Netflix first invaded the home twenty years ago with a DVD rental service, laying the foundations for the invisible machine that would come to dominate the domestic space. By 2010, its presence wrapped the entire globe, streaming television and film into the living rooms, computers and handheld devices of everyone with an internet connection.
The abundance of media at our fingertips is widely celebrated, but how often do you find yourself staring passively at the screen, your finger scrolling from one option to the next with barely a pause for consideration? This is symptomatic of what is referred to by some as “choice fatigue” (Vonderau, 2015) or “overchoice” (Bilton, 2017); a condition we suffer from as a direct result of the oversupply of commodified experiences, and which invariably results in another episode (or three) of Friends, one of the highly-publicised Netflix ‘Originals’, or anything anyone has been talking about at the proverbial watercooler.
Humans are an inherently social species which generally finds value in reading and watching the same stuff as those around them (Elberse, 2013); ‘herding’ towards “the most popular products, driven by marketing, word of mouth and a collective desire to be part of the same conversation” (Bilton, 2017). This is all just part of the mainstream pop culture machine that has us compelled to engage with whatever Iron Man and his cronies are up to at this improbably late juncture, but many had, perhaps naively, hoped that this new-found access to a huge library of content might encourage a more varied viewing culture. Alas, no. We’re predisposed to follow the crowd, even if it surges like lemmings towards ‘bad’ movies.
Our access to TV, documentary and film is unprecedented, making it easier than ever to find something good to watch that might not have been shown at your local screen or that was not expensive or spectacular enough to fix a playdate at the multiplex. However, there’s also a lot of ‘bad’ stuff that clogs the airwaves. I’m not just talking about the dry, featureless, formulaic comic book movies that, granted, are entertaining as bedroom-tidying-background-noise, but add little/nothing to my appreciation of the medium. I am referring to productions that are generally considered ‘bad’ by the moviegoing and critical public.
But you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. All the trash talk about Will Smith’s orc-buddy-cop movie Bright, the Super Bowl surprise release The Cloverfield Paradox and the “almost unwatchable” Blade Runner-esque Mute, has tickled the curiosity of the 118 million-strong global Netflix market.
What’s curious and potentially problematic about this though, is that the likes of The Cloverfield Paradox, and the forthcoming female-centric sci-fi horror flick Annihilation, have been given what some would consider a modern version of the ‘straight-to-video’ treatment (outside the US). That is, they’re not good enough to warrant taking up multiplex real estate, so they’re sent straight to digital. But by so doing, 118 million streaming subscribers are presented with this glittery new movie from one of the world’s most recognised producers (J.J.Abrams of Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation fame) and it doesn’t matter that it has managed only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the most hilariously hyperbolic reviews I’ve read in a long time. It is there on the Netflix landing page, almost literally glowing with its timely diversity, franchise heritage and on-trend aesthetics. Viewers have herded to its calling, curious to find for themselves if it really is “an inferior slab of space-set mediocrity”, and by so doing, fuelling the sci-fi furnace which will continue to belch out crap (Bright 2 is already in the works…).
There’s an argument that cinema’s presence in the home at all is “a regrettable triumph of convergence over art that disturbs the communion between viewer and film and interferes with judgement of quality” (Klinger, 2006), that is, the practice of viewing is mediated by domestic inevitabilities; the entrance of your cat, the phone ringing or even your decision to multi-task. But practical issues aside, are we seeing a change in the quality of the media itself? Do we know how to look for ‘good’ film?
There is always an audience for a film whether the general consensus is good or bad, so this subject is always going to divide. However, there seems to be a trend towards mind-numbing, fits-the-mould spectacle that leaves viewers feeling like they’ve been on standby for two hours (Denby, 2012), then to shake off the fog of sci-fi/fantasy and move on with life. Escapism is great, but escaping from sentience – the capacity to feel, to think, to perceive – is not something that should be celebrated. Think back to the last time a film – mainstream or otherwise – made you stop, think, and reflect on your life. Hang on to that feeling.
‘The Disappearing Product: Marketing and Markets in the Creative Industries’ by Christopher Bilton (2017)
‘Do the Movies Have a Future?’ by David Denby (2012)
‘Blockbuster: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – Are the Future of the Entertainment Business’ by Anita Elberse (2013)
‘Beyond the Multiplex’ by Barbara Klinger (2006)
‘The Politics of Content Aggregation’ [journal article] by Patrick Vonderau (2015), Television & New Media, Vol.16(8) pp.717-733