Forget "The Stand" – "Alice in Borderland" is the wild dystopian ride we've been waiting for
Alice in the Frontier
Alice on the Frontier Netflix
This article originally appeared here on Salon.com
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Dystopia became our reality in 2020 and it doesn't feel like so many movies and TV shows are being predicted. Zombies didn't overrun our cities. In relative terms, wandering looters were in short supply. A plague in the air is the source of our suffering, but the atmosphere is otherwise breathable. Most of time.
Those lucky enough to do this at home watch the nation fall apart on television screens and marvel at how slowly time moves when it all breaks. This is part of the reason why depictions of the COVID age left us wanting. Shows intended to reflect our new Zoom existence - "Connect", "Love in the Coronavirus Era", "Social Distance" - came and nobody cared.
Films like "Outbreak" and "World War Z" became increasingly popular at the beginning of the pandemic, but more than half a year later and with no end to the quarantine in sight, Amazon was unable to successfully exploit our fear of "Utopia". "A show in the midst of a pandemic. AMC's long-running post-apocalypse soap," The Walking Dead, "returned at the end of the season, scoring the lowest ratings ever.
And a week ago, CBS All Access made its highly anticipated, star-studded updated version of "The Stand" a resounding "meh".
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Obviously, we'd rather turn off memories of how the world as we know it is falling apart. On the other hand, it may be about how these stories filter our current reality. In the "distanced" series, the audience's zoom fatigue was not taken into account. "Utopia" is too chaotic and confused. Whether "The Stand" is a hit or a miss depends heavily on a viewer's depth of love for all or most things, Stephen King, but its central conflict between light and darkness plays out as mundane on screen.
So I was utterly surprised to be attracted to "Alice in Borderland," Netflix's recently released eight-episode suspense thriller directed by Shinsuke Sato and based on a manga series. That description automatically eliminates a large part of America from its potential audience. For some reason, we'd rather not bother with subtitles unless they're on a show featuring Klingons, Jawas, dragons, barbarians, or Danish detectives.
To allow for a head-to-head comparison with "The Stand," "Alice in Borderland" deals with the mechanics of introducing its characters more effectively and doesn't bother the audience by relying heavily on flashbacks. The glimpses of his characters' past are only presented to contextualize their action in the present. Knowing what kind of people they were before they plunged into their dystopia is important, but unlike "The Stand," the "Before" profiles aren't extensive enough to affect the progression of the story.
On the flip side, "The Stand" is a gentler story that says a lot about the vicious nature of "Alice on the Frontier" and may further limit its appeal.
Unless I should say you're a fan of the cult classic "Battle Royale" from the year 2000, the story of a busload of schoolchildren who are knocked out and wake up on an island. At this point they will be legally informed that they will have to hunt and kill each other until only one of them is left. This Netflix show gives clues as to what a series adaptation of this movie might look like, albeit one influenced by "Ready Player One" and "Lost".
"Alice in Borderland" doesn't flow like a simple pop culture mashup or explicitly act like an eight hour blast of action at the end of the days. The carnage is excessive, yes. Many rooms and buildings explode and the bullets fly free. Neither is it a culture-changing epic; The script makes the same stupid missteps as it does on other shows. (I was particularly irritated by a scene in which sexual violence was threatened against a female main character to highlight Arisus impotence. Surely Sato saw "Game of Thrones", right?)
"Alice in the Border" also tries to say something about the conditions under which a society loses its humanity, and finally asks its protagonists and the audience by proxy how they want to live once they have made it through the nightmares that they had to survive.
That is the question for Arisu, Alice (Kento Yamazaki) from this story and an avid gamer who refuses to get a job or contribute to society in any meaningful way. "If only we could reset reality," sighs Arisu after his father kicked him out. At the same time, his friends Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota (Yuki Morinaga) suffer misfortune themselves. They meet, blow off steam and finally run into a toilet in the train station.
When they show up, the city streets are inexplicably empty and without electricity. Even their phones don't work. Then suddenly a digital sign appears on the side of a nearby skyscraper, which leads them to their first game in which they learn quickly by doing something and barely survive.
That Arisu doesn't believe in his own cleverness and worth is central to the first few episodes, until circumstances force him to find meaning in this violent world. To get out of this world alive, he has to use his mind.
Game types correspond to playing card suits: spades are physical competitions. Clubs require teamwork. Diamonds prefer intelligent, logical players. Hearts are downright evil because they force players to play with each other and betray each other.
None of the rules in this perverted hell landscape are negotiable. Surrendering is not an option as refusal to participate means laser execution will end the game.
Why should someone living in a time marked by a pointless death see something like this? For the same reasons, we flock to Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" series, "Logan's Run", "The Running Man" or a somber vision of mankind's tendency to be inhuman towards other people. It is eternally satisfying to see underfunded and superior heroes overcome the odds - and as Arisu points out, every game has a solution.
Just as "Battle Royale" is not explicitly about cruel violence for the sake of distraction, "Alice in Borderland" runs on a riddle that hides a criticism of social divisions made possible by technology and expanded due to other systemic flaws.
Before "Borderland" Arisu spent most of its time in online battle royale games that fuel thriving virtual economies and attract millions of gamers who use the space to socialize. (Think "Fortnite".) You can spend most of your waking life in these virtual rooms without physically engaging with real people and the world around you. Most players don't, but enough to make it a culture-wide problem.
Such games have become massively popular in recent years and not for nothing. On December 10th, the same day Alice in Borderland debuted on Netflix, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by writer Brendan Mackie explaining why such games appeal to hundreds of millions of gamers, including the most of them are 25 years old.
According to him, they are the result of the broken promise of a supposed neoliberal meritocracy. A good education no longer guarantees that a person will earn an income that will help build wealth, let alone pay the bills. Hard work doesn't necessarily translate into economic progress either, not in a society whose decks are stacked to favor the one percent. Hence Mackie's thesis:
"Battle Royale games are the stories children tell about this culture of cutthroat competition. Just like in the real world, Battle Royale games only win 1 percent. But these games are a fantasy in which this uneven outcome is transparent and produced fairly. albeit violent, a fairy tale about how meritocracy should really work. Although it is harsh, brutal and difficult, it is fair, and although you have a slim chance of winning, the forces that oppress you are not invisible - they are clear and precise. The decks are not stacked: everyone has the same health, armor, access to weapons and upgrades. You will likely die. But you will live and die with your abilities alone. "
The author further explains that this is also an illusion. Games and rules are constantly changing and there are bigger and more powerful weapons to be found and bought.
The plot "Alice on the Frontier" relies on this concept, as there is no obvious path to the ultimate destination when Arisu, Karube and Chota first set off. Finally, we find that the players don't necessarily have a common goal. Most they encounter are only focused on survival, and quite a few are dressed like white-collar workers, corporate drones sneaking their way through dead-end careers.
Some also wonder aloud what is the point of surviving when there is nothing to live for but earn free time in an empty, lawless city.
Here, this show tries to do something other than burden the audience with glasses of violence. An effort to ponder the difference between survival and living buzz in the first eight episodes that clicks with conversations many people are having right now: Who do we want to be when it's all over? How will society change?
"Survival" and "survival" are said so often in Alice on the Frontier that it becomes noticeable when someone mentions "life", and that is probably intentional.
Arisu's chance meeting and eventual alliance with an athlete named Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) confirm this idea. One of the first questions she asks him is, "Do you want to live?" You are not in a life or death competition if she asks for it. He collapsed on the ground and admits he wants to die, and she has just made a copy of Henry David Thoreau's "Life in the Forest".
In a previous life, Usagi climbed mountains with her father, a famous professional who disappeared after a scandal and is believed to be dead. By Usagi's refusal to let Arisu give up, she shows a determination to live in this world while surviving any trial. This can also increase their chances of winning, whatever that means.
If you look carefully you will find that you and other players finishing impossible games and navigating dangerous alliances share an urge to move forward rather than being motivated by the chance to return to their old life.
Almost every poor soul drawn to this terrible place is motivated to return to the original world, but only those who, unlike a powerless gamer, think like a gamemaster stand a chance. They win because they are determined to focus on the value of what exists rather than surrender to the paralysis of fear that is death in this scenario. And the way this goes on is dark and wild, but also bizarre exciting.
"How will you live in this world that is full of desperation?" asks someone who happens to be one of the smarter and more experienced players in the game. We could and should, in this reality and more to the point, be determined to solve this mystery.
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"Alice in Borderland" is currently being streamed on Netflix.
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