Yet another example of the storytelling finesse that is coming out of South Korea, Netflix is sending us up to the moon this holiday season with a star-studded cast trying to save our slowly dying planet. At its heart is Bae Doona’s Dr. Song, a conscientious but troubled scientist who, from the moment we see her sneaking small (and prohibited) supplies of drinking water to a stray dog hiding outside her laboratory, we know is going to be the real hero. The Silent Sea offers sci-fi thrills, mystery and murder, with a halfway point that turns the story around yet another twist and onto a final stretch to save the crew and – potentially – the world.
Sometime in the near future, the Earth has run out of water. With civilization on the verge of a dystopian revolution as people campaign for fair water rationing, a space crew is sent up to the moon. On a mission to Balhae Station, a research facility abandoned from a radiation leak years before, the team is tasked with retrieving a mysterious sample – a sample that Dr. Song Jian (Bae Doona), and Dr. Song alone, has authority over. Yet upon discovering the base, it appears there may be more players in this game than she or the heroic (but perhaps foolhardy) Captain Han Yoon Jae (Gong Yoo) had anticipated. As suspicion starts to grow between the crew, something – or someone – is hiding in the shadows, waiting.
From the first minute of the show, we’re thrown straight into the action as we come to with Dr. Song hanging upside down in a crashed spaceship. The inward journey didn’t go quite as planned, and suddenly stranded on the moon without a ship, the rag-tag bunch of scientists, soldiers and a doctor are forced to retreat to the previously abandoned research facility on foot. What this show achieves aptly is a sense of mystery and menace; upon reaching the facility, the team discovers dead bodies that appear to have drowned in thin air. That alone is an intriguing concept and we haven’t even got to the elusive samples, spine-chilling shadow monster, and the clash of tension between Jian and Yoon Jae as scientist and captain vie for authority.
While the show has a strong premise, it only really works thanks to the talent of Bae Doona and Gong Yoo, legends in their home nation (and internationally), acting as the emotional driving force. Some may know Bae Doona as a long-time collaborator of Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, having starred in his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (and later The Host), as well as countless critically acclaimed productions including Park Chan Wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, A Girl at My Door, the Wachowski Sisters’ English-language show Sense8, and most recently Netflix’s Joseon-era zombie drama Kingdom. Gong Yoo is perhaps most recognizable internationally for his lead role in Train to Busan, as well as his small appearance in this year’s breakout Squid Game – though it is worth mentioning that he has long since been a household name for high profile Korean productions like The Age of Shadow and Silenced. It’s not surprising, then, that they really do take centre stage.
So, a solid concept ticked off, stellar design choices done, and great lead performances – check! Why, then, does this show feel lacking? Ultimately, it’s likely that the extended drama format fits the show less than a feature film would. The extra time granted in an eight-parter invests detail in the characters’ backstories and piles on the mystery, but it’s all sort of obsolete with actors of Bae and Yoo’s calibre. The context of family strife, a lifetime of casual discrimination, and the pressure to provide for one’s family isn’t pointless, but the emotional depth they conjure is just as effectively communicated in a single expression by these actors.
Considering the action highs scattered throughout the episodes and brought to a crescendo in that finale, it really does compare to something we would see on cinema screens across the globe. The eventual reveal of just what is going on here is just as horrifying and clever as you might imagine, if a little dragged out, so you can’t help feeling that a more concentrated format would have done the story better justice. Regardless, The Silent Sea is a fun, thrilling watch, even if it perhaps would’ve been superior in a shorter format – but multiple episodes are just as watchable and all the more binge-able while we sit around in that void between Christmas and New Year’s.
The Silent Sea is available now on Netflix
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.