This weekend saw the release of Ricky Gervais’ first Netflix Original film Special Correspondents – and the result proves that the streaming giant isn’t ready to call the shots on films just yet.
Let’s begin this with a precursor: nothing would have made this viewer happier than to come to the end credits of Ricky Gervais‘ latest movie project with an unconquerable grin plastered on my face.
The initial trailer for Special Correspondents promised an entertaining romp. The plot of two radio journalists faking the report of a rebel uprising in Ecuador from the safety of a New York City cafe, before becoming the source of kidnap rumours and a national outcry has bags of comic potential.
What follows, unfortunately, is a sprawling mess – and possibly Gervais’s most disappointing work to date.
The laughs are few and far between, the script is all over the place, characters are inconsistent and any attempts of a satire of the media are blind grasps in the dark for topical relevance.
The question you should ask yourself after nursing your stings of comedic disappointment is: how was this allowed to happen, and what does it mean for the future of Netflix’s push to become a legitimate name in producing films?
While it does feel that Netflix is a giant in the world of home entertainment right now, it’s status as a film production outfit is still relatively new. For this reason, bringing reputable names on side is a huge part of their plan to build a reputation.
When Gervais was asked why he had chosen to go with Netflix for Special Correspondents, the comedian cited creative control, but what that may have meant in this case was that Netflix didn’t have the clout or heart to interfere with the project – which has now been torn apart by critics and fans alike.
It seems highly unlikely that other film studios would have had gone through with a remake of a French comedy (2009’s Envoyés très spéciaux), which had failed to make a positive impact on its native audience. Instead, Netflix arguably have their cutting hands tied by the power of Gervais’ celebrity endorsement.
Netflix as a format
Another issue raised from the idea of Netflix as the direct source of the next big blockbuster is how much of a viewer’s attention span it really holds.
Modern cinemas are kitted out with enormous screens, ear-splitting surround sound, 3D images that jump into your lap, and ultra-dim lighting to literally stop you from looking anywhere else. Yet cinemas still can’t stop people lighting up their smartphones in a moment of boredom.
In that respect, Netflix is the perfect format for less-than-attentive viewers – it’s low-key, in your own home and free of the formal cinematic rules.
But what does that do to film-maker who no longer has to deal with the first time the curtains are pulled back and the screen widens on their cinematic epic? Maybe removing that pressure from the first viewing, you remove their drive to try their best.
What does it matter about the overall quality anyway, if people are only half-watching?
TV is King
It would be absurd to try and say that the streaming giant is unable to produce really good stuff – the success of House of Cards and Daredevil speak for themselves.
However, this was the chance for the Netflix Original films to break out from the success of the site’s televisual offerings and into something truly cinematic, building on the success of last year’s Beasts of No Nation which was hugely well received.
The problem is that Special Correspondents comes nowhere near the charm, sophistication or story of their TV comedy or drama – and hints that the film product is still wildly dependent on the filmmaker’s own application.
An inevitable future
The critical panning for this latest movie offering is more than likely to be just a bump in the road.
According to the most recent figures, Netflix boasts more than 80 million subscribers across the world, meaning the viewing figures for a successful movie can match any cinema-released blockbuster. While Netflix Originals has only released five films to date since 2015, there are over 20 planned in the next two years.
Whether this will ever see them challenge the true big boys of film production remains to be seen, but there is something to be said for Netflix becoming more than just a movie-making playground for their biggest names.
Special Correspondents is currently available on Netflix