What I thought about: Alice in Borderland

Very Japanese, this part-sci-fi part-thriller part-horror series, based on a popular manga, has random citizens of Tokyo get teleported to an alternate universe where they must take part in sadistic games to survive.

Don’t get too attached to anyone in this show. Consider yourself warned.

What’s it about?
One moment you’re having a shower, or something. The next thing you know, the lights go out and, when they come back on moments later, everyone around you has disappeared. In fact, not just the people around you – the entire population of Tokyo. Gone. Just like that.

That’s the situation facing Arisu, Chōta, and Karube – a trio of delinquents and misfits. As night falls, the only source of light comes from screens around the city which read ‘this way to the game arena’. They follow the screens to a building with mobile phones set out on a table. Unbeknownst to them, they’ve just registered for their first game.

Two doors, one says ‘live’ and the other ‘die’. Two minutes to choose before the room is incinerated. Another player (they’re not entirely alone) freaks out and runs through the ‘live’ door, only to be zapped in the head with a powerful laser. The rest escape through the ‘die’ door into the second room, now with less time to choose another room. With some luck Arisu, good with puzzles, work out the shape of the building and draws a map that leads them confidently through the rest of the game. Their prize? A three-day visa, the importance of which is explained to them when a disheveled man rounds a corner and yells ‘I can’t take it any more, my visa has expired’. He is promptly blasted in the head by a laser from the sky. Your visa is your right to live, and you can only get them by clearing the dangerous games.

What do I like about it?
The games are cool, and most are well designed, if a little confusing what with the additional language barrier for on-screen cues. Along the way, more characters are introduced and we start to learn more about the pseudo-Tokyo and what’s going on. Also, in contrast to Escape Room (which you might consider to be a related concept), the set-up for the sequel is fantastic. No spoilers, though!

What do I not like about it?
There’s a little too much filler for my liking, Some scenes are long, drawn out, and emotional. I also wasn’t a fan of the fact that the ‘main character’ is basically a nobody except for the little nuggets of wisdom he occasionally dishes out, but then again, that is a trope of manga like this.

Worth a watch?
This is a very violent and miserable show. Things only really go from bad to worse for everyone involved, so be careful. But if, like me, you were intrigued by the mystery and are a fan of Japanese on-screen violence, Alice in Borderland is brilliantly produced.

By the way…

  • Much of the shots of an empty Tokyo city centre were filmed with extensive use of green screens, and they did a great job of blending it all together
  • Apparently this season covers 31 of the 64 manga chapters – so maybe Season 2 is all we’ll get

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What I thought about: Upload

As long as you try not to think about the questionable wide-arc plot in this show, Upload is a funny, romantic, but also sobering look at the potential technological advances of the next 10-20 years.

That’s a talking therapy dog, by the way.

What’s it about?
Nathan Brown is badly hurt in a car accident at the prime age of 27. As his vitals are dropping, his wealthy girlfriend hastily arranges his ascension to heaven – digital heaven, that is, in the form of a consciousness transfer to Lake View, a premium virtual afterlife in which her family has ‘unlimited data’. It takes Nathan a while to get used to his new living situation, and he’s having some trouble recalling what he was working on in the weeks leading up to the accident. With the help of his ‘Angel’ (customer service representative Nora Antony) he begins to settle in and see what digital living has to offer.

In the living world, Nora starts to develop feelings for Nathan and, suspicious of the corruption of his memory files, helps to uncover the truth behind Nathan’s death.

What do I like about it?
The little details that are scattered in the show are really quite fun, and serve as an unexpected treat whenever they crop up. When certain things in Lake View cost money to use, a literal button for ‘in app purchases’ appears. When the servers temporarily lose power and kick into backup mode, the uploads (what they call dead people in the virtual afterlife) turn to blocky, Minecraft-like characters, which seems obvious but caught me so off guard that I laughed out loud.

The underlying romance that develops between Nathan and Nora is also cute, and the show makes good use of the setting to demonstrate this. Nora invites Nathan to walk on water, ‘I just activated the feature’, she says, before he eagerly steps forward and plunges straight in. She was teasing him. There’s also a particularly poignant moment where Nathan’s memories of his time at Lake View – including his time spent with Nora – are at risk of being erased. I genuinely felt sad for them in that moment, so you know the show is doing something right.

What do I not like about it?
The plot – the part of it where Nathan tries to find out why he died – is a little sketchy. I think the writers held back too much, letting slip so little in this season that this part of the story felt meaningless overall. I know where they’re going with it though, it’s the sort of onion-style plot we’ve seen in shows like Orphan Black. What I mean by this is, in Season 1 there’s a bad guy, but in the season finale he’s revealed to be small fry in a bigger operation. This will probably repeat until the show gets cancelled and, in the final season, the last super-super-super-evil person is revealed to have been the actual mastermind all along.

Worth a watch?
Sure. It’s funny and it’s a cool (if slightly dystopian) insight into what life could be like fairly soon.

By the way…

  • We’re getting a second season, thank goodness.
  • The show sat in development limbo for about 2 years after it was ordered until filming finally began in Vancouver in May 2019

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