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How Science-Fiction Thriller 'Code 8' Found a New Life on Netflix

The low-budget action movie, which stars cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell, isn't actually a "Netflix" movie.

The dystopian details sketched out in Code 8, a hard-nosed Canadian science-fiction thriller currently blowing up on Netflix, will feel disturbingly familiar to many viewers watching at home. Steady employment is hard to find, drug use spikes as economic conditions grow worse, health care costs are astronomical, urgent bills pile up with no end in sight, and the police wage a tech-savvy war on the working class. It all checks out -- the big difference here? In this near-future reality, 4% of the population has "powers," the type of physical gifts that can make a gifted individual an asset on a jobsite, able to toss massive concrete bricks with relative ease or wire the electricity in a wall with charged fingertips, or a threat to a fearful nation. No one feels safe.

If you stumbled across Code 8 while looking for something other than Tiger King, Ozark, or Outbreak to watch on your Netflix queue, you might think, "Wow, Netflix really lucked out with this one." But the low-budget action drama, which stars cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell (both known for star-making turns on CW superhero series), isn't actually a "Netflix" movie. Most viewers might have discovered it via the streaming service, perhaps mistaking the thumbnail image for one of the many science-fiction movies Netflix produces, but the film received a fairly limited theatrical release -- Box Office Mojo cites a $150,298 international gross -- and was available on VOD in December of 2019. It's not a "new" movie even if it looks new to casual streamers.

How exactly does a small genre release like this catch a big wave of excitement? Having two stars with large young fan bases on social media helps, with both Amells tweetingenthusiastically about the movie, but a subtle change in Netflix's layout might have also played a role. At the beginning of March, Netflix introduced a new feature called "Top 10," which tracks the most popular titles currently available on the service and displays them on the homepage. (Traditionally, Netflix is very tight-lipped about audience data and the Top 10 feature does not include raw numbers.) According to Netflx's announcement at the time, the function "will be updated every day and the position of the row will vary depending on how relevant the shows and films are to you."

Having kept an eye on the Top 10 feature in recent weeks, I've found most of it is pretty much exactly what you would expect: a number of Netflix originals with large social media buzz and a handful of older titles with famous faces that are new to the platform. (For example, Gerard Butler's secret agent threequel Angel Has Fallen, which debuted in theaters last summer, is currently sitting in the Top 10 after hitting the site on April 4.) Within the Top 10, Code 8 is an anomaly in key ways: It was independently produced in Canada, funded partially through an IndieGoGo campaign that drew over $2 million and loads of attention via a short film in 2016, and it does not have a proven Hollywood movie star on the poster. This is a far cry from a recent Netflix title like Spencer Confidential

The success of Code 8 was dependent on a number of factors. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Netflix subscribers across the globe are stuck in their homes and looking for viewing options to pass the time. Like the most popular section on iTunes or in old mom-and-pop video stores, the "Top 10" feature carries an implicit promise that you're watching a title that other people are also watching. Popularity and consensus have a tendency to reinforce their own values: If something is the most viewed, consumers become curious about what the fuss is about and check it out for themselves. 

It also helps that Netflix has spent the last few years producing and releasing a wide range of (often very, very bad) dystopian mid-budget sci-fi movies -- How It Ends, IO, The Titan, Extinction, Spectral -- that have effectively trained their audience to give any grimy-looking, bleak-minded narrative of social upheaval a shot. These are not the movies that earn Netflix lots of awards or generate heaps of acclaim in the press; my guess is they do get watched -- or at least started as a potential movie to fall asleep to. If they're terrible, you can always turn it off after 10 minutes. What's the downside? 

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And Code 8, despite the relative novelty of its current success, is not that dissimilar from Netflix's standard genre fare. In telling the story of super-charged, down-on-his-luck day laborer Connor Reed (Robbie Amell) falling in with a gang of similarly gifted criminals led by the gruffly cocky Garrett Kelton (Stephen Amell), director Jeff Chan constructs a story that largely feels assembled from scraps from other science fiction films. The cops resemble the elite task forces from Minority Report, the world-building grace notes are X-Men-esque, and the robots assigned to hunt down people with powers look like paramilitary Chappies. The tangled web of a plot feels like a pilot for a TV show on the SyFy channel -- characters like Sung Kang's good-guy investigator get thin backstories to be filled in later -- mixed with a bank robbery shoot-em-up like Den of Thieves. Unsurprisingly, it ends with the strong possibility of a sequel. 

Or, perhaps more accurately, it ends with a possible tease for a Quibi show. Back in December, before Code 8 was even released and before the pandemic halted production on film and TV projects, Deadlineannounced that the Amells, along with director Jeff Chan and writer Chris Paré, would return for the Quibi-funded spin-off, which would be set "years after the events of the movie." While Code 9 is occasionally engrossing, particularly in its tick-tock heist sequences, the mutant-noir set-up might not be enough to rope in viewers for a fledging streaming platform. Do you really need to know what happens to Connor, Garrett, and the various dealers of "Psyke," the story's fictional drug of choice? It's hard to imagine a huge audience following the story to Quibi, which requires a new monthly fee. But if the spin-off series was on Netflix and there was nothing else to watch, people might give it a chance, again. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.