With the rise of Netflix came the fall of video rental stores – other than the odd convenience chain that still clings to the practice of yesteryear. And while it would be easy to talk about Netflix’s dominance over the home entertainment industry, as everyone is talking about it, it’s safe to assume that most readers needn’t read anything on the subject at all. It’s a world that we’ve been living in since 2010, when the streaming service touched down in Canada.
The service is thriving and giving Hollywood home distribution a run for its money, we get it, but as of October 16, Netflix has targeted the studio’s pièce de résistance. With the release of their first feature film Beasts of No Nation, Netflix has gone after the movie theater, but I can’t help but wonder if they took a big enough risk.
In many ways Beasts of No Nation is a rallying call for the Hollywood anti-establishment. The film features an entirely black cast, many of them quite young, and many of whom have never acted before. This is a welcome departure from child actors who were trained to smile in Welch’s grape juice commercials, and it lends to a welcome sense of realism that serves as its story’s foundation.
Beasts of No Nation follows a young boy who is taken from his community to become a child soldier, leading him into his country’s heart of darkness. The studios would have been afraid to touch it. They’d draw up their bar graphs and reference demographics to confirm that audiences today would have no interest in such a story.
We’d been fed a healthy diet of superhero films and CGI-dinosaurs and we’ve yet to piece together that what we’ve been eating is nothing more than sugary cereal that, while providing sustenance, is still rotting our teeth away. This film has weight, it has a message, and it’s worth the watch for those ideas alone, but with that said, it fails to do something new. At the end of the day, Beasts of No Nation has followed in the footsteps of its independent predecessors.
It explores a story that Hollywood usually wouldn’t vouch for, other than when the film receives praise and makes its way to the Oscars to become a “Hollywood success story”. Other than Idris Elba (Prometheus, Luther) who is used as bait to draw audiences in, the rest of the cast are newcomers to the medium and that is an exciting trend.
Where Beasts and Netflix fails is that this story has been seen and told before on many occasions, and while stories have been repeated since their inception, what makes them different is how they’re told, how they’re executed. There is nothing unique and surprisingly outstanding in Beasts of No Nation, but there is nothing noticeably horrible about it either. Other than its attempts to shock and awe, which fall flat, the rest of the film does what it sought out to do.
The performances aren’t bad or good, they simply exist and the actors do their jobs. I imagine this is making me come across as caustic, but I simply had higher expectations for this film because of its ties to Netflix. Here there was a chance to go above and beyond, to show audiences that something exists outside of Hollywood and that we can be better storytellers.
This was a chance to push the boundaries of entertainment and open the doors to a new age of filmmaking. Maybe they’re playing it safe. Elba’s involvement lends to that belief, the thought that audience members still require some recognizable face value before we can commit to a film.
But isn’t that such a traditional way of seeing things? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a slate of films and from a ground-breaking company like Netflix that doesn’t feel like it’s shackled to Hollywood’s ankle? Wouldn’t it blow the industry’s mind to know that there is a popular venue that is showcasing films from across the world that tell stories better than Hollywood ever could and with shoestring budgets that put the studios’ spend-sprees to shame? Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but after all, we’re the ones paying for the tickets and subscribing…
I’m keen to see what this release means for cinema in general, and though Netflix is somewhat secretive about their viewership numbers, I’m interested to know how this release measured up against the weekend’s box office. What’s interesting is that the numbers don’t necessarily matter to Netflix as much as they do to the studios. Netflix already has their paycheck, we’ve subscribed, and even if no one watches the film they’re still watching something. Studios simply cannot compete with that structure.
Film criticism is also an interesting conundrum. As a critic myself I’m conflicted as to whether the Netflix output should be compared to those of studios. Beast’s modest low budget of 6 million dollars isn’t much in terms of the financial backing that is driving Hollywood. Is that to say that their limited resources limited Beasts of No Nation?
I’m not too sure, but my problem with the film is not in the production design or in its use of talent, but rather in the story itself and that it fails to pull any punches and create a unique viewing experience. Netflix did indeed go for the jugular with this new direction, but their bark was far more potent that their bite.