Earlier this year, Netflix released a star-studded promotional campaign gloating about its upcoming release schedule: The streaming giant would be dropping at least one new feature film every week for the rest of 2021. Take that, movie theaters!
That's all well and good, but Netflix has become almost notorious for its quantity-over-quality release practices. Save for a handful of Oscar-winning prestige projects, the Netflix library is starting to resemble one of those bargain DVD bins you might find in the back corner of a 7-11. For every Roma or Marriage Story, you get five Cloverfield Paradoxes or unwatchable Adam Sandler comedies.
So I want to look at the studio's recent success rate: Is the Netflix machine producing any worthwhile art, or is it all fodder for the mill? Let's look at five of their most recent releases.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release date: April 30
Rotten Tomatoes score: 98%
Originally planned as a theatrical release in 2020, the animated family comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines was purchased by Netflix for a whopping $110 million and has become their latest hit. From the producing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) and some of the minds behind the beloved animated series Gravity Falls, it's a fast-paced adventure about a teenager named Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), who dreams of going off to film school and becoming the world's next great director. The day she's supposed to be getting on a plane to attend her freshman orientation, her quirky parents (Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph) announce that they're taking the family cruiser cross-country instead. And that's when the new robotic personal assistants created by an Apple-like conglomerate go haywire and begin enslaving the human race, with only the Mitchells left to save the world. With an eye-catching animation style and an excellent voice cast — this is probably the last time Olivia Colman, Chrissy Tiegen and Conan O'Brien will all appear in the same movie — this is a madcap (maybe even too madcap at times) adventure filled with blink-and-you'll-miss-them gags.
Verdict: Add to queue
Release date: May 7
Rotten Tomatoes score: 66%
Based on a young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers, music video director Anthony Mandler's feature debut concerns a Black teenager named Steve Harmon, who's on trial for a holdup-turned-murder. Played by rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr., Steve is adamant that he had nothing to do with the killing and is merely a victim of racial profiling, and the film intercuts his contentious court case with the lead-up to the crime. Monster boasts an amazing supporting cast — Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Tim Blake Nelson, John David Washington and Jharrel Jerome, as well as rappers Nas and ASAP Rocky — but it doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel as far as courtroom dramas are concerned. The film played on the festival circuit three years ago and is just now getting a proper release, and in that time we've seen more incisive films and series (including Ava DuVernay's When They See Us, also featuring Jharrel Jerome) tackling similar themes. It's well-made and well-acted enough, however, to merit a view.
Verdict: Add to queue
Release date: April 22
Rotten Tomatoes score: 77%
Despite its relatively high critical rating, the reviews for this space-set chamber piece are more divisive than its Tomatometer suggests. It's about a three-person crew — Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim — on a two-year voyage to Mars, and they discover that their rocket took off with an engineer (Shamier Anderson) from the launch site trapped and unconscious inside the guts of the ship. After acclimating him to the daily routines, they discover they don't have enough oxygen for them all to survive, and someone will likely have to sacrifice themselves. Putting all implausibility aside — and there's a lot of implausibility here — the ethical pressure-cooker situation at the center of the film is relatively absorbing. Problem is, it doesn't really have a third act, and all that tension that's been built up just sort of fizzles.
Verdict: Give it a watch if you haven't already seen superior space-set movies like Gravity or The Martian or Ad Astra or Moon or Interstellar or...
Things Heard & Seen
Release date: April 29
Rotten Tomatoes score: 38%
A ghost story, a domestic thriller, a Talented Mr. Ripley-esque mystery — Things Heard & Seen is a lot of things. Amanda Seyfried stars as Catherine, a former art restorer who follows her husband, George (James Norton), to his new teaching job in a sleepy rural town in upstate New York. Their quaint farmhouse has a dark past, and Catherine discovers that George is hiding more from her than his affair with a local girl. The film was based on a novel by Elizabeth Brundage, and it feels like a complex web of buried secrets, mistaken identities and restless spirits has been crammed awkwardly into a two-hour package. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, best known for quirky indie comedies like American Splendor, never find a way to unite its disparate subplots, and so it ends up feeling badly confused and clumsily plotted. In fact, you're really not sure what the movie is even about until it's nearly over.
Verdict: Hide it in your attic and forget about it
Release date: April 9
Rotten Tomatoes score: 22%
Melissa McCarthy is an effortlessly hilarious comedian and an Oscar-nominated actress, and yet the comedies she makes with her husband, Ben Falcone, tend to be unbelievably terrible. Remember Tammy? Or Life of the Party? Or Superintelligence? No? Anyway, their latest, Thunder Force, continues the trend, a curiously flat superhero farce that's about as funny as a Thanos snap. It's set in an alternate universe wherein genetically altered supervillains known as Miscreants are wreaking havoc in all the world's cities, and McCarthy and Octavia Spencer are childhood friends who are injected with super-serum and become a crime-fighting duo. The movie has some surreal touches (like Jason Bateman as a mutant with crab arms) that suggest a weirder, more esoteric movie, but it mostly consists of McCarthy desperately mugging and Spencer looking lost and confused.
Verdict: Avoid it like kryptonite ♦