Picture the scene: You wake up in a blank concrete room with two beds, a sink, a toilet, and a fellow inmate. On the floor is a large square hole that seems to go downward for endless levels, one that is parallel to a matching hole on the ceiling. You can see other people on higher and lower levels, but nobody talks to you. Every day, a table is lowered to your level with food. Well, depending on what level you're on. If you're lucky to be near the top, there will be a delectable spread of the most extravagant dishes available for your consumption. If not, then you may be lucky to find a scrap of meat on a bone amid a pile of broken plates and vomit. This is your life every day for a month until you are moved to another level. You may go up or down. There is no rhyme or reason to the order. Could you survive it? Would you even want to survive it?
The Platform, which made its North American premiere as part of Midnight Madness at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, has a very familiar premise. Add a love triangle to the above description and you've got something straight out of a post-Hunger Games-era dystopian YA. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia's Spanish film delighted audiences at TIFF, and for good reason. Despite its often derivative nature, its first act was one of the most compelling of the festival. At a time when it feels like the world could use a little bit of cheering up, it's somewhat ironic that we've latched onto a story so unabashedly nihilistic.
The movie opens with the awakening of Goreng (played by Ivan Massague), a man who has voluntarily signed up for service in The Pit in exchange for an accredited diploma. Serve six months and receive a ticket to the upper echelons of society. Goreng goes in with a degree of enthusiasm, seeing the opportunity as a way to kick his smoking habit and finally get around to reading Don Quixote (he is allowed one luxury item, so he takes along a book). And then he wakes up with his cellmate and sees what's really up. Every day, for a few minutes, a platform is lowered with food. The best chefs in the world have produced the favorite dish of each "guest" for their indulgence, but the chances are they'll never get to eat it if they're lower than 40 or so levels down. Those unlucky enough to be on, say, level 100 are likely to starve unless they take drastic measures. How drastic? Well, how many days of starvation would it take for you to contemplate ripping strips of flesh from your roommate's leg for dinner?
While The Platform is primarily about its male protagonist, there are subtle questions of gender and explorations of how that affects a fragile and deliberately broken ecosystem such as this one. Nothing separates the people who have been sent or sentenced to this fate. Men and women share rooms. Nobody is divided by gender or class or punishment. A murderer can stay on the same floor as someone who voluntarily entered the space in hopes of getting a diploma. There does not seem to be much sense to this system, which may very well be the point. The exhaustingly abstract foundations of this institution may very well work to everyone's advantage if everyone plays by the rules, but when the system cannot help but drive people to selfishness, madness, and violence, how can the powers-that-be claim to be truly blameless?
The women in this system find themselves in a curious bind: They are able to be just as vile and violent as the men but are also at constant risk of sexual assault. As our (male) protagonist tries to sleep at night, bathed in scarlet light, he can hear the chaos above and below, often involving women's screams. Where there are women in The Pit who are all too eager to be as disgusting and punishing as the men (one defecates on a man below her who asks for her help), it's tough to escape the power dynamic at play. In a system that prizes selfishness and cruelty, women cannot help but suffer more.
There are a handful of women characters through whom this brutal point is more evidently made. One, Imoguiri (played by Antonia San Juan), is a representative of the unseen Administration who created The Pit. She signs up for service under the naïve assumption that she can lead change from the inside after years of sending unwitting prisoners to their doom. Alongside her adorable sausage dog (her luxury item — you can guess what happens to him), she tries to instigate a rationing system to ensure fair distribution of the food, but you can't reason with starving people. Until the end, she still believes in the power of the Administration and its tactics to encourage good in society, referring to this prison as a "vertical self-management center." Nobody listens to her pleas until her male roommate threatens violence, thus exacerbating the central problem that the Administration is keen to keep up.
The other woman in this story is a more curious creation. Every day, a mysterious mute woman (played by Alexandra Masangkay) visits each level on the platform, looking for her lost child. Imoguiri insists that said child does not exist — under 16s cannot enter The Pit and the woman was declared mad, she says — but the search continues daily. Sometimes the other prisoners try to attack or rape her. Most of the time she manages to fight them off with a primal rage and whatever shards of broken glass she can scavenge from the remnants of their feast. Nobody takes her plight seriously except for Goreng, but he can't exactly help her. She can fight back like the best of them, but the endless cycle of going down into the pit then all the way back up shows how little her worries are considered. To them, she is just another "crazy b*tch."
For a brief period in the late 2000s and early 2010s, dystopian fiction was all the rage. Blame The Hunger Games in part for that, and the slew of YA copycats that followed, but at the time it seemed like this tempered bleakness that had permeated pop culture had provided a perfect controlled escape for consumers. Then again, it's easier to explore such situations when you yourself are in a position of security. During the pre-Brexit Obama years, there was a naïve safeness to dystopian fiction. No way, it couldn't happen to us, right? Yet, historically speaking, dystopian fiction has also offered a means for creators to dissect the precarity of their current political situation and the unease therein. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, it didn't seem all that fantastical for a male-dominated government pandering to evangelical demands to strip women of their bodily autonomy (and, depressingly, it still doesn't seem unlikely). In case you couldn't tell, we're not exactly living in greener pastures these days, and the idea of a resistance saving us all through the power of one scrappy underdog feels laughable, if not insulting. The Platform gets this hopelessness and then some.
In The Platform, the message is clear: Eat the Rich may be the dream, but they'll always have the power and would prefer to watch the poor eat one another. The film tries to make a turn toward positivity in its ending, using a silent young girl as a beacon of hope and resistance, but it cannot help but fall flat after everything that's preceded it. The Pit does not value human life, but especially that of young women. They see the unfortunate and marginalized as pawns for their entertainment, all under the guise of "self-improvement," and there will always be more unwitting prisoners to toss into the various levels. It's not especially subtle — cannibalism is not a metaphor that aims for tact — but nonetheless it is a potent message. Therein is the true and most inevitable outcome of dystopia — the powerful just want to watch the world burn.
The Platform premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award for Midnight Madness. It will be distributed worldwide by Netflix.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.