'Alice in Borderland' Review: Vivid characters and deadly moral compromises make this a show you can't miss
'Alice in Borderland' is a strong piece of the survival genre, with extremely memorable performances from nearly every member of the cast
Spoilers for 'Alice in Borderland'
The survival genre is a bit of a cheat, taking an Occam's Razor approach to narrative design. The basis of entertainment is seeing characters pushed to extreme behavior - there's very little value in watching people performing the mundane. Survival stories like 'Alice in Borderland', instead of setting up complicated character motivation dicated by plot, instead force their protagonists to make a simple choice: make extreme decisions, or die. You get to ramp the tension up to an eleven right from the start. Unfortunately, that also means that you have to be able to outdo yourself or risk growing stale - and that's where 'Alice in Borderland' falls short.
The first four episodes of 'Alice in Borderland' are brilliantly done, translating the popular manga by Haro Aso very effectively to a live-action setting. The story follows three young friends - Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), Chota (Yuki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida), who one day find their home city of Tokyo inexplicably empty. From there they learn that they're now expected to play high risk games to recharge their "visa" - and that a failure to comply with this gaming setup results in death by lasers from the sky. As the challenges keep getting deadlier, the boys have to ask themselves just what they're willing to do to stay alive.
The performances, cinematography and overall direction are all impactful - this is the closest a big live action property has ever gotten to actually feeling like an anime, in the best way. The show knows how to pick its moments and leave a lasting impression with them in the mind. The three main protagonists have great chemistry with each other, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to see how the games they're forced to play start to rip the friendship apart. The first half of the season also seeds in some plot points for the second half - it's subtly done, but still engaging. The streets of an empty city are a breathtaking sight, and the deadly setups for the games are a visual thrill.
The three protagonists lie in that sweet spot between competent enough to survive the games while still being in over their heads enough for the games to feel overwhelming. The games themselves have some very simple rules - what makes them fascinating is in the ways they magnify every character's moral choices. Some people risk their lives for the sake of others, some ruthlessly play to win no matter who gets hurt, and in one of the most harrowing episodes of the season, some characters choose to sacrifice themselves to keep others alive.
From Episode 5 onwards, it becomes a completely different show, as we're introduced to a whole new cast of colorful characters at The Beach. Where the first few episodes were stressful, but relatively quiet examinations of the human condition pushed to its limits, the second half of the season becomes something akin to a crime series. An enigmatic and hedonistic leader rules the city with his henchmen, each a vivid personality in their own right, and factions and mistrust within the organization means that it's hard to know who to trust in order to get out alive.
The Beach arc at first feels like a natural progression of the series, but it's not long before the series' need to ramp up the stakes starts making a mess of the story. The final two episodes somehow feel like they're about 90 minutes too long while also feeling rushed, as character backstories are crammed in willy-nilly, the body count ramps up, and the mystery driving the final game is dragged out long past the point of suspense.
'Alice in Borderland' contains some incredible performances. Every named character - and even some unnamed ones - feels like a fully fleshed-out and vivid human being, just with their personalities saturated to their extremes. Even the more cartoonish characters feel, if not grounded, then at least rooted in a story that works for the kind of show that 'Alice in Borderland' is. Many characters bring a kind of extreme expressiveness that you just can't find in Western film & television without it feeling like it's over the top - here, it's just over the top enough to work.
The show redeems itself from its exhausting ending at the last moment with a tease for the next season that genuinely makes the show feel exciting again. For fans of the survival genre, the first half of 'Alice in Borderland' is a must-watch - and there's enough to enjoy in the second half to make the show still feel worth watching.
All episodes of Season 1 of 'Alice in Borderland' are now available to view on Netflix.