Netflix Roulette, Where the Movies Never End

Posted September 6, 2018 7:18 p.m. EDT
Updated September 7, 2018 12:02 p.m. EDT

In David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” a filmmaker creates a movie so entertaining that it reduces viewers to dribbling catatonia. In the 1999 movie “The Matrix,” humanity is enslaved by machines that maintain a simulation of reality to keep everyone compliant. Nightmare visions in which slick entertainment anesthetizes the populace are nothing new. But no one could have predicted binge-watching, which means that once again reality has outstripped our wildest, grimmest imaginings.

Netflix’s way to hook you into binge-watching is to “suggest” the next program to watch, while the program you’ve been watching is coming to an end. Do nothing and the suggested program’s trailer will play to induce you further. (Of course you can always hit “stop” or “back” or another such command and put an end to the entertainment. It is just a matter of willpower.) The platform’s much-bruited algorithms, which take your viewing patterns into account, are charged with picking that thing you should most likely want to watch next. When I have chosen to roll with this practice, I call it Netflix Roulette.

A couple of months ago, I began keeping track of where Netflix wanted to take me, viewing the shows on the platform itself rather than on its media screener website. After watching the horror thriller “Calibre” on July 9, I was offered “Tau,” a sci-fi Netflix Original starring Maika Monroe and Ed Skrein and directed by Federico D’Alessandro. Monroe stars as a sly shoplifter who is arrested and captured but not by the police. Her kidnapper is a young, sleek scientist played by Skrein, whose house is run by an artificial intelligence system. Skrein’s brainiac is a fussy, nasty fellow. “If she speaks, rip her tongue out,” he tells the AI system, named Tau, which commands a menacing robot that can do just that.

The movie has interesting visual nods to classics like “Forbidden Planet” and “The Colossus of New York,” but it is mainly a dicey proposition. I enjoyed the recent AI-and-gender-relations-themed sci-fi movie “Ex Machina” as much if not more than the next person, but I am not too keen on variations on that film, in which some emotionally messed-up tech bro uses his genius to more effectively abuse a woman.

It was amusing, however, to learn why Skrein’s scientist wants to explore his prisoner’s brain: He wants to decode human thoughts into algorithms. On hearing that, I thought, “Wow, so this guy works for Netflix?”

After “Tau,” the platform cued up “Extinction,” the sci-fi film starring Michael Peña that also has an artificial intelligence theme. I had watched that already, so I zipped through to the end, where the next offer was “The Warning,” a Spanish film about a series of peculiarly linked murders at the same location. Starring Raúl Arévalo and directed by Daniel Calparsoro, “The Warning” (“El Aviso” in Spanish) is a story of obsession and fate, one with a weird hook that winds up promising more than it can deliver. One thread of the plot finds a young mother forcing her son to go to a particular store. Parents often compel their offspring to do things they do not want to do. But the store, a convenience shop at a gas station, is where the boy had previously found a note instructing him that if he visited again on his birthday, he would be killed.

Guess which day his mother wants him to revisit the store, to prove that he is not superstitious or easily cowed by the bullies she believes left the note? This scene places the viewer in the awkward position of speculating, for perhaps too long, whether the movie is going to let the character be killed; either way, someone is not winning any “Mother of the Year” award any time soon. The acting is excellent, though, and the direction energetic.

“The Warning” was followed by “Perdida,” a grim Argentine drama. Its protagonist is a young female cop who works on human-trafficking cases. The connective thread with “The Warning” at first seems only to be that they are both Spanish-language movies. But there are more affinities. The movies’ structure, for instance: Both films toggle between two time periods about a decade apart. In “Perdida,” the female officer is haunted, once again, by the disappearance of her childhood friend 14 years before, a traumatic event that spurred her to join the force. The movie is earnest and twisty (as with “The Warning,” one plot element requires math calculations), but also a bit of a slog. It is also a little clichéd. One character puts on loud music, not knowing she is about to drown out the sound of her own murder.

Netflix’s next recommendation, after “Perdida,” was the comedy starring Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammer, “Like Father,” which made no sense. The system failed! I had already seen that movie, which I moderately enjoyed. I cut off the thread at that point.

Wondering what would happen if I proceeded from a comedy, I began with “Carrie Pilby” on Aug. 8, then let Netflix cue up “Candy Jar,” which was certainly the most pleasant surprise of my Netflix Roulette experiment. It is a young-adult movie, yes, so maybe I should be embarrassed, but I did get a kick out of this story about two high school debate aces who are the best of frenemies and of course destined for romance. Directed by Ben Shelton from a script by Chad Klitzman, it honors young people of intellectual achievement while also making sharp points about class and educational standards. The two young leads, Jacob Latimore and Sami Gayle, are deft at playing brainy, and Helen Hunt, Christina Hendricks and Uzo Aduba offer solid adult support; Hunt is particularly effective as a sympathetic guidance counselor. The film is fleet, sweet and often genuinely funny.

After “Candy Jar,” I was prompted to look at “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which I had seen and enjoyed, but not so much I thought I needed to sit through it again.

The weirdest suggestion I got in these experiments came about after the apocalyptic road trip movie “How It Ends,” which I watched July 16: The platform then segued into “This Is Me Now,” a standup comedy special from Jim Jefferies. In the trailer, which runs as the end credits to “How It Ends” roll, comedian Jefferies says: “This is why I believe there should be a wall. There should be a wall — on the Canadian border.”

His point being that when health care in the United States fails overall, citizens will flood the Canadian border to take advantage of its universal health care system. There might be a thematic affinity with “How It Ends” there, but it is pretty thin.

Such algorithm glitches have some value. There comes a point during my hours of work when I have to hit the stop button and take the advice my mother gave me during my movie-mad childhood: “Go outside and get some fresh air.”