REVIEW: ‘Alice in Borderland’ is Playing Games of Life and Death

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Alice in Borderland

Content Warning: Alice in Borderland deals with themes of suicide, sexual assault, and severe psychological trauma. 

Alice in Borderland is a psychological suspense thriller Netflix original series based on the manga by Haro Aso. Arisu, Karube, and Chota are three friends who have each seen better days. Struggles at work and home are leaving them feeling a bit listless in life. Then, while trying to avoid the police, the three friends hide themselves in a public bathroom. When they emerge they will find the Tokyo they knew is gone. And what remains will do everything it can to kill them.

How far will people go to stay alive? What burdens are they willing to heap upon body, mind, and soul to cling to this fragile existence? At what point does the cost build to a point where one will no longer be willing to pay the price a situation demands. What then? Will they resign themselves to the cruel hands of fate? Or will the human spirit prove itself powerful enough to not only find a way out, but forge one if need be.

Alice in Borderland is first and foremost a brutal watch. When Arisu, Karube, and Chota step into a new Tokyo what they will find is a world drenched in blood, tears, and sacrificed lives. As they quickly discover in their new Tokyo, which is all but devoid of life, the only things operational in the city are randomly determined points that come to life at night and host “the games.” When one joins a game, they are faced with one of a nearly endless array of challenges. Some are team-based, some test the physical fortitude of the contestants, while others are designed simply to force as cruel an ending onto the winners as humanly possible. The only thing all the games have in common is that whoever loses the game will also lose their life.

After each game, the winners get an extension on their “visa.” As long as their visas are good they get to live. If their visa expires, a laser beam descends from the sky, burning a hole through their head. So, in order to keep living, the players must keep playing.

This constant life or death struggle takes a huge toll on the players. The toll is one of the primary focuses of Alice in Borderland’s narrrative. As the series progresses, we see the many characters we meet struggle with the choices they are forced to make. Some run into denial, others endlessly justify their action, while others still try to focus on loved ones they hope to see again to shoulder the weight of all the death that piles upon them. Needless to say, it’s not a happy show.

Despite just how much violence, death, and emotional anguish the characters are dragged through, it never really felt gratuitous to me. While there are some bloody kills, nothing ever goes to the point of gore porn, and the psychological elements also feel like they are there to serve a purpose, as opposed to just make people suffer. This is especially true of the main charater Arisu.

As the genius protagonist of Alice in Borderland he finds himself with a lot of burdens very quickly. Many of the people around him quickly begin to depend on him to find a way out of every puzzle. And while he is brilliant, he can’t save them all. These losses take Arisu to some extremely dark places. But it is in the darkest moments that I think the series proves that it isn’t just doing these awful things to shock its viewers. Rather, it shows how we can pull through so much. How humanity is more than the sum of its parts. That we can overcome anything if we can all just work together.

Aside from Arisu, the entire cast is filled with memorable characters. Whether they fall on the side of the angels, the demons, or somewhere in between, every character brings something unique to the story. These unique, often charming, often sadistic, characters each left an impression on me.

Along with solid characters, the show also does a great job with it’s it’s technical aspects like cinematography and sound. The tense action moments are heightened greatly through some excellent camera placement, as well as a mastery of sound. This is applied in both how it is utilized and when to keep it completely absent. There is a scene early on in Alice in Borderland that has absolutely no sound. While the moment couldn’t be more than a minute, it felt like an oppressiveness that would go on forever. And I mean that in the best possible way.

When all is said and done, Alice in Borderland is an excellently delivered story. It is filled with memorable characters and gut-wrenching moments. And while I truly hope Netflix delivers a second season, this show may be too much for some viewers. But, if you can handle the pain the show forces you to experience, it is well worth the watch.

Alice in Borderland is streaming now on Netflix.


Alice in Borderland
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Alice in Borderland is an excellently delivered story. It is filled with memorable characters and gut-wrenching moments. And while I truly hope Netflix delivers a second season, this show may be too much for some viewers. But, if you can handle the pain the show forces you to experience, it is well worth the watch.