Squid Game review: A unique thriller or a copycat cousin?

Squid Game - Courtesy of Netflix/Youngkyu Park
Squid Game - Courtesy of Netflix/Youngkyu Park /

Disclaimer: This Squid Game review is an opinion piece.

The latest South Korean drama to hit Netflix has taken the internet by storm, trending on both Netflix and Twitter repeatedly since it dropped on Sept.17, 2021. Squid Game (오징어게임) tells the story of a group of in-debt citizens, competing in a variety of dangerous games to win a cash prize worth billions of won, or die trying.

Amid comparisons to other media texts, as well as viral popularity and controversy regarding plagiarism, we can ask the simple question: is Squid Game any good?

Squid Game: The new Black Mirror?

Multiple outlets (including Netflix themselves) have dubbed Squid Game a combination of several existing shows and films, with the most common comparisons including Black Mirror, Alice in Borderland, and Battle Royale/The Hunger Games. This primarily stems from the sociological commentary the show appears to make via the concept of trial-by-deadly games.

Whilst there is truth to these claims, with Squid Game embodying the same dystopian, life-threatening aspects observed in the aforementioned texts, it is distinctive in a number of ways.

For example, whilst Black Mirror (particularly in its most easily comparable episode, “Fifteen Million Merits”) and Alice in Borderland both feature casts of characters forced into their situation of competition by faceless adversaries, Squid Game flips this on its head early into the series. Competitors, past the first round, make the active choice to join the games and battle it out for the cash prize, providing an interesting social commentary on a capitalistic society that rarely benefits those in poor socioeconomic positions and ultimately forces their hand, seemingly through “no other choice.”

Is Squid Game better than Alice in Borderland?

Despite this interesting change, comparisons to other texts continue to be made, with Squid Game‘s violent, game-based storyline drawing many to 2020’s Alice in Borderland, a Japanese thriller/drama that has been noted as trending on Twitter on multiple occasions as Squid Game is watched and discourse is engaged in online.

The similarities are near uncanny, with an outcast male lead developing a team of misfits to survive a handful of life-threatening, sadistic games set up by an initially anonymous organization. The primary differences are the cash prize at the crux of Squid Game‘s motivation, and the location, with Alice in Borderland seemingly covering the entirety of Tokyo whilst Squid Game competitors are kept in a manmade complex.

Alice in Borderland Season 2
Alice in Borderland – Credit: Netflix /

To explore my personal opinion, Alice in Borderland trumps Squid Game with ease. The mystery of the latter show is slightly dissolved in the fact that the audience can see a physical threat in the form of the masked managers, soldiers and workers, as well as the monochromatic head of the games.

Whilst this is an interesting concept, Alice in Borderland, however, manages to retain a thrilling mystery and disorientation throughout the series, with the audience following along with intense scrutiny to try and grasp even an inkling as to who is behind the games, how they’ve managed to set them up, and why. This provides a level of understanding and empathy that just doesn’t appear as strongly during Squid Game.

Alice in Borderland furthers this empathy to near perfection, with each game requiring puzzle solving and mental ingenuity that the audience is practically invited to join in with, at the risk of knowing you yourself would die in that situation if you couldn’t think quickly or smartly enough. Squid Game, on the other hand, explains each game’s rules so that it is clear how to win, it just has to be done. This, unfortunately, takes away from the suspense as viewers already know how the competitors will be able to pass to the next round, it’s simply a case of who will be lost.

Squid Game’s controversy

In another con, Squid Game has recently come under fire for allegations of plagiarism. With the show clearly draws on numerous existing texts for inspiration as illustrated above, accusations have been made more specifically regarding the similarities to the Japanese film As The Gods Will (2014) in terms of both content and cinematography.

The use of childhood games made deadly – such as the “Red Light, Green Light” game in Episode 1 (sometimes called “Statues” or “Grandma’s Footsteps”) – has been accused as being directly lifted from the film, alongside similarities in props and camera shots in the first episode.

However, as highlighted in this tweet and as reported by NME, this claim has been denied by Squid Game‘s director Hwang Dong-hyuk. This has not stopped discourse online and perhaps indicates unoriginality in the thriller genre overall with such overlaps being frequent.

Despite some fascinating episodes (particularly in the latter half of the show), some stunning visuals and stellar performances by Lee Jung-Jae as Gi-hun and newcomer Jung Ho-Yeon as Sae-byeok, Squid Game as a whole is, unfortunately, nothing revolutionary.

It is an enjoyable watch in its own right with some great moments of tension and emotion but it fails to upstage its more popular predecessors and is easily outshined by Alice in Borderland in the television thriller category. However, the 89% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes may suggest other opinions!

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