Comparisons between “The Silent Sea” — Netflix’s latest Korean-language drama — and this fall’s streaming phenom “Squid Game” extend well beyond their common tongue. On “The Silent Sea,” a group of desperate individuals enter into a perilous situation as a last-ditch attempt for salvation; their quest begins with the painful recognition of the economic inequality of their world.
The comparison between the two K-dramas becomes somewhat reductive beyond an initial gloss on themes, however, as the shows differ in genre. While “Squid Game” was a violent thriller, “The Silent Sea” is a sci-fi epic, depicting an attempt to harvest water on the moon to slake the thirst of a desert-ifying Earth. But as the runaway success of “Squid Game” indicated, more powerfully than ever, there’s a global audience for entertainment with aggressively underscored themes that transcend language.
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In “The Silent Sea,” directed by Choi Hang Yong and based on his short film of the same name, Netflix has a show that is likely to please and disappoint in equal measure. In short order, the first episode economically establishes the state of things: Earth is dying. (We later learn that water is parceled out according to recipients’ social status.) And South Korea’s “National Committee for Human Survival Measures” is launching a new mission to a lunar station where an enigmatic mass casualty event derailed research into the potential for water on the moon. This bluntness has its raw pleasures, even as the data-dump nature of the storytelling forecloses more artful possibilities.
Happily, the performers often transcend the roughest parts of the material. Bae Doona, a performer whose versatility viewers may recall from 2012’s “Cloud Atlas,” plays a biologist who feels duty-bound to join the mission for reasons both global and personal. Once arriving at the lunar base, she’s the first to rip off her helmet, proving that the oxygen levels are safe. The actor’s grit sells the moment, and her touch with the show’s more tender material is assured.
The visual sweep of “The Silent Sea” is impressive — its lunar canyons are strikingly well-rendered — but the show’s eight episodes can grow turgid and slow, as if the series is dazzled by its own beauty. We are rushed through the establishment of this world, only to dawdle as time goes by. And the show’s narrowing aperture, over eight long episodes, to one personal relationship (which I won’t spoil) feels somewhat limiting.
The film “Gravity,” which similarly treated space travel as a metaphor for a journey through one’s emotional life, is presented as a parable, with little specific information about the larger world beyond astronaut Ryan Stone’s grief. Her mission and her emotions are one. In “The Silent Sea,” though, the fate of the world hanging in the balance works at cross-purposes to the emotional story being told. Things are so dire on Earth that in her quest to save it, the pace of Bae’s character can feel ponderous — despite her giving it her all as a performer. The two threads of the story can distract from one another.
With that said, the highs of “The Silent Sea” are indeed high, and the show clears the low bar of having a good deal on its mind. A five- or six-episode version might have elided some of the long stretches during which attention is destined to roam; overall, though, audiences who appreciate genre fare with heart are likely to be glad they took the trip.
“The Silent Sea” debuts on Netflix Friday, December 22.
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