Netflix's Dystopian Prison Thriller 'The Platform' Is a Provocative, Bloody Parable
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho certainly didn't invent the class-based science-fiction parable with Snowpiercer, his acclaimed 2014 thriller about a bloody armed revolt on a speeding train arranged so the poor residents rot in the back and the rich elites luxuriate in the front cars. Writers have been thinking of elaborate metaphors for societal ills long before Chris Evans declared that "babies taste the best." Still, it's difficult to watch The Platform, a cannibalistic prison freak-out from Spain and not imagine a producer sitting in a conference room or a coffee shop and musing, "What if Snowpiercer but vertical?"
Verticality isn't the only thing The Platform has going for it. The debut feature from Spanish filmmaker Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia boasts an appealing high-concept premise, an oddly affable leading man in actor Iván Massagué, and a series of brutal twists that should intrigue anyone currently watching the news and thinking about the possible end game of rampant inequality. Instead of a train, The Platform takes place in a prison-like structure called the "Vertical Self-Management Center" where inmates live two to a floor. Those on the top get first dibs on a giant platform of food that descends from the ceiling everyday; those on the bottom get the scraps -- or nothing at all.
After a brief opening where we see images of the decadent-looking meal being prepared, with plenty of snooty chefs running about and a violin playing in the background, The Platform introduces Goreng (Massagué), a soft-spoken man who chose to carry a paperback copy of Don Quixote as his only allowed item in "The Hole," which is what all the inmates call the building. He's paired with Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), an older knife-wielding gentleman who goes about explaining the rules of the building while also insisting that he doesn't actually want to be explaining the rules of the building. For example, they're on level 48, which the old man assures Goreng is a "good" level. This is the type of movie, like Christopher Nolan's far bigger budgeted Inception, where everyone is always laying out exactly what they are and why they do what they do.
Luckily, it's an often brisk, brutal version of that type of movie. Goreng soon learns that moving higher in the building gives you better access to the enormous buffet of food, which makes you less willing to murder (and eat) your floor-mate, and that your level changes every month in accordance with your behavior. You don't exactly get a grade -- the reasons some rise up to the top floors are a bit opaque -- and acts of violence tend to be rewarded with a higher placement. Why did Goreng sign up for this grotesque social experiment? He's been promised a diploma at the end, the type of strangely funny detail the movie does an effective job of actually under-explaining.
Melding blunt force class commentary with skull-cracking horror set-pieces, The Platform has an answer for almost everything. Why don't prisoners just grab food off the big table and save it for later? If they do, the heat will start to rise and the conditions become unbearable until they toss the food back down. Why don't the participants ration the food for each other and save some for others on the bottom? Most of the people at the top rose from the bottom and have vivid memories of the powerful refusing them the same courtesy. The knotty, exposition-packed script, written by David Desola and Pedro Rivero, is in such a hurry to answer these questions, establish the mechanics of the premise, and set up Goreng's transformation into a potentially revolutionary leader, that it rarely finds room to breathe and most of the characters, particularly the ones we meet after the first 30 minutes, tend to be merely symbolic stand-ins for broader ideas.
Not to harp on the Snowpiercer comparison, but The Platform occasionally suffers from a contrived single-mindedness that Bong Joon Ho's equally complicated but far more human movies reject. A film like Parasite, or Ben Wheatley's frenzied J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise, succeeds in part because the relationships are elegantly built out and as obsessed over as the twists. Even as The Platform addresses a number of loaded issues -- race, sexuality, religion, solidarity, class mobility, the ethics of pet ownership -- it does so in a way that can come off as perfunctory. Even when it's intense and gripping, which it often is, the movie ends up feeling like a prisoner to its own clever premise.
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