It’s a common observation that science fiction films often present a mirror of the real world. These mirrors show us provocative, dark and sometimes twisted reflections of ourselves. Regardless of their dramatic and thematic intentions, these allegorical stories often sit on a scale between heartwarming whimsy and terrifying nightmares. Examples range from dystopian horrors like Blade Runner (1982) and Snowpiercer (2013), to charmers like Her (2013) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform (2019) falls into the dystopian horror category. A different scale applies within that sub-genre, ranging from mind-bending trips to outrageous displays of gore. The Platform lands somewhere in the middle.
The story takes place in a towering “Vertical Self-Management Center” filled with two residents (or prisoners) per level. At the end of every month, they are switched to a different levels at random. The occupants are fed by a large platform filled with food. The platform descends through the levels with every inmate eating what they can before it drops again. Less and less food is available the further down the platform goes, causing starvation and life-threatening conflict between inmates. Goreng (played by Iván Massagué) has willingly entered the system in the hopes of receiving a diploma upon exiting. Once inside, he shares a cell with Trimagasi (played by Zorion Eguileor), an enigmatic older man who seems to be totally desensitised to this system.
Right off this bat, it must be noted that this is Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s first feature film. Gaztelu-Urrutia’s directorial craftsmanship is something to behold. He creates a haunting tone which rivals the work of Denis Villeneuve. Gaztelu-Urrutia builds from one shocking moment to the next with carefully controlled tension, making the entire viewing experience appropriately unnerving. Every time new information is delivered, he presents it to us with unbearable weight, making the viewer afraid of how each story element is going to be used. Even though the entire story takes place in a series of the identical grey cells, Gaztelu-Urrutia makes each level carry the emotional weight relative to their place in the tower. It will be exciting to see what he brings us next, especially if he’s armed with a stronger narrative.
While the premise is initially intriguing and is clearly meant as social commentary, it sadly doesn’t fully grab the viewer. The conceit provides all the necessary shock and awe, but what’s missing are logical details which help everything make sense. Granted, a lapse in logic here of there isn’t enough to sink a film as story, character and thematic execution are far more important. However, a few too many leaps of faith (without a sound explanation) can unravel those more important elements. The more they pile up, the more the viewer finds themselves questioning every moment instead of just letting it wash over them. The story opens, the rules are explained and the consequences are made clear, but the closer we get to the conclusion, tiny details emerge which either contradict or break those rules.
To be fair, many films can successfully shatter their established rules by thematic design. The Platform isn’t doing anything revolutionary with it’s class conflict narrative, therefore these broken rules are accidental. With that in mind, breaking the storytelling logic also muddles the social commentary. Gaztelu-Urrutia clearly has a lot on his mind and wants to communicate his thoughts in a visionary way, but the complex narrative intentions must be integrated seamlessly into the science fiction. It’s perfectly clear what every story choice politically represents and what every character socially represents, but if the world created by the filmmaker doesn’t fully make sense on its own terms, than the deeper layers don’t hit as hard as they should.
In cases where a science fiction can’t make its impact on the strength of the writing, these films usually resort to shockingly over the top violence. A prime example being Kurt Wimmer’s highly disappointing Equilibrium (2002). Sadly, The Platform is no exception. Gaztelu-Urrutia has far better intentions than Wimmer as he’s not trying to gratify the audience with intense gore, but the result is still relatively the same. The audience is distracted by the blood, guts and depravity, effectively being bludgeoned into remembering the experience. The attempted social commentary mixes in with the violence, making the viewer unable to distinguish between the two. Therefore, the audience is forgiving of the gratuitous nature of the violence as it feels like it’s in service of greater meaning.
Thankfully, the excellent performances from the entire cast elevate the material to greater heights. Iván Massagué carries the entire film as Goreng, as he embodies the moral centre which most good people have. Goreng discovers all the horrors at the same time we do and is just as disgusted as we are. Zorion Eguileor as Trimagasi is a terrifyingly powerful presence, even as he delivers some twisted comic relief. While their work does stand apart from the narrative issues, the compressed running time has forced a few character choices to occur a little too fast. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s a shame considering how good their performances are. Emilio Buale Coka and Antonia San Juan also make strong impressions even with limited screen time.
A socially conscience science fiction lends itself to creativity. It’s a style which forces filmmakers to come up with smart ideas and deliver them to audiences in original ways. Any filmmaker trying their hand at the genre should be respected and commended for their efforts. Even so, the ingredients needs to be mixed together into a cohesive whole. The Platform has all the ingredients, yet they haven’t been fully mixed. It’s excellently made, well intentioned and superbly acted, but the muddled plot and gratuitousness make it a difficult watch.
Best way to watch it: In the beginning of the day on an empty stomach (There’s a chance your day can improve from there).