Okja—the two-hour, Netflix-released film from Snowpiercer and The Host director Bong Joon-Ho—is about a super-pig named Okja (think enormous hippo with the demeanor of a golden retriever) and Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), the young girl trying to save Okja from corporate interests that would use it for their own potentially delicious ends. It is a romp, full of the absurd comedy, dazzling visuals, and cultural criticism we have come to expect from the South Korean director, and I can happily report that after not being as taken with Snowpiercer or The Host as the rest of the world, Okja is an absolute delight. See it, and see it soon.
But Okja also has the distinction (and perhaps duty) to represent far more than its plot and themes. A major prestige picture from a beloved foreign director, the film is the first (of two—more on that later) to play the Cannes film festival without plans for a traditional release. Instead, Okja was made available immediately for streaming on Netflix. No ticket stub, no overpriced popcorn or soda (or, if you’re lucky, craft beer). Just a computer or television and your home remote. Netflix and Amazon have been flirting with this for a while—Amazon’s Manchester by the Sea cleaned up accolades and awards last year, but still had a traditional release. But Okja, more than the Brad Pitt war-romp War Machine, marks the first real move of high-end, arthouse cinema away from the theater and into the streaming realm.
This has been met with a variety of opinions, came from legendary auteur Pedro Almodóvar, director of the Cannes jury, who wasn’t wild about the prospect of a non-theatrical film winning a major award. This has set off a series of point/counterpoint articles on the validity of Netflix (and Amazon) as major studios and the true value of a theatrical release. But I find myself interested in this argument on another front: how does a streaming-only movie affect the role of a film critic and their readers?
I’ve long been of the mind that the traditional good/bad review should be canned. Large studio releases can sink or swim on their own, and audiences usually have their mind made up long before the critics hit the keys. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film with a list of negative reviews nearly as long as its title, managed a measly 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 44/100 on (the far better) Metacritic. It still pulled in nearly $900 million. On the other hand, Wonder Woman racked up scores of impressive reviews, and is on its way to bringing in a huge haul. The critical bile or raves likely did little to alter the fate of either on a grand scale. The audience for these things—and I’m speaking generally here, because there are always exceptions—is usually determined by built-in fans, a successful trailer, and word of mouth. Mad Max: Fury Road was a surprise success (and one of the best action movies I’ve ever had the pleasure to see) two years ago, but can we really quantify how much of that was due to critical acclaim versus word of mouth reference?
I come not to kill criticism, but to hope that a film like Okja, and the transferring of platform that it represents, can change it. I still believe that discussions of films—in newspapers, on TV and radio, and online—are incredibly vital. But I think it’s long past time to move out of the fresh/rotten binary that makes up most film reviews and into a sort of criticism that discusses a film in full. Okja, and the idea that a film can be experienced simultaneously by audience and critic alike, may be the first step towards that goal.
Of course, Okja was seen by critics long before regular audiences when it played at Cannes, but the reviews of the film were festival reviews, and didn’t run in local papers the same way a traditional Friday release would. You probably had to be following Cannes, or Bong Joon-Ho, to find them. For most of us, here it is, the film and its reviews arriving at nearly the same time. And best of all, the theater experience, which can be a joy for truly awe-inspiring visuals (Arrival, Mad Max, anything James Cameron makes), is cut out completely. While I love movie theaters themselves and the experience of going to them, let’s be real: they’re expensive, not always convenient, and limit the choices of what you can watch.
Indies, arthouse, and foreign films, in particular, are hardest to locate. I live in Boston, a decent-sized city, and unless they’ve received a huge push, it’s still a hike to get out to see a new foreign or independent film at one of the two small theaters in town. If you’re living in the suburbs or a smaller city, that trip becomes even more difficult. And then, of course, there is the price of admission. The average ticket price in America is —add in a snack or soda and you’re over ten dollars easy. In the city, you can pass the $30 mark without blinking. Now consider that the most basic Netflix streaming package starts at $7.99 a month, and the choice becomes clearer. Maybe you aren’t totally sure about Joe Swanberg’s Win It All, but having the option of starting it up from your couch and knowing that you can bail out—though you shouldn’t, because it’s great—is a lot more reassuring than committing to the theater experience.
More than that, the streaming debut allows audiences to experience a film at nearly the same time as the critics do, which reduces the amount of distance between critic and audience. Consider La La Land, and the (very worthwhile) discussion about its depiction and handling of race and jazz music. This subject was analyzed to death long before the movie opened in wide release, so when audiences who were interested in the film saw it, they were likely already privy to the fact that this discussion was taking place, and, even if they weren’t looking, had a subconscious radar ready to ping at the first mention of jazz. It’s impossible to tell exactly how much this affects an audience member’s viewing of the film—there is no tracking data on what the subconscious soaks up and retains—but it undoubtedly changes something. And there’s no way to see a movie for the first time again.
What could rise up, then, is long-form, in-depth, critical analysis, in which the critic stands as a sort of guide rather than gatekeeper or privileged first viewer, and the audience is closer to their equal. Together, the discussion of a film’s merits can continue in a new way we rarely see. In the case of Okja, that could include a discussion of whether the film’s ending undermines its larger point, or if Bong’s cultural and corporate criticisms are a bit too muddied by the film’s tone (both of which would require spoilers to really dive into).
We aren’t there yet, but Okja’s presence at Cannes—along with The Meyerowitz Stories, the Noah Baumbach Netflix film that also played the festival—seems like a real opening. And given the enormous amount of collaborative money that goes into financing and producing a film, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever get to a point where the film world resembles the music world, where artists like Kanye, Radiohead, or Beyoncé can drop an album whenever they feel like it, giving it to everyone all at once. It’s an odd thought, but one that’s fun to imagine: think of waking up and learning that the new Paul Thomas Anderson or Spike Lee flick was simply here, ready and waiting to be watched. Odds are that it will never be that fluid. But Okja does seem like a step towards that direction: a chance for a wall to break down permanently between critic and audience—not to kill film criticism, but to let it grow into a more analytical, thoughtful, and communal art. An end to thumbs, stars, and letter grades; a beginning of conversations between critics and audiences about the entire film (yes, spoilers included) to discuss its meaning, in any and every social, philosophical, theoretical, cultural, or political sense.
 To be clear, I am only discussing the American cinema experience here.