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Streaming reviews: Two new dystopian dramas that won’t make you feel like weeping in a bunker

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Squid Game. Streaming now on Netflix

Squid Game. Streaming now on Netflix

Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in 'Squid Game'

Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in 'Squid Game'

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Squid Game. Streaming now on Netflix

Y: The Last Man Disney+

Squid Game
Netflix

You’d think that we have had enough of dystopias, wouldn’t you? I’m referring to the ones served up to us by showrunners and film directors who happily prey on our hard-wired fascination with the end of the world as we know it. But still they come, as if the last 19 months had never happened, with newish spins on the old theme of the world going to hell in a handbasket.

They come in all shapes and colours, from viral zombie takeovers to mass societal breakdowns to that old chestnut, environmental collapse (one that, if we were honest with ourselves, becomes less and less far-fetched). They remain useful conduits for sci-fi drama, all the same, for this very reason. A good dystopia is a dry run for how we will be able to deal with cracks in the status quo, let alone a wholesale falling apart.

Y: The Last Man has a mostly subtle eye on matters of gender politics and identity as it trots through the collapse of mankind in the most literal sense. Based on a DC comic book series by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra, it follows Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer), an amateur escape artist and hopeless man-child who can’t get his so-called life together.

No greater purpose could be thrust upon him than the discovery one morning that he and his pet monkey are the last living males on Earth. A mysterious plague has swept the globe killing off every mammal with a Y chromosome.

In the seat of power meanwhile, leadership is assumed by vice president Brown (Diane Lane) following the inevitable and gory death of the commander-in-chief (who we see displaying some rather “old fashioned” attitudes around women). A post-apocalyptic control room to deal with the crisis, one comprised solely of females, emerges. Y: The Last Man takes very current ideas about today’s heated culture wars to a speculative extreme.

Yorick is both vulnerable and exceptional enough to get behind, but Eliza Clark’s adaptation surrounds him with an intriguing band of fellow protagonists all converging amid the disaster. Olivia Thirlby plays a luckless paramedic and sister of Yorick, while Ashley Romans keeps us all guessing as a steely special agent. Each has their own space to establish and develop in these opening episodes.

Also working very well is the upbeat pep the whole drama seems synched to, which spares us from some of the bleaker details inherent in a world where every male person in our lives has suddenly perished. That said, there is the odd uncompromising flare to remind you that, pet monkeys aside, this is no game.
 

If you’ll forgive the segue, this brings us nicely to Netflix’s garishly chilling Korean survival thriller Squid Game, where the dystopia is being channelled at an outbreak of that most ruinous of human maladies: debt.

This time around, the floundering male loser for whom things couldn’t get any worse is Gi-hun, a good-for-nothing gambling addict and chauffeur who can’t get it together.

Up to his oxters in debt, an encounter with a peculiar stranger at a tube station and their mysterious business card present Gi-hun with an opportunity. A series of games that, if successful, will allow him to wipe clean the debts he has accumulated (incidentally as a result of playing other games, an irony not lost on writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk).

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Struggling to contribute anything to his daughter’s upkeep and desperate to pay off his loans to local hoods, he rings the number on the card. After being picked up and drugged, he awakens in a huge hall with 455 other contestants, all of whom happen to be debt-ridden. Masked instructors lay out the rules of a simple kids’ game that all must play. What they don’t mention is that those who can’t make it over the finish line will pay with their lives.

Squid Game has any number of similarly nightmarish playbooks to work off (Escape Room, Cube, Maze Runner, et al), and is quite functional in that respect. The show’s major card is a bemusing visual scheme that veers from neon-flecked nocturnal streetscapes to Escher-like interior headaches wrought in ominous pastel hues. Murderous financial torture never looked so cheerful.  

End-tertainment: Three more apocalyptic watches

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Sky/NOW, iTunes
George Miller’s extraordinary dustroad scramble back and forth across a dead Earth was a sublime modern classic that reimagined post-apocalyptic humanity. Tom Hardy’s Max can only play second fiddle to Charlize Theron’s iconic one-armed heroine, Furiosa. Buckle up.

A Quiet Place (2018)
iTunes
Actor-director John Krasinski took gold with this smart survival horror set in the wake of an alien invasion. He and real-life wife Emily Blunt are the parents keeping noise to a minimum to protect their three children from monsters that hunt only by sound.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Prime Video
With Dune about to arrive on these shores, this sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic is a reminder that visionary Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is a safe pair of hands, no matter the sci-fi task. This android detective saga is an unforgettable voyage into a cracked future.


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