Category: PITB Reviews

PITB Reviews: Ghostwire Tokyo: Cats Play A Central Role In This Japanese Horror Game

The premise of Ghostwire: Tokyo is simple: The entire human population of the city has vanished in some mysterious, cataclysmic supernatural event, leaving the heart of Tokyo silent, vacant and draped in an ethereal fog.

Instead of the bustle of humanity, the city is now populated by demons and yōkai, which are roughly equivalent to ghosts in Japanese folklore.

Only one human survives: Akito, our protagonist. He remains alive due to pure luck after a spirit named KK inhabits his body, intending to use it to fight the supernatural forces that have emptied Tokyo of its human inhabitants.

Akito and KK come to an uneasy truce sharing one body due to their aligned goals. KK’s presence not only allows Akito to survive the malevolent forces at work, but also imbues him with fantastic elemental powers to wield against the yōkai prowling the otherwise empty streets: He can summon wind, fire and water, and cleanse spirits and locations with Shinto prayer rituals.

Akito is set on rescuing his sister from sharing the same fate as hundreds of thousands of others, while KK spent his human life — and now his afterlife — trying to stop the mysterious figure behind the spirit invasion from harvesting human souls. For Akito to do the former, he and KK must do the latter.

Oh, and there are animals — lots of scared, confused cats and dogs who don’t know what to make of the city’s supernatural new inhabitants and don’t understand why the humans have gone missing. KK’s powers allow Akito to read animals’ thoughts.

“I can’t smell my buddy anywhere,” a confused dog tells me early in the game, whimpering as he wanders near the Shibuya scramble crossing.

It’s worth paying attention to Ghostwire’s lost pets. Feed a dog and the good boy could lead you to a cache of cash or a Jizo statue where you can say a prayer and augment your powers. Stop to pet and talk to a cat, and she might tell you a yokai is hiding nearby, disguising itself as an every day object.

True to a country obsessed with felines going back centuries, a cat isn’t always just a cat in the world of Ghostwire: Tokyo.

There are your regular domestic pets and strays, which are simply called neko, the Japanese word for cat. Akito encounters them often, comforts them and can read their thoughts with KK’s powers. Like the dogs, they’re confused, scared and hungry.

Then there are nekomata, which are the spirits of domestic cats who have become yōkai. Nekomata have made themselves at home in the absence of humans, showing their entrepreneurial spirit. The ghost cats have taken over every convenience store and kiosk in the city, urging Akito and KK to buy their snacks and supernatural wares to “be purrpared” for what awaits them.

“You’ve gotta spend money to make money,” one nekomata tells me, “so why not spend it here with meow?”

Nekomata are not to be confused with bakeneko, who are also yōkai but differ from their spirit cat cousins in subtle ways. Bakeneko can be friendly, mischievous or ambivalent, they can move without making a sound, and like nekomata they can speak and understand human language. Unlike nekomata, which have two tails, bakeneko only have one.

Finally, there are maneki neko. You’ve seen maneki neko even if you don’t realize it, probably on the counter of your local Japanese grocery, sushi house or Chinese restaurant. They’re the smiling, beckoning cats who are said to bring good fortune, health and other benefits. They’re based on the legend of a friendly cat who led a road-weary Japanese feudal lord and his men to a sanctuary just before a violent thunderstorm centuries ago, and have become ubiquitous in Japan and wider Asian culture.

For a game with a grim premise set in an empty but lived-in city, there’s plenty of bizarre humor as well. One mission has you delivering toilet paper to a human spirit who really, really needs to wipe after an epic bowel movement before he can move on and rest easy in the afterlife.

On another occasion I stopped to admire the detail and near-photorealistic beauty of a street bordering a shrine when I heard a nekomata hilariously meowing a cheerful song out of tune. When I turned toward the little cat, I saw him floating in the air and bouncing to his happy song.

As Akito, the player is tasked with lifting the fog from neighborhoods of central Tokyo, rescuing the spirits of deceased humans before they can be harvested by the demons and yōkai, and investigating the what, why and how of Tokyo’s takeover by malevolent spirits.

Akito and KK accomplish the former by “cleansing” Tokyo’s many shrines using a ritual performed at the shrine torii gates. Once a torii gate is cleansed, the fog around it subsides and more of Tokyo opens up for exploration and investigation. Meanwhile, Akito and KK must fight off yōkai to reach the floating spirits of Tokyo’s citizens, using a talisman to secure them. The duo can then “wire” the spirits to an ally outside the city, who helps return them to their bodies. The game keeps track of how many souls are saved, with the count rising to the hundreds of thousands for adept players.

The game remains true to Japanese folklore in the way it presents enemies, who are usually corruptions of human souls who have deep regrets about their lives. The spirits represent anxieties unique to, or prevalent in, Japanese society.

There are Rain Walkers, unnaturally thin salarymen toting umbrellas who advance on you inexorably, representing the angry spirits of men who spent their entire lives in service to a corporation, hardly spending time with their families or raising their kids because they work so much.

There are the Students of Pain and Misery, headless schoolgirls and schoolboys representing the spirits of teenagers whose grades couldn’t carry them into good universities, damning them to a life of tedious, low-paying jobs. Those are real concerns in a country where students spend in excess of 10 hours a day, six days a week in school. Teenagers are under enormous pressure to get top grades, and teen suicide is a major contributor to the country’s unusually high suicide rates.

Spirits of Lamentation are dangerous and move in sickeningly unnatural ways as spirits of people who were estranged from loved ones, while the small, raincoat-clad Forsaken are the spirits of abused children.

These malevolent spirits and others wander the streets, linger in alleys and leap across rooftops, but they also form groups called Hyakki Yagyo, which are parades of oni and yōkai who march through the streets of Japanese cities on summer nights, according to folklore.

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You’ll hear the Hyakki Yagyo before you see it, tipped off by the booming taiko drums that accompany the ghostly parade.

The arrival of Hyakki Yagyo in Ghostwire is impressively atmospheric: Lights and neon signs flicker and die out, while taiko drums boom from the mists. Then you see the spirits — yōkai with their umbrellas, massive demons, bizarre apparitions.

The first time I encountered a Hyakki Yagyo, I was so engrossed in watching the procession that I didn’t realize I was in its path until it was too late. I learned that if you get too close, the spirits yank you into an ethereal plane and surround you in numbers, determined to end your physical existence and make you one of them. Those encounters are among the most difficult in the game, but they’re also a fun test of skill.

Ghostwire gives us the most complete recreation of Tokyo in any game to date, and it’s magnificent. The metropolis extends seemingly forever in every direction, with 36 million people living a metro area that sprawls for almost 1,000 square miles. (That’s three times the size of New York with all its boroughs.)

Because of that, no game studio can handle the challenge of recreating the entire city on a 1:1 scale, and Ghostwire doesn’t attempt it. Instead the game world encompasses the famous Shibuya district and part of Minato City, two of the most bustling and famous districts in the heart of Tokyo. It’s a massive playground stretching from west of the scramble crossing, through Roppongi and all the way to Tokyo Tower.

Ghostwire is beautiful, polished and a hell of a lot of fun to play. You’re not going to find the gloriously intuitive combat of a game like Control, or even an experience like the fluid melee action of Shadow Warrior 2. Ghostwire’s combat is pedestrian compared to those games, but it becomes more fun and interesting as the game progresses and you’re given different powers and options to deal with a growing variety of ghastly enemies.

The lure of a game like this is its moody atmosphere, magnificent visuals, tense sound design and a plot that weaves hundreds of years of Japanese folklore into the mix, creating a world unlike anything else in gaming.

The writing deftly transitions between serious and funny, tense and lighthearded, and the partnership between Akito and KK allows for a running dialogue throughout the game, with the two of them asking each other questions, arguing over tasks and reacting to the craziness around them. What starts out as an uneasy alliance held together by necessity becomes grudging mutual respect and eventually friendship.

Rounding out the cast of characters are Mari, Rinko, KK’s friend Ed, and the masked protagonist. Rinko is the spirit of a woman who worked with KK in their human lives. Rinko and KK were killed for their determination, and in death they continue the fight against the malevolent spirits. Ed is a weirdo: He’s KK’s man on the outside, helping to reunite the severed souls of Tokyo with their human bodies when Akito and KK rescue them, but the only way to talk to Ed is by payphone — and even then, he only answers in recordings.

Mari is Akito’s sister, who was unconscious and helpless in a hospital when everyone vanished. More than anything, Akito wants to protect her.

Finally, there’s the man in a oni mask, the mysterious mastermind behind the supernatural takeover of Tokyo. Who is he? What does he want? Can he be defeated?

To answer those questions requires an adventure very much worth having.

Title: Ghostwire: Tokyo
Release date: March 25, 2022
Platforms: PC, Playstation 5
Audience: Mature
Cats: Many

PITB Reviews: Kingdom of the Gods

Just when it seems like the zombie genre has run its course, a handful of visionary Korean storytellers come along to remind us there’s still life left in the undead genre.

First there was 2016’s record-setting, multiple award-winning Train to Busan, a film about an overworked father taking his young daughter to her mother’s house in the titular city just as a zombie plague tears human civilization apart.

Together with a core cast of affable characters — including a pregnant woman and her overprotective husband, and members of a youth baseball team — dad and daughter try to survive in a uniquely claustrophobic setting where simply running from the undead isn’t an option. Train to Busan wasn’t just a hit for its horror and action elements — the film packs a surprising amount of social criticism into its one hour and 58 minute run time, turning its lens onto modern Korean society and, by extension, modern life around the globe.

The movie has a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sparked a bidding war for its US rights. A remake set in the US is currently in production by New Line.

Then there’s Kingdom, a Netflix series also called Kingdom of the Gods in Korean, that takes a zombie plague and drops it over a story about political intrigue and power struggles in the Joseun feudal era.

The series picks up at the beginning of the 17th century, when the kingdom of Joseon is three years removed from the second of two brutal Japanese invasions. Poverty is rampant, the common people are starving and the queen consort’s Haewon Cho clan has consolidated power, effectively insulating the king from his closest advisers, friends and family.

The country is desperate for leadership, but the king has disappeared after falling ill with smallpox.

His son, Crown Prince Lee Chang, tries to intervene and find out what’s happened to his father, but he’s repeatedly stopped by the pregnant Queen Consort Cho, who refuses to allow Chang into the royal palace.

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Jeoha: Crown Prince Lee Chang, wearing the distinct dragon robes of Joseon kings and crown princes, tries to gain access to the royal palace to see his ailing father, the king.

Chang is in an extremely precarious situation: Although he’s the Crown Prince and the king’s beloved only son, his mother was a concubine. If Queen Consort Cho gives birth to a son, the boy will be considered the true heir and Chang will be hunted down and executed so there can be no competing claims to the throne.

With the king missing, Crown Prince Chang knows his time is limited and if he doesn’t act, he could be arrested and put to death by the queen’s orders at any moment.

So Chang and his bodyguard/friend Mu-yeong devise a plan to steal the king’s patient journal from the royal palace at great risk to themselves. When they find bizarre entries about doctors administering a “resurrection plant” — and no subsequent entries about the king’s health — they set off south in search of the king’s physician, the one man who can tell them what really happened to the king.

What follows is a spectacular adventure fueled by gorgeous cinematography, an energetic cast of actors who go all-in on the premise, and a historically accurate look at Korea as it existed under a dynasty that lasted for half a millennia.

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Ryu Seung-ryong plays the scheming top minister Cho Hak-ju, father of the queen consort. The double-swan embroidery on his robe indicates his status as a powerful government official. Credit: Netflix

The zombie plague itself may be the stuff of George A. Romero’s nightmares, but the attention to historical detail in Kingdom is second to none, from the costumes to the historic palaces and the strict adherence to tradition among Joseon’s bureaucrats.

It turns out the real leaders of Joseon did have many of the same dilemmas their counterparts on the show do: Kingdom’s author was inspired by historical accounts of an unprecedented deadly plague that swept through the Korean peninsula after the second Japanese invasion, piling fresh misery onto a population already reeling from Japanese invasions and hunger.

The social order compounded the misery for those at the bottom. The Joseon dynasty was marked by strict divisions between social classes, making traditionally aristocratic societies in the west look almost like pleasant meritocracies by comparison.

Everything a person wore — robes, hats, embroidered designs on their chests and backs — were indicators of class, rank and occupation. Government ministers, who were nobles, dressed in fine silks with intricately embroidered rank badges in animal motifs.

Peasants wore rags and straw hats, while the more fortunate among them wore modest clothes.

Nepotism and corruption were rampant, and the nobles, ministers and administrators who held power saw their positions as conferring privilege, not responsibility.

When a group of aristocrats and government ministers of one region take the last barge out of a doomed city, leaving thousands of vulnerable commoners behind to be eaten and turned by the tidal wave of undead, it seems unspeakably cruel and cowardly until you realize that this is a feature of the society, not a bug.

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Ju Ji-hoon, center, as Crown Prince Lee Chang, with Bae Doona, left, as the physician Seo-bi and Kim Sang-ho, right, as Chang’s trusted bodyguard Mu-yeong.

When the aristocrats abandon peasants to the zombies, Crown Prince Chang and Mu-yeong risk their lives gathering a small force to protect the people and usher them to the safety of a walled stronghold.

Later, when a group of villagers bury a group of undead, unaware that they’ll rise at sunset and trample the nearest towns, the Crown Prince and his followers head out just before dusk to stop them, knowing they’ll be outnumbered and may not return.

The Crown Prince’s many kindnesses to peasants and children, and his willingness to risk his own life to protect them, draw the notice of characters who become key allies — including a member of the legendary Chakho tiger hunters, and Lord Ahn, a military hero and governor credited with expelling the Japanese during the invasion three years prior.

Crown Prince Chang set off initially to solve the mystery of the king’s disappearance and to protect himself from the scheming Haweon Cho clan, but as he sees the poverty, desperation and vulnerability of his people first-hand, he dedicates himself to a more pressing and noble cause in protecting the people of Joseon from the seemingly unstoppable plague and starvation.

In that effort, he unites people of different classes and backgrounds who fight fiercely and loyally for him, seeing hope for a brighter future if he survives and becomes king.

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The physician Seo-bi, played by Bae Doona, attends to a man’s wounds.

The show never misses a chance to show social disparities: The upper classes do everything they can to protect themselves, everyone else be damned. They hide behind walls and ignore thousands of commoners — including women and crying children — who pound on the gates, begging to be let in. They abandon the peasants, and in many cases count on the lower classes serving as a human shield to allow the upper classes to escape danger.

“Are you sure this is okay?” one minister asks his sycophantic assistant as they take the last barge out of a doomed city, leaving throngs of peasants on the docks.

“You and the other nobles are the backbone of the city!” his assistant assures him. “You must survive so you can rebuild.”

As a result, the first waves of undead are the people on the lowest rungs of society. As the virus spreads to another city, a group of confused aristocrats can’t believe what they’re seeing.

“Those peasants are attacking nobles!” one incredulous man in ornate clothing says as undead in rags storm through Dongnae (modern day Busan).

Peasants attacking the upper class was unthinkable in Joseon, and by the time the aristocrats in that scene realize there’s something very wrong, it’s too late.

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As the plague spreads, the ranks of the undead grow to include aristocrats in fine robes as well as peasants in rags.

Before long, the legions of undead include just as many people in fine silks and ornate embroidery, finally uniting the classes of Korea in a state of undead purgatory, their reanimated corpses hungering for the flesh of the still-living.

Eventually, though, Chang must confront the Haewon Cho clan and its patriarch, the powerful minister Cho Hak-ju.

Of course the show wouldn’t be a hit if it didn’t provide something for action and horror fans, and it more than delivers on its promises.

The action sequences in Kingdom are spectacular, and the show gives viewers lots of them, from outnumbered warriors holding a narrow pass from the undead, to zombie hordes laying siege to citadels, to close-quarters sword fighting.

The beautifully-shot sequences put shows like The Walking Dead to shame. Whereas the latter show often gives the impression that the money men behind the franchise are counting pennies, Kingdom‘s lavish sets, epic set pieces and impeccable special effects are the kind of thing viewers would expect from a summer blockbuster, not a television show.

Kingdom isn’t all action, and it takes time to breathe with quiet character moments between the narrow escapes and thrilling battles. The series is a period drama just as much as it falls within the action and horror genres. We see the inner workings of a society markedly different than anything most Westerners are familiar with, but driven by the same human ambitions.

The story is also effective thanks to actors Hye-jun Kim and Seung-Ryong Ryu, who play the Queen and her father, high minister Cho Hak-ju. They’re villainous and power hungry without seeming one-dimensional, and both succeed in becoming focal points of the audience’s anger as they commit one despicable act after another.

Cho Hak-ju manipulates the court with the savvy of Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger and the brutality of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator. The other government ministers are terrified of him, and as the man who ostensibly speaks for the king, his word is effectively law.

The Queen, meanwhile, puts in motions schemes that would make Thrones’ Cersei look amateurish in comparison.

Kingdom’s got two seasons under its belt and a stand-alone special episode, Kingdom: Ashin of the North. Fans are eagerly awaiting the third season. It stands out as one of the best historical epics in recent memory.

Buddy’s verdict: Five paws out of five!
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Big Buddy’s verdict: Highly recommended

PITB Reviews: Archive 81

Title: Archive 81
Showrunner: Rebecca Sonnenshine
Genre: Drama, horror
Medium: Netflix streaming

Archive 81 arrived just in time to help us through a content dead zone.

The Witcher’s excellent second season helped tide us over last month alongside Amazon’s not-so-great adaptation of The Wheel of Time, and critically-lauded The Expanse ended its six-year run on Jan. 14. Meanwhile, if network TV is your thing, the last few weeks of January through early February are filled with nothing but reruns as networks are loath to put any original content up against the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl.

Enter Archive 81: A story that promises mystery, Lovecraftian horror and a heavy dose of 90s nostalgia.

Our protagonist is Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an analog enthusiast who makes a living restoring vintage media (VHS, cassette, Betamax and anything else pre-DVD), and spends his off hours crate-digging for rare recordings.

We meet Dan as he’s looking through recently-acquired VHS tapes at a street vendor’s stall in Manhattan.

“You know last month you sold me 16 hours’ worth of a T-ball tournament, yeah?” Dan asks.

“Yeah. But also, I sold you an uncut version of Phantasmagoria off channel 7,” his street vendor friend says. “That’s unreleased and very rare.”

When Dan balks at buying a box of random tapes, his vendor friend appeals to the hobbyist in him.”Look,” he says, “I know you love the hunt.”

“The hunt” he’s referring to is the obsessive drive that prompts collectors of all types to sift through yard sales, estate auctions and abandoned storage units. It’s the thrill of opening the unknown with the knowledge that most of it will be junk, but every once in a while a nondescript box will hold a rare gem.

It’s the thrill of the hunt that leads Dan to accept an archiving gig from a secretive company despite concerning red flags.

The job is to restore an archive of video cassettes scavenged from the charred ruins of a Manhattan apartment building called the Visser that burned to the ground in 1994. No one survived the building-consuming fire, and Dan’s employers believe the tapes could shed light on how the fire started as well as the people who lost their lives.

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Dan finds himself increasingly invested in the story of Melody Pendras, who lived on the Visser’s fourth floor before the building was destroyed by fire. Credit: Netflix
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Dan is hired by a company to restore fire-damaged cassettes that could contain important clues about a 1994 fire that destroyed an apartment building in Manhattan. Credit: Netflix

The company offers Dan a particularly generous fee for restoring and digitizing the footage, with the caveat that for the duration of the project he has to work out of a company-owned compound in the Catskills, a few hours’ drive north of New York City.

Dan accepts and it doesn’t take long for him to become engrossed in the content of the tapes he’s restoring. The collection of cassettes was shot by a young woman named Melody Pendras who moves into the historic and creepy Visser Building, ostensibly to interview its residents for a dissertation she’s doing on the strange history of the high rise.

With each cassette Dan restores and digitizes, a new chapter of Melody’s time at the Visser is revealed, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is very wrong with the building and the people who inhabit it.

Think Ghostbusters and 55 Central Park West, also known as “Spook Central.” In the 1984 hit, 55 Central Park West’s bizarre design choices came courtesy of an architect who was heavily into the occult, and he built the high rise to serve as some sort of supernatural antenna for spirits from another dimension. The Visser has similar origins, although the details are best left unspoiled.

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There’s something creepy going on in the Visser’s basement community room. Credit: Netflix

As Dan becomes increasingly invested in Melody’s story he begins to feel the effects of isolation, living in the brutalist compound that houses the repair studio and a cavernous living space. He’s not allowed visitors, as the content of the tapes are supposed to be confidential, he doesn’t get cell service and he begins to suspect the landline is tapped.

With a history of mental illness, Dan isn’t sure if he’s imagining things when he realizes someone else may be in the compound, and his paranoia is stoked by the discovery of journals that indicate he wasn’t the first archivist to work in the isolated building.

To make matters worse, he begins to experience vivid dreams in which he’s speaking directly to Melody — and she’s clearly in trouble, calling for help across almost three decades.

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As Dan restores the damaged video tapes, he unravels more of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Credit: Netflix

Archive 81 is guilty of the so-called “mystery box” narrative format popularized by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof with Lost. The pair provided a template to string viewers along by unraveling just enough of the central mystery in each episode to keep viewers hooked, but as Lost proved, the mystery box form only succeeds in pissing the audience off if there’s not a solid pay-off at the end.

While Abrams and Lindelof dragged out Lost’s narrative and winged its conclusion to much derision, Archive 81’s Rebecca Sonnenshine clearly mapped out her story from start to finish. Momentum builds over eight roughly hour-long episodes until things escalate quickly toward the end. While I’m still not sure how I feel about the way things concluded, Sonnenshine’s story provides answers to most of the burning questions that pop up over the season’s run, and leaves just enough of a cliffhanger for a potential sequel. (And judging by the show’s several-week run atop Netflix’s charts, we probably will see at least another season.)

You could argue that mystery is baked into the genre: Archive 81 is a drama with elements of horror, but it doesn’t rely on jump scares. It avoids many of the latter genre’s most worn-out tropes while embracing others, layering the narrative with an ever-increasing sense of dread. It’s a clear attempt at high-concept horror.

There’s not much in the show to dissuade the squeamish and the writers are more concerned with exploring their characters than trying to freak viewers out. All the same, whether you enjoy the series or not probably depends heavily on how you feel about the genre. If you’re game for something a little dark, Archive 81 isn’t a bad way to spend a week’s worth of frigid January or February nights.

Buddy’s Verdict: 3 1/2 Paws Out Of Five:

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Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended

PITB Reviews: The Platform

Movie: The Platform (2020)
Director: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
Genre: Horror, social commentary
Medium: Netflix

The premise of The Platform is simple: A man wakes up in a concrete prison cell. The center of the cell is dominated by rectangular gaps in the floor and ceiling, and when our protagonist warily steps closer he can see levels of identical cells above and below him. The cells extend as far as the eye can see in both directions, each populated by two prisoners.

Every day, a platform is lowered level-by-level, laden with a massive feast: Meats, wine, cheese, bread, cake, soup, pie, fish, escargot, paella, salads, grapes, apples and other fresh fruit, vegetables, juice. Every kind of food you can imagine, cooked and prepared to perfection by professional chefs.

Goreng, our protagonist, is greeted by his cell mate, a kindly old man named Trimagasi who sits down next to the edge of the hole in the floor in anticipation of the platform’s arrival. When it descends to their level he pigs out, shoveling as much food as he can into his mouth before a buzzer sounds and the platform descends another level.

Goreng looks on, digusted: The food is scattered all over the platform, much of it half-eaten. Clearly, these are someone’s disgusting leftovers.

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Trimagasi, top, pigs out while Goreng picks at food scraps.

Trimagasi urges Goreng to eat, and explains that they are very fortunate indeed: At level 48 there’s still enough food leftover from the prisoners on the 47 levels above that they won’t starve this month. At the end of every month, he says, each pair of cellmates are put to sleep with gas and wake up on a new level that is chosen at random by the people operating the cruel social experiment.

Trimagasi tells Goreng he once spent a month on level 132, where not a scrap of food is left by the time the platform descends. Goreng asks the old man how he survived, and Trimagasi demures.

We also learn that Goreng voluntarily entered in exchange for a real-world opportunity promised to him after he spends six months inside. Trimagasi was sent there as punishment: Infuriated by a TV commercial for a self-sharpening knife called the Samurai Plus after he’d just purchased a knife sharpening kit, Trimagasi threw his TV out of his window and unintentionally killed an illegal immigrant who was riding a bicycle below. He’s approaching the end of his two-year sentence in what the authorities call the VSC, short for Vertical Self-management Center.

Each prisoner is allowed to take one item with them inside: Goreng takes a copy of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, harboring romantic notions of finally reading the book with his time in the prison. Trimagasi, who loves to use the word “obviously,” told Goreng his choice of item was obvious: His prized Samurai Plus, which he cradles lovingly as he boasts about how it can cut concrete without dulling.

Goreng puts two and two together, realizing how Trimagasi survived on level 132.

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Going down: Just a portion of the feast as it exists on the platform before it’s consumed, defiled and excreted, level by level.

The Platform is a blunt allegory for human civilization, specifically the enormous wealth disparities of modern societies. The occupants of level 1 are the Jeff Bezoses and Walton families of the world, people with unimaginable, multigenerational wealth pigging out on life’s resources without thinking of the starving street children of India, the homeless of cities like New York and San Francisco, the families in North Korea eating tree bark.

Some reviewers think it’s a critique of capitalism, but I think it’s more universal than that: The kleptocrats of countries like Mexico, Russia and Brazil, the monarchies and emirates of the Middle East, and the party bigwigs of communist countries like China pig out on their own respective first levels while the people 130 “levels” down starve just the same.

The rest of us? We’re in the 30s, 40s and 50s, happily scarfing down the scraps from above, the ad revenue the Zuckerbergs and Pichais allow us by their forbearance, the slightly comfortable salaries allowed by corporate shareholders, the house and garage we might enjoy if we’re fortunate enough to run a successful small business in an industry that hasn’t been pillaged by the multinationals yet.

Some people might find the movie heavy-handed, but I don’t see it that way. As uncomfortable as it is to watch at times, reality is much, much worse. The fact that some of the movie’s scenes are difficult to watch is testament to how lucky we are to be born in circumstances where that kind of suffering isn’t part of our experience, let alone our daily lives. Show The Platform to one of the handful of people to ever escape a North Korean hard labor camp, for instance, and they probably won’t even blink.

It also shows how our betters divide and conquer to keep the rest of us distracted and themselves secure. The idea that most people who receive social services are lazy bums is a popular one in some quarters, encouraging people not to have empathy for the less well off, but to loathe them. Likewise, the people occupying the higher floors of The Platform’s prison don’t feel sorry for those beneath them. In one scene, two cellmates tell a man they’ll help him ascend to their floor, then literally shit on him as he’s just within reach, cackling with delight as he falls.

I didn’t take it as a call for socialism either. The movie makes it pretty clear that neither asking people to moderate their consumption, nor trying to enforce sharing works out for the people who try those methods. Indeed when socialism has worked in real world circumstances, it’s been part of a hybrid model that still uses capitalism as its economic engine.

Mostly, The Platform exists to make people think. While Jeff Bezos goes to sleep tonight in his $50 million compound estate, dreaming of his next vanity flight to low Earth orbit or the next hypercar he’s going to buy, there’s someone shivering on a park bench with 15 cents in their pocket, stomach grumbling, knowing the people who pass them by every day don’t even see them as human.