Movies

Why Do Even Big Netflix Movies Like The Midnight Sky Feel So Ersatz?

The Movie Club, Entry 12.

George Clooney with a big beard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

Dear near-immortal warriors,

I’m sitting here writing this with my 10-week-old dog, Sammo, on my lap, and thinking about how what had always kept me from getting a puppy in the past was the idea that a day at the office followed by an evening screening would make it too difficult. But I’m not doing either anytime soon, and even when the world comes back, I’m not sure how often I’ll be doing the two in combo anymore. The pandemic has made it clear just how little the privileged of us actually have to do in person, regardless of how much we might want to. Those conference room meetings? There are digital alternatives. Those interactions with co-workers? Try Slack. They’re not really the same (and I can’t even imagine what dealing with online school, which sounds like a different dimension of nightmare for kids, parents, and teachers, has been like), but after making do with them for most of a year now, it’s hard to make a case that a total return to the old way is mandatory. Got a movie to see for review? Quar eventually broke even the big studios—the last holdouts when it came to screenings only, no streaming. I watched Wonder Woman 1984 a few days early on my TV via a special Warner Bros. Roku app I downloaded. Y’all are nuts re: that one, btw.

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Of course, Netflix was already all set up in this space. This was, or at least should have been, the service’s year, with all these long months of involuntary Netflix and chilling. And Netflix put out a whole slate of offerings in itself—auteurist titles like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and David Fincher’s Mank, blockbuster-y action like The Old Guard (which, Odie, I definitely enjoyed) and Extraction (which I still haven’t finished), comedies like Hubie Halloween and Eurovision, and unapologetic awards bait like The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which, I’m sorry, absolutely works, intense Sorkinisms and all) and Hillbilly Elegy (which very much does not). But is it just me, or is there an off-brand quality to be found in a lot of the ’flix’s original fare—a vaguely synthetic feel I’ve struggled to articulate? I can’t tell if this is just a function of the platform, and of the way it invariably tends to be a casualty of distracted viewing, or if it’s due to proximity to the tier of titles that really do seem to be algorithmically guided.

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I most recently felt this dissonance while watching The Midnight Sky, the George Clooney–directed sci-fi drama featuring the Cloons in his first leading role since 2016. It was, by all our usual standards, a real goddamn movie: one of the last old-fashioned stars, score by Alexandre Desplat, cinematography by Martin Ruhe. And yet, I kept thinking about how it was also, like, maybe the half-dozenth Netflix original I was aware of about a handful of people on a post-apocalyptic Earth or stuck in a spaceship above it or both, and how familiar it felt. I doubt it was engineered that way—when Clooney comes calling with a project, you say yes, at least when you’re a streaming outfit still trying to establish yourself as on the same playing field as the older media entities out there. But it can’t have hurt Netflix’s decision-making that the movie, an utterly unremarkable if sleekly made story about bad dad regrets at the end of the world, fit so handily into a rough template that seems to already be working out well for the service. The company’s slate is too diverse for there to be such a thing as a “Netflix movie,” but there are clearly certain things it likes, and it doesn’t always have to go actively seeking them out.

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I definitely wouldn’t put Mank in that same category—I can’t imagine there’s a world in which 1930s Hollywood, William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane, or Upton Sinclair’s California gubernatorial campaign are oft-searched keywords needing content to back them up. But it sure did feel like a movie that no one else wanted to make, and not always in an exciting way. David Fincher’s latest did, eventually, win me over in the end, around the time that Herman J. Mankiewicz—a bafflingly miscast Gary Oldman—realized that the whole time he thought of himself as an intellectual slumming it among California cretins for money and novelty, those same people thought of him as a fool kept around for the entertainment of people far more powerful than he’d ever appreciated. So much of the rest of it, though, just felt like a drag, a hermetically sealed portrait of the past that left the viewer on the outside gazing indifferently in. I just didn’t see what Fincher did in his father’s screenplay, and while I suppose an aspect of that is understandable, I didn’t leave it feeling there was any urgency to its existence.

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I’m not sure anyone else did, either—Mank felt like a movie that only critics really cared to talk about. The opaqueness of streaming service metrics means that I’m constantly comparing an unscientific sense of online chatter to the equally unscientific stats that the companies release. Did 99 million people really watch Extraction, as Netflix claimed? And if so, why does its cultural footprint feel so negligible? Or, to reverse that, if this platform is so vast and wide-reaching in its market penetration, why do so few viewers seem to end up directed to Radha Blank’s wonderfully salty debut The 40-Year-Old Version, or the refugee horror film His House, or Kirsten Johnson’s devastating, utterly deranged documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead? That last title was one of my favorites of the year, which gave us a trio of very different and very good takes on parents with dementia, alongside Relic and The Father. The interludes Johnson stages with her father, imagining differing ways he could die, range from darkly funny to brutally sad, but what has lingered with me is the love that suffuses every frame of the film, and how the “deaths” become a way for Johnson to further include her dad in her life after moving him into her apartment.

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People will watch what they want to watch, and God knows, I have no desire to see these movies treated as medicine that has to be shoved down throats for the viewer’s own good. They deserve better than that—they are better than that! But I do wonder about what increasingly tech-informed viewing habits will lead to, what the desire to keep people watching with familiar faces, familiar storylines, and familiar genres might mean. The other week, I noticed Ava floating up the Netflix Top 10—directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor and starring Jessica Chastain as an assassin. It was dumped in limited and VOD release in September, an A-lister’s theatrical discard that became a streaming hit, not because it was any good but because it included a bunch of the right keywords. But enough of my doomerism! Dana, my request for you, as we go into this last round, is to finally bring us around to Nomadland, a movie with its own sense of doom (some tech-related!) to it, but also a strong streak of resilience and film history.

From on the road (in spirit),
Alison

Read the next entry here.

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