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Review: Squid Game is Dystopian Cinema Done Right

Updated: Oct 20, 2021


Squid Game has quickly become the #1 show on Netflix in 90 countries. (Photo: Netflix)

CAUTION: This review contains spoilers for Squid Game.

Recently, it seems all anyone can talk about is the new hit Netflix show “Squid Game.” And rightly so, as of October 12, the worldwide sensation became the company’s biggest launch ever, with a total of 111 million fans.

Taking place in Korea, the show centers around money-strapped contestants who accept an invitation to compete in a high-stakes competition of children’s games for a grand cash prize.

The show gained much popularity, quickly becoming the #1 show on Netflix in 90 countries. Since the day of its premiere, thousands have even sent messages to the number listed on the invitation in the show, desperately asking to participate in the competition to win the prize money — all the while bothering a 40-year-old Korean man who just so happens to have the same phone number.

So, how has the familiar idea of a battle royale like “The Hunger Games” and “Fortnite” been reborn in Korean cinema and become so popular so quickly?

In 1999, Japanese writer Koushun Takami published “Battle Royale” and one year later, it was successfully transferred to the big screen. The story was about the dark dystopian world of fascist Japan, where a group of middle schoolers were kidnapped by the government and forced to fight to the death on an isolated island. This was an experiment to prepare the nation for the worst and militarily train them, but, of course, human nature always interferes and changes plans.

This brutal story eventually pushed the genre of survival games into the masses, giving way to similar stories later such as “The Hunger Games,” and making battle royale itself, a contemporary genre in the gaming industry (Apex, Fortnite, PUBG). It influenced many interpretations of the simple idea of survival games and led the way for “Squid Game” creator, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk to present his own version in 2021.

However, “Squid Game” wouldn’t grab so many hearts and minds if it were the same as its predecessors. No, “Squid Game” is different on a fundamental level.

Money-strapped contestants of Squid Game competed in high stakes children's games for a grand cash prize. (Photo: Netflix)

In the show, the participants of Squid Game are given the choice to vote and quit the game at any time, breaking the stereotype of involuntary engagement in typical dystopian settings. Instead, the participants choose to continue the dangerous game by their own choices and morality codex.

This leads to another key difference in the perspective of the genre in that the main villain of the story is not the government, bureaucrats, but the people themselves and their vices. As the show progresses, Hwang investigates the moment in which people tear off their masks and come back to their human instincts in the race for economic fulfillment. Hwang hands us the mirror and asks: How much of the suffering of someone else can I make into my own pleasure? Does global suffering come from the system or are we all the sources? What is happiness and can it even exist in a capitalistic society? And finally, how much exactly is the lie, guilt, blood, suffering or betrayal worth?

The show’s visual effects and setting, both mesmerizing and deeply entangled with symbolism, also add to its sinister effect on viewers. Endless staircases remind us of the cyclicality of life, the insignificance of a single human existence. Hundreds of sets of beds in the participants’ resting room are built on different heights and make us see the different levels or steps in a ladder, and even forms something similar to the ancient Coliseum. The entire visual aspect of the show sticks in our minds along with its deeper implications.

Moreover, the narrative structure is universal — the idea of adults playing children’s games for reward is a simple concept to understand cross-culturally. Society’s strange fascination with violence as seen in shows like "Game of Thrones" and has also attracted millions to the big screen just like with “Squid Game.” A mixture of horror, gore, and psychological thriller, “Squid Game” has broken the barriers of traditional dystopian films to become the global phenomenon it is.

Whether people take this show as a sign to look inward on themselves or to simply enjoy seeing children’s games they once played, “Squid Game” is definitely the show to watch in your spare time.

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