When going into science-fiction or fantasy series, a certain level of suspension of disbelief is recommended. Actually, the same can be said for any Korean drama. Sometimes, a “just go with it” attitude is necessary in order to fully enjoy a series. For the 2020 SBS drama Alice (앨리스), however, no amount of disbelief suspension can explain away perhaps the most unnecessarily convoluted and directionless time travel series I’ve ever seen.
In the year 2050, time travel is possible and is regulated by the organization Alice by both facilitating time travel for people wishing to find closure as well as policing anyone who exploits it. Agents Yoon Tae Yi (Kim Hee Sun) and Yoo Min Hyuk (Kwak Si Yang) are sent to 1992 on a mission to retrieve the mysterious Book of Prophecy. But things get complicated when Tae Yi learns she is pregnant with Min Hyuk’s child. The radiation from time traveling will prove to be harmful for the baby. So Tae Yi agrees to have an abortion, only to run away and give birth to the child in the past rather than return to the future.
Tae Yi assumes a new identity as Park Sun Young and raises her son Park Jin Gyeom (Joo Won) on her own. However, in the year 2010, Jin Gyeom finds his mother murdered. Ten years later, he meets Yoon Tae Yi in the present timeline and together they begin a search for the truth that has him uncovering his mother’s time traveling past and a dizzying web of lies, deceit and murder.
That’s a simple enough premise and ripe for a fantastical sci-fi adventure. Alice however decides it’s not enough. And after a solid and exciting first few episodes, the series quickly devolves into a perplexing series of inexplicable and unnecessary twists and turns that only serve to confuse rather than amaze.
Alice subverts some of the familiar conventions of time travel stories and instead creates its own rules that it never fully fleshes out, nor even adheres to itself. Time travel dramas usually touch upon a butterfly effect that result in changed futures. Alice, however, chooses to focus on the idea of alternate dimensions and timelines. But instead of adding to the narrative, that idea is instead used in an almost deus ex machina type of way to keep the endless narrative loop going in order to fill the 16-episode order. That is rather than having an interesting depiction of alternate universes.
At its core, Alice is essentially a cautionary tale about the dangers of time traveling. That is, instead of wanting to change the past, take those experiences and learn from them to make a better present and future for yourself. It’s a noble message. But the series prefers to focus on its glossy time jump special effects and random action sequences, rather than a deep discussion of how time affects one’s life.
Alice is never sure what it wants to be. It is overall a sci-fi story. But the flashes of action, conspiracy thriller and the bits of crime mystery and touches of romantic comedy only help to clutter the already unfocused narrative.
Then there’s the baffling and awkwardly shoehorned romance angle between Jin Gyeom and the present-day Tae Yi that absolutely borders on incestuous regardless of how the series tries to twist its way into a scenario that makes it somehow acceptable. (Spoiler alert: It does not.)
It is just one of many plot points that get thrown into the series that ends up just muddling the already muddy waters that is Alice‘s story.
There seems to be a lack of focus. There is a solid foundation here, yet the series never builds upon that foundation and instead builds outward and never comes back to that original groundwork And when the series doesn’t even adhere to the loose rules it sets for itself, it’s undoubtedly trouble ahead.
The series also struggles to get a handle on its characters. This is certainly not a character-driven drama. Instead, most characters are twisted to fit whatever fantastical surprise it comes up with next. And that’s a shame when it has a strong cast at its disposal.
Joo Won is as magnetic a lead actor as ever. He and Kim Hee Sun do their best to elevate the haphazard material. Joo Won is very good, especially in emotional scenes. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten just how good he is. It’s been a while since I’ve last seen him in a drama.
But the heaviest lifting really goes to the supporting cast. Most especially Kwak Si Yang as Min Hyuk and Lee Da In as Jin Gyeom’s friend/not-girlfriend/admirer Kim Do Yeon. Of all the characters in the series, they are honestly the most grounded and most relatable characters. And most of the time, their most impactful moments have nothing to do with time traveling and all to do with the emotional connections they themselves forge with our main duo.
Alice is truly a baffling experience. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for much of the series’ plot. Even when there’s plenty of holes needing to be filled. But to find that explanation likely requires a full dissertation and a physics degree just to sort everything out.
To that end, the series is unsatisfying. It takes itself too seriously, preventing you from just sitting back and enjoying the ride. But it also doesn’t commit to what it wants to do. Its intricate sci-fi plot is unnecessarily convoluted to the point that the story ends up entirely diluted and lifeless. Most of the characters are never fully developed. And the one’s that are even get ignored in the end.
Alice has the makings of a sci-fi epic. But it ends up a completely disappointing waste of potential.