Sometimes all you need to make a decent movie is a lot of food, a brilliant set, and a single metaphor stretched two hours long and several hundred stories tall. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s “The Platform” is not a subtle film. But these are unsubtle times, with unsubtle problems, and the most alarming thing about this grimly affecting Spanish allegory — which literalizes capitalism’s dehumanizing verticality with twice the gross-out terror of “Parasite,” and almost half of that masterpiece’s furious grace — is that it sometimes doesn’t seem like an allegory at all.
Like “Cube,” “Saw,” and even “The Exterminating Angel” before it, “The Platform” is the sort of (largely) single-location horror movie that’s defined by its premise. Somewhere in the not-so-distant-future — or perhaps a Camus-esque alternate version of now — hundreds of people are trapped in a narrow cement skyscraper that has more levels than any of the prisoners housed there could ever hope to count. The company that owns the place has branded it a “Vertical Self-Management Center,” but its occupants refer to it only as “The Pit,” a reference to the large rectangular elevator shaft of a hole that’s cut into the center of each floor; look down over the edge and the abyss seems bottomless.
The rules of the Pit are simple: There are two inmates on every floor, both of them are randomly assigned to a new floor together at the start of each month, and their only sustenance is served on a giant smorgasbord of food that magically descends through the gap at the center of the tower every 24 hours. This movable feast is fit for a king when it’s first lowered down from the Michelin-worthy kitchen atop the Pit, as the people on the top floor are treated to a royal banquet’s worth of kobe beef, glazed duck, vintage wine, decadent cakes, and even the odd plate of escargot. The prisoners are only allowed a few minutes to gobble up as much grub as they can before their leftovers are lowered to the people on the floor below them, whose leftovers are then lowered to the people on the floor below them, whose leftovers are then lowered to the people on the floor below them, and so on for nobody knows how long.
By the time the platform reaches level 48, the turkey leg has been chewed down to a few errant strips of saliva-covered meat. By the time it reaches level 80, the smorgasbord has been reduced to a dirty tray of silverware. If the prisoners on the top levels only took what they needed, there’d be enough food for everyone. But — spoiler alert for human nature! — that’s not how things go down, and those consigned to the depths of the Pit are left with little choice but to eat each other alive. What a far-fetched idea.
If “The Platform” hinges on the premise that capitalism — or at least the socioeconomic hierarchy that it’s required to codify — would look a bit less compassionate when reduced to the scale of a Philip Zimbardo experiment, the movie isn’t quite the thuddingly obvious piece of leftist agit-prop that it might seem on paper. Well, it isn’t just that, anyway. While screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero don’t hesitate to evangelize for the spirit of democratic socialism, their script is less attuned to systemic revolution than it is to the personal responsibility that might fuel it; be the change you wish to see in the world, even (or especially) if your world is limited to the worst restaurant this side of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen.
People in the Pit are defined by their level, but Goreng (Iván Massagué) — our gaunt and vaguely Christ-like protagonist — refuses to conflate character with circumstance. He’s new here. Before Goreng even opens his eyes on his first day inside, his cutthroat troll of a roommate (Zorion Eguileor as the unsparing Trimagasi) gives us the lay of the land: “There are three types of people,” he snivels. “Those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.” But maybe there’s just one type of person, and they just look different when seen from below, above, or directly across the hole in the floor between you.
Eguileor delivers a delicious performance as the film’s barbaric id, chewing on the scenery in lieu of any other sustenance as he lectures Goreng on the ways of the world while literally pissing on the people below them. “Next month those people might be above us,” Goreng cautions. “Then they’ll piss on us,” Trimagasi replies. “I can’t shit upwards.” Piss and shit are just the beginning of the bodily fluids that Gaztelu-Urrutia has in store, as “The Platform” refracts its organizing principle of disgust through a kaleidoscope of grossness that makes even the most basic human functions feel somewhat barf-inducing.
The soundtrack squelches with sick body music whenever anyone so much as sinks their teeth into a morsel of food, and that’s before people are put on the menu. It isn’t long until even the delicacies we see on the platform seem inedible, and Gaztelu-Urrutia obliterates your appetite just in time for an unsolicited sex scene; the shots themselves are surprisingly tasteful, but you won’t be even a little bit in the mood to enjoy them. Our most basic functions grow so vile that Goreng’s optimism becomes the only palatable option.
None of these characters have much in the way of depth, Goreng included, and so “The Platform” compensates by manufacturing some depth of its own, as the film travels to a different floor every time its hero is reassigned. We see life in the Pit from almost every conceivable level, and each of them has their own compelling wrinkles (especially because some of what we learn along the way reveals a sneaky unreliable streak), but the script grows increasingly paranoid that its premise isn’t enough to sustain its story, and the cast swells with mixed results as the movie begins to peel away from reality.
Gaztelu-Urrutia takes pains to flesh out Goreng’s plan for reforming the Pit, but watching him put that idea into action feels curiously disconnected from the socioeconomic forces at work. “The Platform” hinges on a problem that’s far more complicated than the proposed solution for it, and the third act drifts into abstraction in a way that leaves Goreng’s hope feeling like an overheated fever dream. “Change never happens spontaneously,” someone warns, and this starving nightmare of a film recognizes that it has to start with us. But in the Pit, as in life, convincing people below you that there’s enough food to go around is a lot easier than convincing the people above you to care.
“The Platform” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, March 20.