‘The Silent Sea’ review: the vast unknown belies deadly truths in this nail-biting battle for humanity’s survival

Gong Yoo and Bae Doo-na bring emotional depth to this grim, sometimes violent sci-fi K-drama about the dark side of humanity

High-stakes missions set against the vast expanses of space are not entirely unfamiliar tropes on TV or in films – we’ve seen countless stories of astronauts and scientists looking beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in search of a second chance at life somewhere in the cosmos, be it Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015) or Passengers (2016), just to name a few more recent releases. However, Netflix’s The Silent Sea forgoes a far-flung, often fictional planet and opts for a setting much closer to Earth, and yet, somehow remains as mysterious as the rest – the Moon.

Directed by Choi Hang-yong, The Silent Sea takes place in a not-so-distant future where the Earth’s resources are rapidly depleting due to desertification. Infant mortality rates have also skyrocketed, posing an imminent threat to the survival of the human species. Instead of an idealistic future where we put aside our differences for the sake of the subsistence of human life, viewers are immediately thrust into a grim alternative to the ideal – here, it’s every man for himself. People are rigidly stratified into social classes that determine their access to water; the rich and their associates have the privilege of never having to worry about their supplies, while the poor are forced to scrimp on such a necessary life resource.

Amidst the bleakness, we meet Song Ji-an (Bae Doo-na), a cynical astrobiologist who struggles to cope with the death of her older sister, formerly a head researcher at the Balhae Lunar Research Station until a radiation leak caused the entire crew’s demise, leaving the station abandoned for the past five years. She is recruited by the Space Aviation Administration (SAA) on a 24-hour mission to the station to retrieve an undisclosed sample, alongside an exploration team of 10 other astronauts, engineers and doctors led by Captain Han Yoon-jae (Gong Yoo). Ji-an is immediately skeptical of the mission and its true purpose, but continues to begrudgingly participate, with ever-so-slight hope that she might just uncover the truth behind her sister’s passing.

Once the crew set off for their destination, it seems as though anything that can go wrong will. Right off the bat, their spacecraft suffers from a system failure that results in a violent crash on the Moon’s surface and, soon after, the team discover piles of bodies along one of the station’s eerily derelict hallways as well as curiously normal radiation levels across the station, sowing seeds of doubt and mistrust in the crew.

the silent sea review netflix gong yoo bae doo-na
The Silent Sea. Credit: Netflix

To make matters worse, not a single sample has been found after hours of combing through the base, and the remaining crew members have no way of returning back to Earth or contacting the SAA. The Silent Sea soon picks up pace after a crew member comes into contact with one of the bodies while searching the crevices of the station. This one moment then sets off a chain of events that adds a new layer of complexity and anxiety to the crew’s already hazardous mission, turning up the speed on The Silent Sea to the maximum, imploring us to up and enjoy the ride.

the silent sea review netflix gong yoo bae doo-na
Lee Joon in ‘The Silent Sea’. Credit: Netflix

The Silent Sea has an ambitious premise and plot that grows to become a double-edged sword. The series presents a nail-bitingly intense scenario by flirting with the boundlessness of the unknown – the uncharted terrain of the Moon and the abandoned space station create the perfect backdrops for the unravelling of the show’s bigger-picture abstrusities, be it the peculiar deaths of the station’s previous crew, the sample of unspecified origins or a number of the show’s other mysteries. The Silent Sea does an immaculate job depicting the horrors that only the unfamiliar can bring, all while taking place in the claustrophobic confines of the station’s dark, winding hallways, which offer no real escape or solace from the dire straits the crew are challenged to survive.

Her initial aloof disposition unfurling to reveal surprising emotional sensitivity, Bae Doo-na’s performance is the driving force for much of the show’s plot, slowly and unwittingly unveiling deeper layers to Song Ji-an and her motivations, albeit treading the line of predictable at certain points. However, the many remaining characters – especially Doctor Hong Ga-young (Kim Sun-young) and Ryu Tae-suk (Lee Joon) – are denied chances to become fully realised characters in order to make space for The Silent Sea’s larger-than-life plot. But, director Choi Hang-yong attempts to make up for this by aptly demonstrating the tightly drawn interpersonal dynamics between much of the crew.

As humans, we have always been afraid of the daunting possibilities and potential dangers the unknown could present. The Silent Sea’s greatest strength is in its ability to tastefully play to this shared sense of dread in the context of a very possible future, making it feel all the more terrifying. Reinforced through thought-provoking themes and allegories, first-rate production and set design, as well as a premise that has gone through tireless refinements over a decade, The Silent Sea is ultimately a nuanced exploration of outer space as humanity’s last hope, that sheds light on the extreme lengths the upper echelon are willing to go to preserve themselves and their dignities, even in the most catastrophic of circumstances.

The Silent Sea premieres on Netflix December 24.

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