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Netflix’s The Platform is the best/worst horror movie for a shelter-in-place era

Hello, claustrophobia

When Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s stunning debut feature The Platform premiered at TIFF, it was widely hailed as a thrilling, accessible science-fiction/horror metaphor for wealth inequality around the world. Six months later, as the movie debuts on Netflix, it feels like a different story entirely.

The intended message, about the imbalance of a system where a small group of people have unfettered access to wealth and power, and the ability to casually deny even basic survival tools to people below them, still comes across loud and clear. But in the coronavirus era, where an increasing number of citizens are being asked or ordered to barricade themselves in their homes to flatten the curve of a pandemic, The Platform’s claustrophobia and well-justified paranoia may seem just as urgently personal as its actual intended social messages.

Ivan Massagué stars as Goreng, a scrawny, scholarly type who opens the film by waking up in a large, featureless concrete cell labeled “48.” The only features: two beds, a minimal sink/toilet setup, and a rectangular hole in the floor that connects the space to identical cells above and below, as far as Goreng can see. His cellmate, a dryly superior older man named Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), explains the rules of The Hole, where they’re trapped. Once per day, a floating platform covered with an elaborate feast descends from the top floor, pausing for a few moments on each level so the inmates can eat. The catch is that the food isn’t replenished as it descends. Goreng and Trimagasi, on level 48, are choosing from picked-over leftovers that have been ravaged by 47 pairs of prisoners above them. After they get their brief chance at the food, the platform will descend and present their leftovers to cell 49, below.

Seen from a high overhead angle, two men face a table with an elaborate but picked-over feast in a barren concrete cell with “48” imprinted on one wall. Photo: Netflix

There are several more key rules to The Hole, some of them even more sadistic and strange than this initial setup. But discovering them as they become applicable is a lot of the early wonder of The Platform. Each new reveal has a grim, implacable logic — of course there are ways the people behind The Hole prevent people from hoarding food in their cells, and of course Goreng and Trimagasi have been imprisoned for different reasons that speak to The Hole’s ultimate purpose — but screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero have a wicked sense of humor, and a sense of timing to match. The facility’s brutalist cells are bleak and simple, without a lot of obvious narrative possibilities, but the writers make sure there’s always a new facet of the scenario emerging to shock and intrigue the audience. Just as soon as one situation settles in, they shift to something subtly different.

Initially, the film unfolds like a two-man play, somewhere between the aimless comedic circles of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the helpless hell-is-other-people hostility of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Goreng and Trimagasi feel each other out, first in an initial rush of exposition, and later in a series of calculated reveals that goose up the story’s stakes. One particularly key revelation: every month, everyone in the facility is gassed and moved to a new level, seemingly at random. So as the cellmates are weighing the ethics of what to eat from the daily bounty, and what to leave for the people below them, they’re also facing the reality that within 30 days, they may be first to the feast instead — or last, and facing a daily platform covered with empty platters and licked-clean bowls.

That last detail is what pushes The Platform from the realm of heady high-concept fantasy into an obvious and meaningful ethical thought experiment. Goreng realizes early on that the platform almost certainly starts out on level 0 with enough food for everyone in the facility, but that the people above selfishly cram in everything they can eat, leaving some of the people below them to starve. And as Trimagasi points out, that isn’t just short-sighted gluttony, either: someone blessed with a month on level 2 might want to build up enough extra weight that they can survive a month on level 150. But Trimagasi also has a cold disdain for anyone stuck on the lower levels: in his eyes, the people above him are inherently superior to him, and the people below are inferior. In his eyes, there’s no point in trying to shift the system, or to tailor his own actions to benefit or even acknowledge anyone else.

It’s possible to appreciate The Platform sheerly on a literal level, as an excruciatingly well-made slow-burn horror story about being trapped with awful people under grim conditions. Much as with Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, the allegory is unmissable, without throttling the action. But in a shelter-in-place era, where people in an increasing number of countries are holed up in their homes with their loved ones, the scenario may feel too real, and the science-fiction elements don’t shift that calculus. Thanks to terse, intense performances and taut situations, The Platform ramps up the sense that the characters lack any options except to turn on each other, since they have no access to the forces pinning them down.

The design of the prison adds to that sense of limitation. It’s a simple, unrelievedly barren set, so squalidly lit that the details fuzz together. But Gaztelu-Urrutia finds plenty of ways to move in close on his cast for a sense of urgency, or pull out for a sense of scale, ensuring that the cinematography is never dull, and the space never stops being alien and oppressive. In spite of the simplicity of the space and the effects, The Platform is visually striking and memorable. It looks a lot like a more realism-drenched version of Vincenzo Natali’s claustrophobia-inflected 1997 feature Cube, with a similar sense that there are a lot of grand, echoing mysteries to explore. At least, if the characters could ever make it past the basic question of how to navigate and survive a hellish dystopia.

An elderly man clutching a nasty-looking knife and reading a book sits on his bed in a dimly lit concrete cell in The Platform. Photo: Netflix

But the metaphor is much richer in The Platform. Trimagasi’s self-satisfied petulance, his sheer, dogged determination to avoid any sort of self-examination or change, is more of a nightmare scenario than anything else in the story. Eventually, the film goes in a graphically gory direction, but the physical violence feels more cathartic than scary after so much time watching Trimagasi try to infect Goreng with his smug apathy toward other people, while Goreng desperately tries to justify any sense of empathy at all. And when other people get involved in the debate about social responsibility, the film opens up in necessary ways, but it still weighs Goreng down with the feeling of being the only rational man in an irrational world. The message that he can’t control other people’s behavior, except in limited ways and through vicious means, isn’t particularly uplifting. But that makes it all the more convincing and relevant as a thought experiment: there are no easy answers here.

There’s an almost Lovecraftian sense of horror to The Platform, in that the characters are stuck in a vast, indifferent place they can’t fully understand, and the answers aren’t forthcoming. But there’s also very personal horror as well, in the politics of Trimagasi’s self-serving certainty, his utter confidence that his selfishness is the most rational way to behave, no matter who it hurts. While The Platform was made in Spain, it certainly feels just as relevant to America’s current moment, and to the ongoing political war between a handful of billionaires trying to consolidate power, and everyone stuck in the cells below them, clutching at whatever trickles down.

But where there’s nothing much funny about growing wealth inequity, The Platform’s saving grace is its mordant sense of humor. Desola and Rivero (who make a cameo in the film, see the comments below) pack the script with little tension-skewering moments that inevitably come as a surprise and a relief. For a grotesquely violent film about the towering oppression of capitalism, it’s shockingly entertaining and lively. Mostly, though, it’s just shocking. It’s a movie designed for people who like their future-fiction thoughtful and relevant, and for people who enjoy the runaway-train feeling of having no idea where a given story could possibly go next. It’s a kind of escapist, action-centered relief from the feeling of being trapped by a pandemic, but it’s perfectly steeped in that feeling, too.

The Platform is streaming on Netflix now.