Movies

What Is Below Zero and Why Is It Suddenly No. 1 on Netflix?

The new thriller is only the latest example of Netflix making a hit out of a foreign import.

A cop holds up his gun in front of a police fan. Behind him a man in a red parka.
Netflix

Every now and then, something you probably haven’t heard of will bounce to the top of Netflix’s Top 10 list. This week’s surprise winner for Netflix’s No. 1 spot is Below Zero, a Spanish action film that debuted on the streaming platform on January 29 with no fanfare. Its thumbnail doesn’t give away much that isn’t already suggested by the film’s title—i.e., it’s cold.

“Well then, what is it?” you may ask. “What is it about? Why is it atop Netflix’s charts?” After watching Below Zero, I can only answer those first two questions concretely, but the answers to those two questions also point us to a possible answer to the third, so let’s dive into the freezing rabbit hole together.

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What is Below Zero?

As it turns out, Below Zero is a pretty standard action movie that follows a prisoner transport van. Police officer Martin (Javier Gutiérrez) is assigned to drive the truck, and unfortunately for him, things start to go awry almost immediately. There’s a shadowy figure tailing the truck, and not all of the prisoners are who they seem to be.

Before we go any further, is it actually below zero in Below Zero?

Yeah, a major plot point is that a cold front is coming in.

So is it a prison escape movie, or a chase movie, or …?

I think I’d call it a thriller or a survival movie. Yes, there’s a prison escape element, and yes, there’s a chase element, but the movie switches gears pretty frequently.

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I see what you did there.

Oh no. What I’m saying is that it’s not long into the movie before Martin gets trapped in the back of the truck with the prisoners, and the dynamic shifts back and forth from cop versus prisoners, to prisoners versus prisoners, to truck team versus shadowy figure.

Can we go back a bit? This Spanish police officer is simply named “Martin”? Is that his first name or his last name? It seems unlikely that Spaniards would just call a cop “Martin.”

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Well, in the original Spanish version he’s Martín, but I think the subtitles made him Martin in order to make things easier for non-Spanish-speaking Americans.

So is it a bottle movie? Does the whole movie take place in the truck?

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Most of it does. There’s a little hopping in and out of the vehicle, too, but not a lot, perhaps because it is so cold.

This sounds like something Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington would star in if it got remade in America.

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Honestly, that assessment is not far off the mark! The blue-grey color palette certainly brings to mind movies like Non-Stop and The Commuter, not to mention the aptly named The Grey. That said, Martin is maybe a little less fearsome than Neeson or Washington. He’s someone that, if the need arose, you’d probably take your chances with in a fight.

Who is the star of this movie, anyway? Is this Javier Gutiérrez guy the Liam Neeson of Spain, and is that why this movie is so big?

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Well, Gutiérrez has won two Goya awards for Best Actor. (Those are kind of like the Spanish Oscars.) So that’s probably part of it. But there’s no evidence that Gutiérrez is as big in the U.S. as someone like Neeson.

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Is the movie based on anything?

Nope! Though it’s easy to imagine picking up a book with this exact plot while in an airport bookstore, the movie is an original.

Wait, so if they hardly ever leave this truck, where does the cold factor in?

This is a mild spoiler, so turn back now if you actually want to watch the movie, but towards the end, the truck gets driven into a frozen lake and starts to flood.

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Oh no!

The movie is filled with surprises like this, and even some bona fide twists. Frankly, not all of them are earned—it’s kind of like The Snowman, if you remember that movie. The tagline was “Mister Police […] I gave you all the clues,” but then if you actually watched the movie it was like … no you didn’t. The clues aren’t all there in this case, either, but the action moves quickly enough that it’s hard to complain.

So, is it good?

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It’s pretty fun! It definitely hits a certain mood (as I write this, sheets and sheets of snow are coming down outside), but even beyond that, as per the above answer, you literally can’t 100 percent guess where it’s going, and the relationships between the characters make it easy to get invested. Be warned, though, that there are a few gory moments (a head getting impaled, a hand being blown apart), so it’s not a journey for the faint of heart.

Has anything like this ever reached the top of Netflix’s charts before?

Well, a few days ago the No. 1 movie was the middling Russell Crowe thriller The Next Three Days, and Netflix has had major successes with genre imports like the French series Lupin (which also hit No. 1) and the Spanish series Money Heist (which is one of Netflix’s most popular series ever). Put those together and you’ve got Below Zero!

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