Article Thumbnail

Netflix’s ‘Uncanny Valley’ Problem With Their (Bad) Original Movies

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Triple Frontier’

When Roma won three Oscars at last month’s Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, it was seen as a huge step forward for Netflix, which has fought to establish itself as a serious Hollywood player, able to produce movies as artistically significant and risk-taking as the traditional studios. “If you’re going to build a great film studio, you have to build it with great filmmakers,” Netflix’s head of film Scott Stuber told the New York Times last year, and indeed, the company has backed work from the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Tamara Jenkins (Private Life) and Martin Scorsese (the forthcoming The Irishman).

But when you’re talking about Netflix’s original films, those aren’t necessarily the movies that come to mind first. Roma is, at the moment anyway, the happy anomaly. Most Netflix films are something else — something far worse. They’re sorta like normal movies, but not exactly. Sure, they have movie stars in them, and they’re part of recognizable genres. But they’re just a little off, as if they were constructed by aliens trying to replicate how human beings make films.

The latest example of this weird phenomenon is Triple Frontier, which, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear was a good ol’ fashioned motion picture. After all, it’s directed by J.C. Chandor, who previously made Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year. Those are all honest-to-god movies. It stars Ben Affleck (who’s won two Oscars) and Oscar Isaac (the internet’s boyfriend) in a story about former special forces operatives who undertake a dangerous heist to rob a despicable drug dealer, leading to disastrous results. Co-written by Mark Boal (a two-time Oscar-winner for The Hurt Locker), Triple Frontier has action, drama and suspense, as well as a message about the evils of war. In other words, it contains all the film-like elements that you’d expect from a movie.

Except for the most important one: It doesn’t feel like a movie.

That may sound like a subjective, arbitrary judgment, but trust me: When you see Triple Frontier, you’ll understand. To be honest, this movie has been snake-bit for a while. Way back in 2010, the movie was going to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow and star Tom Hanks, but in subsequent years, filmmakers and actors have come and left the project. (Funny enough, Affleck actually signed up for Triple Frontier and then exited, only to eventually return.) And the final film carries the scars of a development-hell project that’s mostly a mishmash of other, better movies. There are random elements of Three Kings and Zero Dark Thirty in Triple Frontier, as well as Lone Survivor, The Deer Hunter and Deliverance. The movie isn’t about originality: It merely hopes to lure you into watching by reminding you of films you actually like.

Triple Frontier’s generic quality is, clearly, not a deal-breaker for Netflix, which swooped in to make the film after Paramount walked away in 2017. In fact, this is a habit of Netflix’s. Last year, Paramount sold off The Cloverfield Paradox to the streaming site, presumably because executives knew it was bad and wouldn’t make money. Ditto Universal’s decision to unload Extinction, which got bad reviews. For every Roma, there’s a movie that Netflix took because its original studio basically dumped it. (If ever there was an indication that Holmes & Watson was terrible, it was the rumors that Sony tried to sell the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly comedy to Netflix, and the company didn’t want it. If Holmes & Watson was too terrible for Netflix, well…) Whether we’re talking about its acquisitions or a lot of its original content, Netflix doesn’t mind being a warehouse for movie-like movies — films that are more creatively evolved than cheapo video-on-demand efforts but not good enough to be actual films.

Knockoffs are divine for fashion bargain-hunters, but with movies, there’s something unnerving about a film that feels like a replica. In Triple Frontier, Isaac’s principled Pope Garcia recruits his old pals (which include Affleck, as well as Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal) to steal a bunch of money from a South American crime lord. Like every heist movie, it involves a scheme that’s foolproof. And like every heist movie, the scheme goes pear-shaped. Along the way, a lot of the things you’d expect to be in a film like this are: The men bond in a manly fashion; they question their privilege in the face of the poverty they see around them; they let greed overcome them; and they eventually see the error of their ways, ultimately redeeming themselves. None of the characters is particularly interesting — each of these guys could be called Replacement-Level Soldier Character — and even the soundtrack choices feel like they’ve been programmed by someone who has no idea how overused Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” is as a dramatic device. (And in case you weren’t clear that war is bad, Chandor cues up Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” just to make it super obvious.)

But what makes Triple Frontier such an uncanny-valley experience is a word I try to never use (though here it’s completely deserved): The movie is very, very, very boring. That is, many potentially exciting or emotional things happen in the film, but I found myself being slowly numbed by how nonspecific its drama was. I felt like I was watching the idea of a movie.

I had grim flashbacks to my post-college life when I was reading spec scripts for a production company, each aspiring screenwriter hoping to get their dream project made. So many of those scripts desperately ripped off whatever was popular at the time, regurgitating themes and plot twists that had been big in movies, say, two years ago. The scripts were bad in the same way that Triple Frontier is bad — they had this copycat/undead quality to them that almost felt ghoulish, as if these mediocre ideas were feasting on the bones of previously good ideas. Triple Frontier is full of talented people doing their best, and yet the net result is this absolute nothing. It’s honestly uncomfortable to sit through Triple Frontier — all that potential entertainment value just fizzles as you watch.

This is a common occurrence when I try a new Netflix film. The streaming site has been a helpful platform for nervy thrillers such as Cam, but too often the company’s movies play like “You might also like…” viewing options. Do you enjoy dumb, overblown action films? Then you might also like Bright, which is like those movies but worse. Are you a fan of dystopian sci-fi? Then you might also like Mute, which is an awful variation on the genre. Do you wish Adam Sandler indulged his laziest tendencies? Then you might also like… a ton of bad Adam Sandler movies!

Triple Frontier gathers its marketable items in such a way that a viewer may decide to give it a chance as they’re scrolling through menu items. (Seriously, look at all those stars!) But it’s a film that doesn’t need to exist — and for many years didn’t, despite lots of effort on a lots of people’s part. Netflix is an exciting outlet for auteurs who can’t get financing for their ambitious, commercially risky projects. But I wish it wasn’t also such a warehouse for mediocrity. The traditional studios make bad movies, too. But too often, Netflix is the home for the ones too bad for even studios to allow to see the light of day. A film like Triple Frontier doesn’t get released — it merely escapes, like a zombie, pitiful and horrifying.

Here are three other takeaways from Triple Frontier

#1. I finally decided to learn what the hell a klick is.

Because this is a movie involving military men, invariably one of the characters will describe distances as being, say, 20 klicks away. I see enough movies that I’m very familiar with this terminology — but I’ve never known what a klick is or how long one is. I wasn’t even sure how you spelled it.

So let’s help shed some light: The length of a klick is a kilometer. And that’s spelled with a K — in the military, a “click” is used to gauge distance for a rifle. I’ll let Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL, explain:  

“In military-speak, the term ‘click’ (spelled with a ‘c’ instead of a ‘k’) is used when sighting-in a weapon, such as a rifle. On most weapons, one ‘click’ equals one minute of arc, or — in other words, one inch of distance at one hundred yards. So, moving the site adjustments of the rifle ‘one-click’ will change the point of impact one inch for a target 100 yards away, two inches for a target 200 yards away and so forth.”

What was also interesting to me is that, while American society as a whole disdains the metric system (which, basically, the entire planet uses), our military speaks in kilometers. According to Smith, that’s because we had to adapt to our allies: “Since World War I, the U.S. and U.K. military have used the metric systems when performing combined operations with the French who used the metric system. The maps were made by the French and the term ‘kilometer’ became part of U.S military lexicon during World War I.”

There you go: Wonder no more what the hell soldiers are talking about in mediocre action movies. Tune in next time when I look into the cinematic history of cops, Navy SEALs and adorable cartoon animals using complicated hand motions to signal how they’re going to storm a building.

Open Season Signaling GIF by Sony Pictures Animation - Find & Share on GIPHY

#2. If you’re a criminal, is hiding your loot in the walls the best call?

As Pope’s team sneaks into the lair of the feared drug kingpin Lorea, their plan goes off without a hitch. Well, there is one problem: Where the hell’s the money they assumed would be there? After a few frustrating moments, the guys figure out the riddle:

Soon, they’re ripping up the walls to get at the cash, which is hidden inside. Now, I’m not a professional criminal or anything, but this seems like a pretty terrible idea for where to hide your ill-gotten gain. For one thing, what if you need, like, a thousand bucks real fast? Does that require you tearing up your house every time and then patching the walls back up? That just doesn’t seem very efficient.

Also, I was curious how much this was just a movie trope — or if actual crooks do this.

Well, apparently, yes, it’s a real thing. In 2007, the DEA and Mexican police raided a home where methamphetamine was being produced. Among other seizures, the cops grabbed about $205 million from the compound, which was “found hidden inside walls, suitcases and closets.”

This also brings up another question: If you’re not a Walter White, where should you hide some emergency cash in your house so that robbers can’t get to it?

Breaking Bad Where Is The Money GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Writing for The Simple Dollar, Trent Hamm points out that lots of people put money in their mattress — but that most burglars would look there first. So he decided to consult a bunch of people to see what they’d advise — other than, like, y’know, a safe. Here were some of the suggestions of where to hide your cash:

  • “Inside your Christmas decoration box”
  • “In an envelope taped to the bottom of your cat’s litter box”
  • “Inside of an empty bottle of Guinness in the back of the fridge with the cap seemingly in place (smash it to get the cash)”
  • “In a watertight plastic bottle or jar in the tank on the back of your toilet”

Feel free to try any of these. Or better yet, next time you go to your friend’s place for a dinner party, use these guidelines as a treasure map for potential hidden money. It’s so much more exciting than game night.

#3. Here’s the line in ‘Triple Frontier’ that plays a lot different now than when the film was made.

Triple Frontier establishes that Ben Affleck’s character, Redfly Davis, walked away from the military to focus on being a good father to his kids. But the opportunity for a huge haul convinces him to team up with Pope and the rest of gang. When the crew discovers the drug dealer’s millions hidden in his stronghold, these hardened soldiers start acting like giddy schoolchildren who just stumbled upon a secret stash of candy, hungrily ripping the stacks of cash from the walls.

At one point, Pope excitedly spells out just how much money they’re stealing. But what he says to Redfly sure felt weird to hear, this of all weeks: “I tell you one thing, man, you can tell your girls they can stop studying now, ‘cuz Daddy’s just gonna buy their way into Harvard!”

There’s a nice little tinge of irony to that line now that wasn’t there when the film was made. Sure, these guys may be acting unethically by murdering and robbing a criminal kingpin without their government’s authorization — but, c’mon, they’re not monsters.