"The Platform" is the perfect movie for the age of the coronavirus.
In times of crisis, there are always plenty of people saying things like, "We need stories now more than ever" or, "The only thing that can save us is the power of art."
In truth, we need a vaccine now more than ever. Realistically, the only thing that can save us is affordable and accessible f*cking healthcare.
This kind of hopeful, Instagram-story-quote-worthy bullsh*t is mostly from people who (like me) don't want to bother with law school or medical school but still want to feel like their self-indulgent ramblings or other creative impulses are worth something to the world's greater good. Nine times out of ten, art is primarily for the person who created it, and the world would be better off with another doctor or activist—not another artist.
But, sometimes, works of art emerge at just the right point in time and reflect ourselves back to us in such startling clarity we can't help but transform. Think of Bong Joon Ho's Oscar-winning movie Parasite, which so powerfully explored issues of class in South Korea. Thanks to the movie's portrait of poverty, not to mention its widespread success, South Korea's government recently vowed to financially support low income families like the one portrayed in the movie. It's works of art like these that remind us that activists, doctors, lawmakers, economists, scientists, and all of those who fight for a better world are helpless unless cultural consciousness shifts to meet them. And that's the job of the artist. People can be told statistics about the death of the world's forests ad nauseum, for example, but we need books like Richard Powers' The Overstory—written with pathos, intelligence, heart, and human empathy—to make us care about the trees.
Currently, we're in a time of unprecedented global upheaval thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak. Governments have to support their citizens financially, people have no choice but to work together for a common good, and we're all being forced to consider whether we've ever been quite the individualists we thought we were. Summarily, this pandemic could be one of the most unifying forces in modern history. But without art to help us process and decode our feelings, it's not impossible that we come out of this global quarantine unchanged and just as selfish as before. Luckily, the perfect film for this current moment in time just quietly dropped on Netflix.
The Platform is a Spanish language psycho-thriller directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. The premise is relatively simple. The film's protagonist, an idealist named Goreng, played by Iván Massagué, is placed—of his own free will—into a detention center of sorts, which its residents call "the hole". The hole is comprised of an unknown number of levels, each one containing two people, some of whom have been placed there as punishment for crimes and others who have volunteered to spend six months there in order to win a prize. Each day, a platform containing a massive feast moves down through the levels via a hole in the center of each level. There is, conceptually, enough food for each person on every level as long as everyone only takes what they need. To add to the conflict, each month, the pairings are moved to a different level. One month, you might be on level four, where there is plenty left to eat by the time the platform reaches you, but next month you may be on level 145, where food never lasts thanks to the greed of those above.
From the outset, the film is a brutal and heavy-handed criticism of capitalism. Goreng begins his six months optimistically, believing collectivism and sharing must be a given in the hole. His first roommate, Trimagasi, soon frees him of this illusion, explaining that saving food for those below would be madness, since they surely won't save food for him should they be above him next month. Then, Trimagasi immediately ties Goreng to his bed as soon as they're transferred to an undesirable level, planning to systematically eat strips of his flesh as hunger sets in. Things only get darker from there.
The slow degradation of Goreng's morality is among the most moving aspects of the film. The hunger and brutality the hole subjects him to soon forces him to make moral compromises he never would have thought himself capable of before, grippingly illustrating the way that no one is above the effects of desperation. Of course, the hole is not without insurgents. Goreng is eventually paired with a woman who tries to institute a system of rations in a calm and civilized manner, appealing to the better nature of those below them. However, it becomes clear that the only way to appeal to people on the brink of starvation is through brute force and resource denial, a lesson that further demoralizes Goreng.
Eventually, Goreng and a new cellmate hatch a plan to make it to the very bottom of the hole, feeding specifically portioned rations to every level on the way and ultimately disrupting the system put in place by "the administration." As the platform descends, they attempt to explain their plan and plead with the people on each level. They're quickly met with violence and a sense of entitlement, particularly from those on the higher platforms who think it's their right to stuff their faces because they happened to have ended up on top. Even as Goreng pleads with them to remember what it was like on the bottom, they will not be convinced and blame "the administration" for the struggles of those beneath them, freeing themselves of culpability.
The Platform is not a pleasant viewing experience by any means, but it's impossible to look away. Many dark stories like this one make us want to turn away and separate ourselves from them as much as possible. But there is something about The Platform that is so uncomfortably familiar, so easy to identify with, that you're forced to keep watching out of a desire to look for some glimmer of light within the darkness—because you recognize the darkness as your own. A viewer can't help but to consider how they would behave in this scenario. They may even look at the mountain of quarantine provisions piled in their kitchen and feel a squirming of discomfort as they watch the characters on screen hoard food, knowing that every mouthful they take means a person is going hungry on the levels below.
In truth, our society is not so different from the hole of the movie. The Platform is a powerful allegory for the evils of capitalism, in which the majority of wealth is hoarded by the top 1% while the rest of the population must fight over the scraps left behind, despite there being plenty to go around. While this is the case at any time, the message rings particularly true now, as COVID-19 reminds us how interconnected we all really are. As governments are forced to aid their citizens, redistribute wealth, and otherwise ensure that those on "the lowest levels" are looked after during this pandemic, it's our job to ask why this sense of community and interconnectedness can't go on after the social distancing rules are lifted. Why can't we live in global community all the time? Why don't our lawmakers take care of our sick and our vulnerable every day of the year?
This crisis has made it clear what is possible to accomplish when people are forced to come together in a shared moment of desperation; how will we honor that discovery when the crisis departs?
As is pointed out in the movie, the infrastructures and bureaucracies we see as the bad guys are human-made; after all, the mechanism that sends the metaphorical platform down into the hole doesn't possess a consciousness of its own. That means these systems are penetrable with the same tools that shift individual consciousness: storytelling. The protagonists in the film decide that a symbol is what is needed to get through to the people who run the pit; in the same way, we need storytellers in the midst of this pandemic in order to incite change. Art like The Platform is endlessly valuable for its ability to crystallize the chaos of our current moment into motivation to create lasting change. Sure, not quite as important as life-saving medical care, but vital nonetheless.