out (2000) but also very popular and seems to have some similar themes to this. And then there was The Running Man movie in 1987 about convicts given the chance to walk free if they could survive a game where others tried to kill them. It’s interesting that Dave mentioned The Long Walk by Stephen King, as The Running Man (the original story the movie was based on) is also by him, though published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. I’m glad to see the series worked for you and you appreciated it. It’s possible I may one day try it. I have enjoyed many of the Korean movies/shows I’ve watched.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my first Korean production and I have to admit it took me a while to get used to the acting which seemed a bit exaggerated in some instances – and which led me to wonder if it was only used in this particular instance or if it’s a common trait in Korean filmography. I was aware of the existence of Battle Royale because it was often compared to Hunger Games and I’ve heard of both The Running Man and King’s original story: now that two of my fellow bloggers have mentioned it I need to read it, just as much for comparison as for reading one of the King works I missed so far. I can always trust other readers to fatten up my TBR… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t recall most of the Korean movies I’ve seen having exaggerated acting. I’ve not watched a lot of Korean TV yet so I’m not sure if it’s typically overacted. So it may be just this show. And it’s also possible my memory of it all is a bit off and I’m just used to it. 🙂 I watched the first Hunger Games movie and didn’t care much for it, possibly because it seemed far too similar to Battle Royale. But it’s also been a very long time since I watched Battle Royale. It’s entirely possible if I rewatched that now I wouldn’t care for it. As it is, I don’t remember it being anything I felt any desire to rewatch. If you’re ever curious about Korean movies and have time for it maybe try Parasite. That’s a somewhat recent one I very much enjoyed, though not everyone I talked to did. And regarding Stephen King, I’ve always wanted to read his Bachman books, but still haven’t. They’re just sitting there on a bookshelf taunting me. I have lots of books that regularly taunt me. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, well, the unread books either taunting us or making sad puppy eyes at us from the shelf are a very common occurrence for us compulsive readers… 😉
          The movie Parasite received a great deal of acclaim but I thought it might be a bit “weird” for my tastes: now that I have broken the “Korean barrier” I might give it a look just to have another work to compare with this series, even though I’m aware we’re talking about two quite different products. Still, I’m curious about the acting performance and would like to know more…

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  6. Not sure about the second series but this one was crazily addictive. Very violent and `i probably wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, in fact I can see where all the current controversy comes from – but I was hooked.
    Lynn 😀

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    1. “Crazily addictive” is the perfect description for the way one gets involved in this story, despite the violence and the gratuitous cruelty: more than once I found myself thinking about the proverbial train wreck one is unable to avert one’s eyes from… In this respect the show’s creators were quite effective!

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  7. It definitely makes you think! I had some issues with the realism aspect- would people REALLY go for this no matter how bad their lives were? I suspect no (or at least hope no) in many cases, although I’m sure some few would take the chance. But it was very compelling for sure.

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    1. It’s exactly the high improbability of some aspects of the story that encouraged me to place this review within the parameters SciFi Month 🙂 While watching I kept thinking that I would have run for the hills at high speed after that first game, and never turned back!
      Still, it was indeed compelling…

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  8. I am glad you appreciated this drama. And even if I am a bit more divided toward it, I tend to agree with you about all you said. It really was an interesting, evn if highly depressing, social experiment, and the dichotomy is the key element to the horror of it. What did not really go well for me was that I felt like the series was for one part, I think the first six episodes, mostly “Korean”, while the second part was mostly “American” in tropes and structure. And I am not the biggest fan of the ending, even if I can’t say that it was bad. All things considered I watched it with interest and my opinion is verging on the “positive” side, but I think it could have been something better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ending was not totally convincing for me as well, even though it did not spoil my overall rating: in my opinion it could have ended better with the revelation of the identity of the “mastermind” behind it all, underscoring the cruel futility of the game itself, but I understand they wanted to leave a door open for the sequel that is indeed in the works. Although I don’t believe I will be watching that…

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