Last weekend, announcing the Netflix premiere of his film “Mute”, a science-fiction thriller set in a futuristic version of Berlin, Duncan Jones tweeted a picture of a jar of Marmite – the yeast-extract spread so dear to the British national soul, that markets itself with the slogan “Love it or hate it”. There was a doomed inevitability to what followed as the world’s critics and audiences sat down to watch “Mute”, experiencing precisely the reaction that most non-Brits have when they get their hands on a jar of Marmite. Namely: what the blazing hell is this and why have you made me consume it?
Having spent the past couple of days watching “Mute” – and turning it off, pacing back and forth, turning it back on again, laughing incredulously and turning it off again – I can sympathise: “Mute” is, and I intend no hyperbole at all, insane. Jones’s reputation rests on his first feature, “Moon”, a sci-fi film with Sam Rockwell as a cloned astronaut, but the idea for this new movie pre-dates it. Originally conceived as a London gangster noir and now transplanted for no discernible reason to an expensive-looking, cyberpunk future, it revolves around a towering Amish bartender (Alexander Skarsgård, above). Given to whittling and prevented from speaking by a childhood motorboat accident, he begins a one-man campaign of retribution through Berlin’s mean streets when his girlfriend goes missing.
Along the way he meets two rogue American army surgeons (Paul Rudd, below right, and Justin Theroux), modelled on Trapper John and Hawkeye, the officers in Robert Altman’s “MASH”, who exchange wincing banter in between episodes of bowling, torturing Russian gangsters and molesting children. Around the halfway point, as Skarsgård beats up a man in a geisha costume while a robot with a spiked penis clanks and roars on the bed beside him, I realised I’d probably never seen a film so utterly haphazard and dramatically senseless. It’s like watching an endless improv workshop in which the script never existed and the director has passed out. Even the occasional glimpses of a skewed future world – American colonialism, cloned humanity, European collapse – do little to save it.
“Mute” is a Netflix Original, one of the films sponsored and broadcast exclusively by the streaming service, and it’s the third Netflix Original to fly its fantastical premise into the ground in the past three months. In December there was the dreadful “Bright”, with Will Smith as an NYPD officer partnered with an orc cop in a fantasy Los Angeles. January brought a surprise release of “The Cloverfield Paradox”, a nonsensical, dimension-hopping, space-horror movie whose rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes stands at 17%. Earlier this month Netflix also released “Altered Carbon”, a serial adaptation of Richard Morgan’s science-fiction novel, in which fascinating ideas were undermined by sexism and unadventurous plotting. Only Bong Joon-ho's spectacularly weird “Okja” and Alex Garland's surreal “Annihilation” (for which Netflix holds distribution rights outside America) have shown signs of breaking the trend.
This is, by anyone’s standards, a lot of tosh to be cranking out, and because of the exquisite mysteries of the Netflix business model we may never know what’s behind it. The company's reliance on a subscription fee, rather than revenues or ratings from individual series, allows it a freer hand in what it commissions and presents than companies using older financial models. But no one outside the company has any real idea of how it reaches its decisions. Like its competitors Amazon and Hulu, Netflix has always refused to release internal ratings data: the information that says who’s watching what, where they pause it, what they watch next, what they search for and what they’d like to see afterwards. The company also takes issue with attempts by others to peek inside the black box. When Nielsen, a consumer-analytics firm, announced late last year that it had devised a method to measure the American viewer share of Netflix programming, Netflix responded that the data was “not accurate, not even close”, but released no figures of its own in support.
Nielsen’s analysis, however, suggests that Netflix’s sci-fi shows may be, whatever the critical reception, part of a well-executed plan. Sometimes the figures revealed exactly what you’d expect: that the second season of “Stranger Things” was a wild success (15.8m viewers for the first episode), that the bulk of viewers of “The Crown” were older, well-educated and female. More startlingly, though, they suggested that “Bright” – the film with Will Smith that currently has a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – attracted a staggering 11m viewers in its opening weekend. If those 11m people had all watched “Bright” in cinemas, that would edge the film towards a $100m opening weekend, up there with hits like “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
A similar gap may soon be visible in the case of “Mute”, which already shows signs on Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes of being much more popular with audiences than among those tasked with reviewing it: its rating from critics is a measly 8%, but with audiences it’s hovering around 51%. At which point, sensible reviewers should probably throw up their hands and admit that “Mute” may not be the result of a mad Netflix decision, or a commissioning department asleep at the wheel, but the product of a finely tuned algorithm that says this is what many people want to watch. In the privacy of the living room, far from the howls of professional reviewers, that Marmite sandwich is going down just fine.