By: Webster Tilton
I want you to try a difficult thought experiment. Imagine the Hunger Games movies were aimed at an adult audience and contained a few original ideas and were good. I know, it’s a stretch. But if you were to take a Young Adult (YA) premise and ditch the requirements of the YA genre that render most of it inherently awful (painfully stupid villains, child characters who are exempt from suffering, and spoon feeding us the plot), you might really have something.
And this is what we get with Alice in Borderland, on Netflix. It’s a series that earns its M rating but doesn’t overdo it and manages to stay interesting right up through the end. My verdict up front is a solid recommendation. It falls short of perfect but not by much. Binge it at your earliest convenience.
Alice in Borderland takes place in present day Tokyo. And the very first thing you should do is switch the English voice dub back over to the original Japanese and turn on the subtitles. After you do that, sit back and enjoy a wild ride that includes all of the following:
1) Genuinely surprising plot twists
2) arcs for every major character
3) several original-ish ideas (or at least ideas that I’ve never seen done exactly that way before)
4) a depressingly accurate picture of what might happen to actual humans were they to find themselves in this situation
5) an arc for the show itself, by which I mean it moves beyond its original premise and expands outward in scope while also digging into the interesting backstories of the characters
6) high production value on every level (visuals, sets, sound, CGI, etc…) and
7) good acting.
I stop short of calling it great acting and this might not be entirely fair. I understand that the source material for this show is a graphic novel; a medium not known for its characters acting like real human beings. So, for all I know, the cast might be nailing it. Or, more likely, it’s just slightly hammy acting at times. Not nearly enough to be a problem, but enough to be noticeable and drag the show back from the precipice of greatness to the plateau of ‘very good’.
The general idea is that three Tokyo slackers are blowing off adulting because they’re having a bad day and find themselves somehow in an alternate Tokyo with, apparently, nobody else but themselves in it. That changes soon as they see a massive display on a building directing them toward a ‘game’. For lack of any better ideas, they follow directions and quickly find themselves playing for their lives.
The show repeats this a few times but never to the point of killing the gimmick. You get a good amount of these ‘games’ but not so much as to get repetitive or dull. The series shifts gears into the protagonists trying to figure out how they got where they are, who is running the games, and why all of this is happening. It’s excellent storytelling. The show uses each scene for multiple purposes. There’s an injury to one of the main characters early on that makes him a liability, but rather than simply using this to generate some cheap drama it becomes a vehicle for his character arc and turns him from a not very interesting character into a really compelling one, all while moving the larger plot forward with respect to figuring out the nature of the games.
Alternate Tokyo seems to have swept up the good along with the bad so the mix of character types is colorful and keeps things fresh. The show contains more than a bit of the blunt-fisted, endlessly repetitive message of The Walking Dead, namely that humans are far crueler and nastier to each other than thew world is to them. But unlike The Walking Dead with its endlessly bleak and depressing slog where there’s never any hope and things just always get worse; Alice in Borderland occasionally shows the characters making some real progress. By the end of the season, we actually know something about why this is all happening which makes all the brutal sacrifices meaningful. And yes, I’m aware that TWD leaves the zombies deliberately unexplained because the ‘walkers’ are just an excuse to study what happens to the characters. I just happen to think that that’s bad storytelling.
I binged this thing all Christmas Eve and for several hours after I regained consciousness on what was still technically Christmas Morning. It’s a one or two session job at most, because you simply won’t want to stop.