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The Sci-Fi Thriller Series Everyone's Binging On Netflix

More than most other forms of art and entertainment, video games give players the ability to do things they would never be able to in their real lives. Whether it's raiding tombs, fighting in the streets, or visiting fantastical realms, the medium offers a safe way to experience extremity. But what would you do if, suddenly, that extremity became real and you were forced to do the same deadly tasks with your own body instead of a digital avatar?

Alice in Borderland is a slick sci-fi series from Netflix that has been taking the world by storm. The Japanese series shot onto top ten most-viewed shows on Netflix lists all over the world when it was released in December 2020. In fact, the show was such an immediate hit that Netflix greenlit a second season just a few weeks after the first dropped (via Variety).

If you've been curious about this intense new series, or are just now hearing about it, here's a breakdown of what you need to know about the Netflix original that has viewers all over the world tuning in.

What is the premise of Alice in Borderland?

In Alice in Borderland, deadbeat Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) has no job and little ambition to do anything with his life other than play video games and hang out with his friends. One day, while he and two of his besties are goofing around in the famously busy Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, they cause enough commotion to attract the attention of the cops. They hide in a bathroom until the coast is clear, but, when they emerge, they find Shibuya completely deserted, along with the rest of Tokyo.

With no idea what's going on, the group follows signs instructing them to go to a game arena. They arrive and learn that whatever alternate reality they've entered has at least one rule: They must participate in a series of games, or they will be killed. That may sound like a blast to Arisu, except these competitions have all the absurdity and deadly trappings of the video games he loves, and he won't be playing them from the comfort of his couch. With no choice but to compete, Arisu must fight to survive and team up with others who've found themselves stuck in this strange world. Otherwise, it's game over.

Alice in Borderland is based on a popular manga

Once Arisu and his friends cross over to the game world, they enter a realm that is as colorful and highly stylized as it is deadly. Both the story and aesthetic of Alice in Borderland were adapted from a popular manga series of the same name, which was first published in 2011. Before the live action adaptation, there was even a three-part original video anime series based on the comics (via Anime News Network).

As for why series director Shinsuke Sato chose that particular manga to adapt, he told Screen Anarchy that it was an opportunity that dropped right in his lap. According to Sato, the project came about because Netflix Japan was looking for a property that would appeal to both Japanese and international audiences, because, as he explained, "at the time, they had just started their services in Japan, so the subscriber numbers were still not that huge."

Although directing all eight episodes of the adaptation likely made him very familiar with the series, he admitted, "I hadn't actually known about the manga until they pitched it to me." Despite his initial unfamiliarity with the source material, Sato found the right balance between pathos and high-wire absurdity. During the same interview, he gave some insights into exactly how he created the distinct feel of Alice in Borderland.

How director Shinsuke Sato pulled off Alice in Borderland's jaw-dropping scenes

From the intricate design of the deadly games, to the stunning scenes set in an emptied-out Tokyo, Alice in Borderland has plenty for viewers to lay their eyes on. According to Sato, he achieved this through a use of practical sets, with some strategically deployed CGI. For instance, in episode 1, the main characters walk out into the normally bustling Shibuya Crossing to find it completely deserted. "The key was to figure out which part to actually build and which to CGI," Sato explained to Screen Anarchy. To answer that question, Sato and his crew filmed several short scenes at the actual crossing to use as templates.

And the visuals aren't the only impressive aspect of Alice in Borderland. The series is paced like an action movie, with an almost relentlessly propulsive plot that shoots through all eight episodes like a rocket. Sato explained that this was by design: "What Netflix asked me to do was to think of it, the eight episodes, as one very, very long film, and to try to maintain the tonality throughout." Considering the series' worldwide popularity, it looks like the choices made by Sato and Netflix Japan were right on. 

Critical response to Alice in Borderland

With so much thought put into the making of Alice in Borderland, and with so much to love about the series, it's no surprise that critics and audiences alike are raving about it. On Rotten TomatoesAlice in Borderland rocks a solid 80 percent approval rating from critics, alongside an impressive 95 percent score from registered users. Across the web, quite a few people have heralded Alice in Borderland as being one of Netflix's greatest original series in recent memory, with Comic Years' Shah Shahid arguing that it was Netflix's best show of 2020. 

Writing for Salon, Melanie McFarland praised the series as "the wild dystopian ride we've been waiting for," and commended it for deftly balancing all its over-the-top action with its social commentary. Over at Ready Steady Cut, Jonathon Wilson wrote of Alice in Borderland, "[It's] Battle Royale and Saw given a contemporary game-y makeover and a very comic-book-y sensibility. [...] The production is slick, the action is well-choreographed and exciting, the games are clever, and the characters are believable as best friends thrust into an unpredictable and dangerous situation. At eight episodes all under an hour, this is a lightning-fast riff on a well-worn format that might prove to be the streaming highlight of the weekend."

You can see what all the fuss is about by checking out Alice in Borderland, streaming now on Netflix.