The game players — an unemployed autoworker, a North Korean refugee, a fraudulent investor — are all debtors, brought down by circumstance and weakness and sufficiently desperate to take part in the kill-or-be-killed scenarios devised by the games’ unseen but presumably autocratic creators. (The potential payoff, accumulating in a glass sphere as contestants are eliminated, is in the tens of millions of dollars.) The setup is a commentary on the rigid class stratification of South Korea, and a pretty obvious allegory: Losers in the rigged game of the Korean economy, the players have a chance to win in the (supposedly) more merit-based, egalitarian arena of the squid game, but at the risk of almost certain death.
But there’s a difference between making reference to something and actually illuminating it, or using it as the basis of authentically human drama. “Squid Game” has nothing to say about inequality and free will beyond pat truisms, and its characters are shallow assemblages of family and battlefield clichés, set loose upon a patently ridiculous premise. (The cast members, led by the South Korean stars Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo, work valiantly and with some success to give the players actual shadings of emotion.) Its goal, a common one at the moment, is to ingratiate itself with its audience by confirming their accepted ideas. Like another recent South Korean hit, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” the show does that with room to spare.
And what that also accomplishes, of course, is to provide cover for the violence, which is more than mildly sickening in its scale, its graphic presentation and its calculated gratuitousness. Well before the hero, Gi-hun (Lee), was playing the titular game in the final episode with a steak knife sticking through his hand, I’d had enough. Apologists can argue that the combination of businesslike dispatch and cartoonish exaggeration in the killing has aesthetic and thematic resonance, but nothing onscreen supports that take. There is little dread and even less emotion, just the logistical satisfaction of the body count.
The director and writer of “Squid Game,” Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a feature filmmaker (“The Fortress,” “Silenced”) making his TV series debut. He and his camera people keep the story legible and the images routinely well composed, and he stages the action with dull competence. But he doesn’t have a distinctive style, which is particularly noticeable because the series is clearly a throwback to a slightly earlier generation of South Korean movies by directors like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, whose stylistic panache and mordant wit allowed them to make outré violence feel like an organic element in their stories. In “Squid Game,” it’s just empty, bloody calories.