Straight to Netflix: Another week, another dud movie

Netflix, now a film-maker, has released a series of weak science-fiction movies

Earlier this month, in the hours before the Superbowl kicked off, Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, tweeted that: "#FilmTwitter is going to explode tonight. Something is coming that I can hardly believe. Lawd. History in the making."

This "Film Twitter" duly got itself into a conniption speculating that Orson Welles had risen from the grave or that somebody was going to release Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried.

It transpired that The Cloverfield Paradox, a much-discussed quasi-follow-up to Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, was about to debut on Netflix.

The film turned out to be very bad. This was not “history” to compare with the fall of the Bastille or the Normandy Landings.


If The Cloverfield Paradox had been produced secretly then we might talk about defining new paradigms and restructuring outdated models (and blah, blah). But what seems to have happened is that a bad film went "straight to video" in a slightly new way. The same thing has been happening to Steven Seagal films for decades.

The release came a few weeks after Netflix nudged David Ayer's Bright onto their ubiquitous platform. Described here and there as the company's first "blockbuster", the picture starred Will Smith and Joel Edgerton in the tale of a universe where orcs and elves live alongside human police officers such as our Will. It, perhaps, got a rough deal from some critics – Bright crept onto a few "worst of 2017" lists – but nobody could sincerely argue that it was making history either.

Last weekend, science fiction fans knocked sideways by these disappointments allowed themselves to get excited by the arrival of Duncan Jones's long-gestated Mute.

Contrary to the guff later spread about on social media, critics were, for the most part, well disposed to like Mute. Jones is a famously amiable fellow. His first two films, Moon and Source Code, were genuine crackers.

Moreover, staged as a tribute to Jones's late father David Bowie – orchestrations of the great man's music over shots of a futuristic Berlin – Mute promised to tease all our nostalgia glands. Jones's picture got even worse reviews than Bright or The Cloverfield Paradox.

Though reasonably nice to look at and adequately acted, Mute is devoid of anything you could reasonably describe as a story. It is a baffling piece of work. Before its release, we were frequently told that only Netflix dared to finance it. Now we know why.

We can’t tell if these films bombed at the virtual box office. Netflix don’t release viewing figures. We don’t even know what “bombed” would mean in the current era.

We can, however, say that Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, cares little for the reviewers. Following the Bright fiasco, he said that critics: "speak to specific audiences who care about quality, or how objectively good or bad a movie is – not the masses who are critical for determining whether a film makes money".

Let that sink in. The critics speak only for those “who care about quality”. Those of you who don’t mind watching crap need pay no attention.

We are talking about slightly different beasts here. Bright and Mute are Netflix productions. The company financed those films from final draft to their emergence on your laptop.

The Cloverfield Paradox was produced by Paramount and Bad Robot before being passed on to Netflix after production. Nonetheless, an unhappy impression is emerging that the company is synonymous with science fiction that's gone wrong.

Desperate for content, Netflix cares, by Sandos’s own implicit admission, little for “how objectively good or bad a movie is”. The bad Netflix sci-fi movie is in danger of becoming a genre in its own right.

Another upcoming Netflix release may win back some ground, but it has kicked up its own controversies along the way. Originally scheduled for a February release in this country, Alex Garland's adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel Annihilation will now play only on Netflix.

So it's another dud? Far from it. Starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the story of scientists investigating a mysterious portal, the picture has, on its US release, received near-unanimous raves.

These images sound like the sort of thing you should see on the big screen. Garland certainly thinks so. “We made the film for cinema,” he said. “One of the big pluses of Netflix is that it goes out to a lot of people, and you don’t have that strange opening weekend thing where you’re wondering if anyone is going to turn up.

“So it’s got pluses and minuses, but from my point of view and the collective of the people who made it – [it was made] to be seen on a big screen.”

Adding to the ill feeling, it emerged that the deal with Netflix was struck following a test screening that convinced David Ellison, a financier at Paramount, that the film was "too intellectual" and "too complicated". Rudin and Garland refused to make changes and the complicated, intellectual film ended on the same medium that brought you Bright and Mute. This is all a bit of a mess.

So is Netflix a dumping ground for duds or a safe haven for intellectual films rejected by their financiers? Nobody knows. Give it six months and, following the release of fresh classics, we could be discussing the streaming service as a saviour of speculative cinema.

We do know that Netflix is never going to be a bona fide friend of the older, big-screen medium. "Keep in mind; they are Coke to cinema's Pepsi, " Duncan Jones said of Netflix's relationship with theatrical distribution. "Why should they support their rival? Their business relies on exclusive content now."

A few week's after the release of Bright, Netflix commissioned a sequel. This means it was probably a hit. Nobody knows anything.