One of Netflix’s latest film releases, Spanish sci-fi/horror movie The Platform is enjoying a minor splash on the streaming giant, which is the most one can hope for in the reign of Tiger King. Though never stated outright, the movie is presumably set in the future, where the shadowy “Administration” runs a sadistic institution that’s half prison, half social experiment. Nicknamed “the hole” by its occupants, it’s a vertical building comprised of identical one-room floors. Each room has a large hole in the center of both its floor and ceiling. Once a day, a floating platform full of food slowly descends through the holes, stopping in the middle of each room for a few minutes to provide food for each level’s inmates. Eating is only permitted during this brief period; the penalty for saving food for later is death. Every month the prisoners are randomly located to a new level, with those closest to the top floor enjoying an untouched feast, while those near the bottom must find horrific ways to avoid starvation.
Our hero is Goreng (Ivan Massagué), a new arrival who – unlike many other inmates – volunteered to participate in exchange for a government-approved diploma. His assigned roommate is the elderly Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), a hardened veteran of the prison serving time for manslaughter. Though the idealistic Goreng initially balks at Trimagasi’s selfish pragmatism, he soon finds himself crossing his own moral lines to survive.
The initial scenes of Goreng adjusting to life within the prison are the movie’s most fascinating, thanks to the meaty dialogue and chemistry between the two leads. Though their odd-couple dynamic seems familiar at first, both actors ably sell the complicated nature of their characters’ relationship. Amiably shooting the breeze one minute and descending into shouting matches the next, the pair’s mercurial antics make for a compelling two-man show.
The third star of the movie is the set: an exceptionally ugly piece of brutalism that’s all bare concrete and harsh right angles. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia uses a handful of rooms, along with the help of some tasteful CGI, to create a chilling sense of scale, using the rooms’ aligned holes to make the prison feel endless. Every once in a while, we’re treated to a view of the top floor, a state-of-the-art kitchen where gourmet chefs prepare the daily feast under the watch of a fastidious manager. Though these scenes contain no dialogue, they offer a striking contrast to the concrete hell below.
Fittingly enough, there are quite a few holes in The Platform’s high-concept premise. The most obvious one – why no one attempts to ride the platform to the top floor – is semi-addressed, but there are several others, with more cropping up as the movie progresses. These are easier to ignore in the movie’s more philosophical first act, but become more glaring when the plot kicks into gear.
In its second half, The Platform pivots to an admittedly unique prison break narrative that is nonetheless a turn for the less interesting. It isn’t fair to say that the script runs out of ideas, but it certainly runs out of its best ones. The movie spends more and more time in Goreng’s head, depicting his hunger-induced hallucinations in scenes that are competent but repetitive; eventually these moments can’t help but feel like filler. And by the time the daring escape attempt is underway, the plot veers further and further off the rails, piling on new characters and sputtering its way to an unsatisfyingly cryptic ending.
The Platform is at its best in its first half, when it explores the disturbing, thought-provoking, and occasionally funny possibilities of its Kafkaesque premise. Unfortunately, that only sustains the movie for its first forty minutes or so; after that the story treads on much shakier ground. One suspects that The Platform would have worked beautifully in a more condensed format – a Black Mirror episode, for example. As is, it’s a watchable and often intriguing piece of dystopian food for thought, its highs memorable enough to counteract its lows.