The Spanish Sci-Fi Thriller Putting a Brutal Spin on Inequality
Netflix’s The Platform, a film about a vertical prison filled with gluttony and cannibalism, is striking a chord with American viewers now.
Netflix’s viral new thriller is set in what sounds like a stodgy WeWork facility: the “Vertical Self-Management Center.” But the people trapped inside refer to it by a more evocative title—“The Hole”—because the building is, in fact, a skyscraperlike prison with a giant void in the middle. This hole is central to The Platform’s disturbing premise: An inmate named Goreng wakes up and learns that he is in a concrete reformatory composed of hundreds of levels. Each day, an elaborate feast is laid out on the titular platform, which drops from floor to floor. Each level can only eat the leftovers of those above. There’s supposedly enough food for everyone—if the prisoners only eat what they need.
The Spanish director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s film (originally titled El hoyo) isn’t a delicate satire. The people on the top levels always gorge themselves so that by the time the table reaches the lower floors, there’s nothing left. But the current resonance of The Platform’s brutalist portrait of real-life inequality is not hard to understand right now, during an unprecedented global pandemic.
The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September but has rocketed up Netflix’s most-popular list in recent weeks as existing disparities widen around the world and in the U.S. The movie’s portrayal of avarice and desperation in response to scarcity cuts close to the bone in a moment when states are competing for respirators, panic shopping has left grocery shelves bare, price gouging is rampant, scammers are offering fake tests and vaccines, and the most vulnerable Americans have become only more endangered. In The Platform, the decisions of a select few in the highest echelons determine the survival of those below them. The film is as heavy-handed as it sounds, but these aren’t subtle times.
Gaztelu-Urrutia’s movie toggles between lengthy philosophical conversations and scenes of extreme violence. It follows Goreng (played by Ivan Massagué), a man who chose to enter the facility for six months in exchange for an accredited diploma, as he tries to survive in The Hole without losing his sense of decency. The film will delight genre lovers with its gory depiction of the lower levels’ inevitable desperation. Blood and feces streak the walls of the Center and the faces of its occupants. Cannibalism is—it’s not a spoiler to say—a frequent occurrence. Gaztelu-Urrutia’s lens is unflinching: Against backdrops of gray and muted browns, the characters’ injuries and anguished faces command attention. The film’s sound design stretches out every slash, scream, and fall.
These are fantastical representations of the human toll within a system that promotes competition and self-interest. The Platform never lets you forget that its characters’ decisions, no matter how small, could result in others’ deprivation. Though the film was made long before the pandemic struck, it’s hard to watch prisoners stuff their faces, knowing that others won’t see a crumb, and not think of the people who hoarded masks and hand sanitizer around the U.S. in the disaster’s earliest days.
But The Platform also reminds viewers over and over that none of this depravity is necessary. The film indicts individuals for their participation in a violent system; it’s not content to saddle abstract concepts with all the guilt. Because the prisoners are randomly shuffled to new levels once a month (you can be moved from Level 6 to Level 201 and vice versa), everyone operates from a position of scarcity. In this, The Hole deviates from more entrenched real-life economic dynamics, but the film emphasizes a message that nonetheless applies: Even amid impossible conditions, human beings have a responsibility to one another—regardless of whether they will tangibly benefit from their own actions.
Beginning with Goreng’s early claim that “it’s fairer to ration the food,” The Platform teases some kind of revolt. “Eventually, something has to happen in the VSC,” one of Goreng’s cellmates tells him. “Something that fosters a spontaneous sense of solidarity.” Without revealing too much, Goreng and another detainee do attempt to bring about that revolutionary upheaval—but the film’s ending offers no easy answers or simple moral takeaways. While it’s unclear what the real-life counterpart of that effort would look like during the COVID-19 crisis, The Platform hints at a reworking of the system that recalls the ending of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho’s 2013 science-fiction film.
In Snowpiercer, all of Earth’s remaining inhabitants circumnavigate the globe in a luxury train broken up into strata: The poorest residents live in the back, and the wealthiest are up front, closest to the engine. Both films leave audiences on a curious, uncertain note. The future of their unequal systems appears forever changed, if only because of who is tasked with carrying their populations forward. That The Platform’s final scenes find even a shred of optimism within its twisted world is strangely comforting, an unexpected balm in a film—and a world—that seems to relish in inflicting wounds.