In the way of what are perhaps the most terrifying nightmares, The Platform is not subtle. This Spanish sci-fi dreadfest immerses you into a shocking mystery then punches you in the gut with its horror. It will explain its initial unfathomableness until you grasp that its hellscape is the world we are living in right now. And then it will bash you over the head with its metaphor for some more. And some more. And some more.
In the way of the most important cinematic experiences, The Platform — the feature directorial debut of Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia — will grip you with a wisdom that transcends its shameless obviousness. It will surprise you even when you think it has given away all its secrets… when you think it barely had any secrets to begin with. It will astonish you in how, when it seems to have played all its cards right from the get-go, it keeps finding new ways to up the ante on itself.
Goreng (Ivan Massagué: Pan’s Labyrinth) — who looks a little like John Tuturro — awakens to find himself in a strange dystopian prison… or, at least, a prison even more dystopian than the ones in our own world, the ones we’ve somehow convinced ourselves aren’t heinous. Goreng has one cellmate: elderly Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor). They have one level of the tall, narrow structure to themselves. In the middle of their cell is a open column that extends the full length of the prison; look up through the hole in the ceiling, and they see the cell above theirs, and its two occupants, and the cells and the prisoners further up still; look down through the hole in the floor, and they see the cell below theirs, and its two occupants, and the cells and the prisoners further down still.
Once a day, a platform descends through the prison, stopping briefly at each level. On the platform is a feast… or, at least, it starts out on Level 1 as a feast. Subsequent levels subsist on the leftovers of the floors above. If any remain.
“Level 48,” Trimagasi informs Goreng. That’s where they are. There are many levels below them.
The prison is capitalism. Of course it is. There would be plenty for all to eat if only everyone took just what they needed and left enough to share around equitably. But this system does not foster such restraint, such compassion. Because there is a possibility that the lot of a prisoner may improve: every month, they are all shuffled around, seemingly randomly. If you’re lucky enough to end up on a high level after having had to dig through the disgusting remains of picked-over meals — assuming any food at all was left by the time the platform reached you — why wouldn’t you enjoy the bounty when your turn came to gorge?
This is only the beginning of Goreng’s odyssey, a compacted parable audaciously concocted by screenwriters Pedro Rivero and David Desola as if daring us to deny that what it depicts is the open savagery we all live with right now. Its timing is horrifically fortuitous: Goreng’s early concession to the system he has been dropped into is challenged as cracks in it appear, as alternative possibilities present themselves, as other prisoners offer ways to rebalance the injustice. It is such a moment we find ourselves in right now, as the coronavirus pandemic is rocking capitalistic structures to their very foundations, and the cogs — that is, us — are beginning to refuse to acquiesce to the demands of the machine anymore. (See the burgeoning strikes in the US at Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods by front-line employees demanding safe working conditions, and workers at GM demanding that their car factories be immediately retooled to make ventilators.)
None of the critiques of capitalism The Platform offers are new, not even in the annals of satirical sci-fi horror. Its genre roots are obvious: this is a little bit Cube with a dash of Snowpiercer, for starters. But Goreng’s shock and how he responds to it feel much less like the stuff of pulp fiction than they would have a mere few weeks ago.