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The Platform, now on Netflix, angrily scratches the same itch as Snowpiercer and Parasite

The festival award winner melds high-concept sci-fi with brutal horror and a metaphor for class inequality.

A man sits on a slab, bathed in red light, framed by a man laying on his back holding a knife in the foreground.
The Platform is a brutalist nightmare.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A man wakes up on a cot in a concrete room. Another man lies on a cot across the room. A giant square hole gapes in both the floor and the ceiling. Two big lights are fixed to the wall, the red one lit. When a buzzer sounds, the red light goes out and the green light goes on. A platform containing a feast — or the remains of a feast — is lowered into the room. Time to eat.

The Platform’s opening moments establish it as more of a conceptual thought experiment than a story; it’s an allegory about inequality, and it borrows on some concepts that have been used before, in movies ranging from 2014’s Snowpiercer to 2015’s High-Rise to this year’s Best Picture winner Parasite. In all of these movies, levels of society correspond to literal levels in a building (or, in Snowpiercer’s case, a train). People on the top levels are more comfortable than those at the bottom, whom they despise. And while those at the top believe they’ve earned the right to be there by their wits and work, these movies suggest the systems that put them there also traffic in chance and fortune.

The Platform takes this same concept and stages it in a prison-like building, euphemistically called the “Vertical Self-Management Center” by the bureaucrats who work for the government. And, like its cousins, The Platform asks whether it’s worth trying to overturn the system at all.

Directed by Spanish filmmaker Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, it’s a cross between sci-fi and horror, brutal and disturbing and sometimes flat-out gross. It’s also at times almost ploddingly literal; these characters are more metaphors than actual people, and they talk in axioms and slogans drawn from talking points rather than dialogue.

But somehow it works — probably because The Platform commits to its conceptual framework so thoroughly, and with such precision, that it coaxes the audience to do the same. Its vivid images are designed to imprint on your brain. If movies like Snowpiercer and Parasite could be described socially conscious horror, or “social thrillers,” then The Platform might be termed a social nightmare, and an effective one, at that.

The Platform serves up a creepy visual and narrative metaphor for class stratification

Goreng (Ivan Massagué) wakes up in the same room as Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), an older man who’s been in the building — which everyone except the bureaucrats calls “The Hole” — for many months and has adapted to its ways to stay alive. Goreng asks Trimagasi for explanations about the way the building works, but it’s slow going, for reasons that Trimagasi doesn’t want to reveal to him.

Gradually, the two build up a kind of trust, and with it, Goreng gains an understanding of where exactly he’s gone. The Hole is not really a prison, though it looks like one. Some people are imprisoned there, to be sure. But others have committed themselves voluntarily to the place; Goreng, for instance, has entered the Hole for six months because at the end of his time there, he’ll receive an accredited diploma. (Hell is student debt?)

A woman sits crouched on a concrete platform covered in food.
The Platform is named for its platform, which carries a feast from its highest level to its lowest.

The two men have been thrown together at random, on an arbitrary level of the building. You don’t earn your way up or down in the Hole. Every month, everyone is shuffled to new levels and partners. Every day, a new feast — consisting of the favorite foods of everyone in the Hole — is prepared and lowered, beginning with level 1. Each level is given a set time to eat as much as they can, or want, from the platform before it is lowered to the next level; mechanisms in place prevent them from hoarding. But as you might imagine, little is left by the time the platform reaches the bottom.

Goreng is the kind of fellow who, when told he can bring only one item into the Hole, chooses a copy of Don Quixote, which he’d been meaning to read anyhow and which he figures he can now tackle with all of his free time. (Don Quixote, and its tale of a mad knight on a hopeless quest, is one of the motifs throughout The Platform.) Others bring pets, or blow-up pools, or, in the case of Trimigasi, a very sharp knife.

It’s at the end of the first month that things go haywire, and Goreng is shocked into realizing that his time in the Hole will not be, at best, a very lousy vacation. It’s an eat-or-be-eaten place, where people at the upper levels delight in making the lives of those below them worse. But even the upper levels aren’t great; as Trimagasi explains to him, “On the upper levels, you can eat anything you like, but you’ve got nothing to look forward to, and a lot of time to think.”

The strangely designed building, with its impossible size and fantastical features, is a constructed hell, a place that couldn’t physically exist in our world but could certainly be drawn from a particularly cursed fever dream. Gaztelu-Urrutia imbues the Hole with dread even in its less terrifying features (the idea of an infinite-seeming hole in the floor spooks me just to think about), but it’s in the gnashing, bloody bits or just the red-lit night moments that it comes alive.

How do you live in a system that seems random?

There are different ways to live through an experience like this — an experience that, The Platform clearly suggests, is really just a cipher for society at large. You can just accept it and take what you can for yourself. You can try to talk those around you into solidarity, spreading the wealth around. You can coerce others into only taking their fair share by threatening them with punishment. Or, of course, you could go on a murderous rampage.

The Platform is eerie, high-concept sci-fi.

Or you might try to spark a revolution. The question of whether revolution is possible, whether it’s effective, and whether its effectiveness even matters, animates The Platform, which doesn’t give a satisfactory (or even completely understandable) answer. It’s the work that matters more than the end itself, the movie suggests; revolution is picked up by the next generation. To try to change the world is to embark on an impossible quest, but it’s also the only way, in a sense, to stay alive.

The Platform would have been worth watching at any time; that it was first released (at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival) in a year notably marked by movies about class conflict and impending revolution was no mistake. But now it’s premiering in a pandemic, and the anxiety it captures about losing control over one’s place in the world, and trying to figure out how to live and cope, seems unnerving and timely. Its weirdness and dearth of satisfying answers are a match for our time: an uneasy, confusing new world that we’re going to have to figure out how to navigate together.

The Platform premieres on Netflix on March 20.