Miya Coch as teen hero saving humanity in The Rim of the World. Image: Imdb
Critics – whether seated at Cannes or in front of their TV set – are always looking for ways to meaningfully connect what are usually very diverse films. From my viewing of three current American films broadcast on Netflix – the horror-thriller The Perfection, the kids sci-fi action comedy Rim of the World and the spirited teen movie Booksmart (which is getting a cinema release in Australia mid July) – I was struck by one particularly odd 'sign of the times'.
The Perfection has a section set in China, and one of its main characters speaks a little Mandarin; Rim of the World features a Chinese girl who vows love to her uncomprehending American pal in Mandarin; and, completely out of the blue in Booksmart, the two teen heroines decide that the best way to hide their private conversation from their school Principal to is to fluently converse, for a few moments, in Mandarin (rather than Spanish, which they also know). I shall leave it to the sociologically inclined among you to speculate on why Netflix feels it is so pressingly necessary to pay homage to the economic super-power of China in this manner, and at this exact moment in global history.
Looking at The Perfection and Rim of the World one day apart also gives rise to another, less lofty question: are we seeing the rise of a new genre, the “Netflix film”?
To return to China for a moment, that nation may not be terribly happy about its depiction in the first (and definitely the worst) of our Netflix films, The Perfection. After a vision of Shanghai’s metropolitan splendour, with our central characters Charlotte (Allison Williams from Girls) and Lizzie (Logan Browning) participating in an event promoting a prestigious music school, we are plunged into the country’s rural wasteland. Or so it seems, in the classically paranoiac Midnight Express style: as Lizzie gets sick – extremely sick – on a cheap, cross-country bus ride, the driver scowls, the locals shun her, and the one guy who can speak English informs her that there is likely to be no medical assistance available for many kilometres.
But, beyond this roughly 15 minute section, The Perfection mainly stays within the US base of its musical institution’s operations. In this elite, privately funded retreat, young people – all of them girls, it seems – are removed from their families and assiduously groomed for artistic “perfection”. As I began to watch this film, I mused to myself that it is perhaps only in the still romanticised and exotic world of classical music education that we, as viewers, will put up with sadistic master-pupil rituals worthy of the ballet training in The Red Shoes (1948). But no, as it turns out, The Perfection is very much attune to the “post-Weinstein” moment – perhaps defensively so, given that it is, in part, a Miramax production.
This is one of those movies that renders itself almost impossible to review, in that, after its initial set-up, it’s all crazy twists and revelations – and so to talk about it in any depth is to automatically spoil what little fun it gives. Suffice to say, the type of genre-hopping in which it indulges – from sleek thriller to gory body-horror, mixed with an almost Michael Haneke-style of high art critique – is rapidly emerging as the chief hallmark of the Netflix Film. Director Richard Shepard, apart from stints on Girls, Ugly Betty and a handful of other TV series, has nine previous features to his credit since debuting in 1990 – and he’s the type of do-everything, shape-shifting showman ideally suited for a slice-and-dice confection like The Perfection.
Rim of the World
This well-oiled entertainment machine takes us back to the 1980s era of kids-adventure films like Goonies and Explorers. Director McG, best known for his lively Charlie’s Angels movies of the early 2000s, has recently made a comeback (for his old, faithful fans, at least) with his previous The Babysitter (2017), also a Netflix production. The style of genre-hopping aspired to by The Perfection is second nature to McG: like Joseph Kahn, his heir apparent in the music-video-to-cinema succession, he has a supremely playful way of flipping a story and bouncing from one set of cartoonish movie clichés to another.
So Rim of the World starts with a crisis in outer space, but instantly plummets down to the monitor-filled bedroom of a lonely nerd, Alex (Jack Gore). Was the opening scene just some corny video Jack watched? As it turns out, no – but first, we need to be introduced to an excruciatingly chummy summer camp experience for the reluctant Jack and two other similarly “special” kids, Chinese orphan Zhenzhen (Miya Cech) and rich brat Darius (Benjamin Flores Jr.). At the very moment they bump into Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto), a mysterious outsider also in their age bracket, wouldn’t you know it – the alien invasion begins. In a typically reflexive gag, our heroes can only speculate on the aliens’ reasons for attacking by referring to other space-invasion movies.
From there, it’s mainly an alternation between swift action set-pieces reminiscent of the Alien or Jurassic Park franchises – in this case, the creatures have a neat trick of rapid self-regeneration – and therapeutic, sentimental camaraderie in the school of The Breakfast Club (like in that John Hughes classic, the young teens here type themselves as Nerd, Criminal, Orphan and Joke). Eventually, it may be up to these kids to save the entire planet – or at least the USA, since a throwaway line of exposition flatly informs us that “Europe is destroyed and Asia decimated”! Talented screenwriter Zack Stentz has been down this youthful wish-fulfilment road before: prior to his work on several Marvel epics, he penned the “juvenile James Bond” comedy-adventure, Agent Cody Banks (2003).
In Rim of the World, we see another identifying mark of the Netflix Film: not exactly the highest-end digital effects, perfectly serviceable yet also a little artificial-looking, even sometimes primitive. To my relatively technically-untrained eye, fire is the biggest giveaway: the flames always look painted on, and no character really seems in any danger as they pass through them. That, and the “multiple” or serial vistas created by a sophisticated cut-and-paste: mocked-up, overhead-angled animations of a city or field with a hundred identical bodies, buildings or animals.
Personally, I enjoy this slightly contrived look, reminiscent of a thousand B movies of yore in the action, adventure, horror and SF genres – The Perfection has a crack at it, and David Lynch exploited such a deliberately naïve aesthetic well in Twin Peaks: The Return. Certainly, the pleasure of that kind of audiovisual nostalgia is not lost on McG, either.
The Perfection: 1 star
Rim of the World: 3 stars
© Adrian Martin, May 2019