Exciting sci-fi series Dr. Brain might be Apple TV+’s Squid Game [Apple TV+ review]

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Dr. Brain review: Mind = blown.
Mind = blown.
Photo: Apple TV+

Hooking up with maverick South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon for new sci-fi series Dr. Brain looks like one of Apple TV+’s smartest, and most mind-blowing, decisions.

The energetically unhinged show, which debuts Thursday, centers on a scientist who devises a way to talk to the dead. Can Dr. Brain rival Netflix’s Squid Game, the latest South Korean phenomenon to become a streaming hit? If the exciting pilot is any indication, this could be a wild success for Apple TV+.

Dr. Brain review

In the premiere episode of Dr. Brain, Apple TV+’s first Korean-language show (with English subtitles), we meet Sewon Koh (played by Lee Sun-kyun of Parasite fame). He’s had an odd upbringing to say the least. As a kid, he became obsessed with taking things apart, whether that meant doing puzzles the wrong way or exploding a fire extinguisher in his preschool class.

He was insatiably curious about the inner workings of everything. His mother loved him and wanted to spare him being thrown into treatment centers because sometimes one man’s gifted child is another man’s freak. But this was taken out of her hands when she was hit by a truck and Sewon became a ward of the state.

Sewon never lost his lust to understand. Indeed, it’s made him a sought-after brain surgeon, even if it’s also doomed him to a barren social life. His wife, Jaeyi Jung (Lee You-young), and son died (in a fire and by suicide, respectively). Now he’s presenting theories about the human mind to conferences, and achieving roughly the same level of success that Daniel Jackson enjoyed when presenting his findings about the pyramids of Giza in Stargate.

An scientist with a hole in his heart

The scientists in the lab in which Sewon works get used to not liking him. He’s antisocial to a fault, and has no meaningful connections anymore — except for the ones he’s creating in secret.

You see, Sewon developed a method of inter-neural connection between a rat and a human brain. He proves conclusively that he can use the brain waves of dead bodies to communicate with the living, like some mad scientist hybrid of a mid-1950s programmer and a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein.

He asks a researcher, Namil Hong (Jae-won Lee), at his hospital to get him access to recently dead bodies in the building. And though he’s reluctant, Namil helps the doctor achieve his goal. But after making contact with the dead, what can he use his device for? How about countering the private detective called in to see if Sewon killed a friend of his late wife? Sure would be handy to be able to disprove his theory using extra-sensory means, wouldn’t it?

Kim Jee-Woon: A director with an intense vision

Once again Dr. Brain proves something that Apple TV+ needs to reckon with if it wants to continue to find artistic success as well as popularity; trust the right creators. Getting directors with inimitable style and a love for the medium in which they’re working and the programming will always be more engaging than just working out a deal with once-in-vogue writers or directors.

We are, gentle readers, back in the New York groove with Dr. Brain. I’ve made no secret of my affection for gleefully perverse Apple TV+ show Servant. And with Dr. Brain, the streaming service is once again giving the people (me) what they want.

It isn’t that the two shows have anything in common visually or thematically. No, what we’ve got here is two shows run by freaks who know how to make the most of a shot and a cut. Servant creator M. Night Shyamalan may be a hair more invested in the sexual and/or corporeal than Dr. Brain mastermind Kim Jee-Woon, but these are both first-rate entertainers weaned on the best of the best (Spielberg, Robert Wise, Kurosawa).

Just as Servant is a three-course banquet of corsetted sexual deviance and psychedelic cult violence, Dr. Brain is a childishly enthusiastic look at the impulses undergirding noir, sci-fi and crime dramas.

What a resume!

Kim Jee-Woon boasts a resume nigh as long as Shyamalan’s. His name on anything gives the faithful room to breathe. He knows what he’s doing. He’s proven more or less adept at horror (I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters), quite good at quirky character drama (The Foul King, The Quiet Family) and exceptional at action (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Last Stand and The Age of Shadows).

The director’s most recent movie, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, earned mixed reviews when it went to Netflix a few years back (with a botched PR rollout). But frankly, the muted response was wrong.

Kim was adapting Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, by legends Hiroyuki Okiura and Mamoru Oshii. While it might seem like heresy to say anyone could get within spitting distance of those two, I’m of a mind that Kim did it. His movie generated the sparky now-ness required to transport the anime 20 years into the future without losing its best images and ideas.

Dr. Brain is South Korean sci-fi done right

Dr. Brain is similarly based on animation, specifically an internet cartoon by Hong Jac-ga (or Hongjacga, as he prefers to be known). Kim is off the leash here, a mode which fans will recognize from sections of his Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand or his final set pieces in Ilang or Age of Shadows (and/or most of The Good, the Bad, the Weird).

When he’s on, he’s on. The last act of The Age of Shadows stands as one of the last great prestige blockbuster sequences — a beautiful display of oneupmanship, a banquet of gliding cameras, fierce performances and lockstep editing. Imagine a TV show with that energy, and you’ve got Dr. Brain’s number.

Dr. Brain is one of the most exciting pilots I’ve seen in a dog’s age because it hints at the stylish direction the show is about to take. It contains elements of Carrie, The Dead Zone, Brainstorm, The Fury … I mean take your pick. It’s rife with references.

And it transpires at a breakneck pace, and with such typical elan, that even though you know what it’s up to, it’s totally exciting to strap in and wait for what happens next. It’s rather like riding a rollercoaster you’ve been on before.

Pop Korean genre cinema has been a reliable fixture on American screens since Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host first introduced the Western world to its nuances and handwriting.

Indeed, in a culture famously averse to subtitles, South Korean cinema more than perhaps any other national cinema has found real purchase in the United States. Just look at the recent success of Squid Game on Netflix. The violent series exploded, quickly becoming Netflix’s most popular launch yet. (You probably saw someone dressed up as a Squid Game character for Halloween — I know I did).

Dr. Brain could prove a similar hit with audiences excited by South Korean genre fare.

Total sci-fi excitement

Throughout the Dr. Brain pilot, Kim’s framing is delightful and meaningful. The splashy color correction hints at Kim’s fondness for Robert Wise and Douglas Sirk, and also at the show’s obsession with perspective as filtered through media history, one of the director’s hobbyhorses.

In the Dr. Brain series opener, Kim unravels a conspiracy, and an excitingly surreal hero’s journey, in the first hour. Bring on the rest of the season.

Watch Dr. Brain on Apple TV+

The first episode of Dr. Brain arrives on Apple TV+ on November 4, 2021. Additional episodes arrive on subsequent Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On The Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.