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Netflix reaches peak cynicism with ‘Bird Box,’ ‘Bandersnatch': Making Movies in the Age of Big D

According to Netflix, I enjoy watching TV Dramas Based on Books, 20th Century Period Pieces, Absurd TV Comedies, Independent Hidden Gems, Foreign Action & Adventure, Cerebral Adult Animation, Steamy Thrillers(!) and something called Get Off My Lawn, which has no description but mostly contains specials by older male stand-up comedians, Clint Eastwood movies and war documentaries.

That's based on the lists of categorized suggestions that appear on the homepage or app when I log in. All of it checks out. I do tend to enjoy these types of programming, although I've never sat down on the couch and actively thought, "I feel like watching a TV drama based on a book tonight, or perhaps a period piece." (Steamy thrillers, though ...)

The Netflix user interface is everything wondrous and sinister about the age of Big Data distilled into a single consumer experience. Based on our interactions with its product, Netflix understands more about our tastes in entertainment than we could possibly know ourselves. It retains subscribers by always appearing to have an unlimited supply of content we're interested in, so it's in the company's interest to quantify its customers' tastes in ways we have less incentive to consciously attempt on our own.

This makes perfect sense as a business model, but it's hard not to be cynical when the entertainment itself starts to seem as if it's summoned to life by the same algorithms that are learning our behavior and feeding us what they think we want.

It's felt that way ever since the streaming service released the first season of "Stranger Things," the crowd-pleasing supernatural series so methodical in its execution of Gen-X nostalgia that it might as well have been reverse-engineered from Netflix's vast trove of data harvested from customers raised on sci-fi, comic books, Dungeons and Dragons and Stephen King.

Well, the future is here, and the cynicism is warranted. In mid-December, Netflix released “Bird Box,” a horror movie starring Sandra Bullock as a single mother in a world where a malevolent entity causes people to kill themselves.

The company said more than 45 million accounts had streamed the film within the first week, a record for Netflix that, if true, is astounding. That’s more than a third of its total worldwide subscriber base. Multiply that number by the average price of a movie ticket, and “Bird Box” would have had the biggest opening week in box office history.

“Bird Box” is at best a somewhat above-average genre film that feels designed to conveniently populate hyper-specific Netflix categories that will soon exist if they don’t already: Horror Films With Strong Female Leads, Post-Apocalyptic Settings Where the Survivors Are Just as Dangerous as the Monster, Imperiled Children, Military Power and the Ethics Thereof, Survivalism and the Mechanics Thereof, Music By Trent Reznor, Remember How Much You Liked “A Quiet Place?” and so on. “Create from data” is the new “paint by numbers.”

A better but even more cynical Netflix product appeared soon after: “Bandersnatch,” an episode of the tech-dystopia series “Black Mirror” that offers a compelling premise. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story in which viewers are required to direct the actions of the protagonist, a 1980s video-game designer named Stefan, who begins to mentally unravel while creating “Bandersnatch,” itself a choose-your-own-adventure video game.

The decisions start small — what kind of cereal he should eat, what cassette he should play — but escalate in intensity: should Stefan dismember the body of a person he’s killed or merely bury it? By that point in the story, which varies in length depending on what the viewer decides, Stefan is convinced some outside force has robbed him of free will, which might not even exist to begin with.

In a meta-twist that’s a little too clever, viewers can opt to have him controlled by an entity from the future called “Netflix.”

Increasingly, the idea that we’re still in charge of even mundane aspects of our lives — what to watch before falling asleep, say — is also an illusion.


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