Beasts of No Nation and the so-called end of cinema as we know it

Beasts of No Nation is a provocative war drama produced by and made for Netflix. It’s its first, original narrative film — and it’s yet more evidence that the word “cinematic” is now an adjective you can use to descibe your own living room — or laptop, writes Luke Buckmaster.

Beasts of No Nation, the provocative new war drama from Cary Fukunaga (best known for directing and executive producing the terrific first season of True Detective) is the kind of eye-bulging achievement one might describe as “cinematic.”

The locations in this story, about a child turned by a punch-drunk warlord into a soldier for a band of mercenaries, are exotic – set in an unnamed African country and filmed in the Eastern Region of Ghana.

The cinematography (by Fukunaga, also director and screenwriter, adapting Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s novel) is startling. The camera work is so impressive the visual perspective of the film feels like a character itself.

At times subtle and at times very powerful touches were made in the editing room. In one arresting sequence, colour grading changes to pre-empt a massacre: the green of long grass in a field morphs into an eerily beautiful pinkish-red seconds before blood is shed.

An intense, whirring, synthesised score peppered with unconventional sounds (from coyote howls to a submarine sonar) add a thick, spooky blanket of audio to an already disturbing atmosphere. Yes indeed, a highly cinematic film — and one of the pedigree American productions of 2015.

But Beasts of No Nation, which was released globally last Friday, is not on the big screen and won’t be coming to a cinema near you. It is the first original narrative film from Netflix, which acquired distribution rights for $US12 million. The streaming provider has been building a film development wing certain to have a big impact on the entertainment industry.

A high-powered and shockingly charismatic performance by Idris Elba as the menacing warlord has “Best Supporting Actor” written all over it.

But during the annual awards season PR war, which inevitably involves mud-slinging as grubby as any political election campaign, competitors against Netflix’s Oscar hopeful may have a cut-through line to scare off the aging white men who form the bulk of the Academy’s voters: nothing shy of warning them against the end of cinema as we know it.

Of course, that’s not true. With cinema having emerged as perhaps the most dominant art form of the 20th century, it’s hard to imagine a world where huddled masses will no longer publically congregate in the dark to watch moving pictures on giant screens.

Beasts of No Nation does, however, mark a significant milestone. It received major distribution — buzz and hype, early screenings at esteemed film festivals (Venice and Toronto) and millions of people who can watch it easily and whenever they like. Its release bypassed the old-fashioned release window, which typically reserves screenings of new movies to the exclusive domain of cinemas for around 90 days (the standard in Australia is 120).

The film received a small theatrical run in American cinemas; just enough to qualify it for the Oscars. Imagine what an Academy Award —  even a nomination — might do to bolster the idea that the future of cinema does not necessarily have to do with actual cinemas.

The term “cinematic” is changing, taking on meaning further and further divorced from its origins, which are rooted in a particular kind of venue and format. Cinematic is no longer only the domain of the cinema.

A similar change happened to the way we use the word “film”. When we visit the cinema we tend to use it to describe what we watch, which these days is very rarely film in the traditional sense. A digital copy rather than reel ran through a projector.

And while “cinematic” has been used before to describe high-end television shows, Beasts of No Nation is a turning point. More exclusively in-your-lounge-room movies from Netflix are in the mail, including a handful of Adam Sandler comedies and a belated sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Beasts of No Nation is essentially a story about radicalised youth – a particularly strong chord to strike amid current conversation around minimising potential for terrorism. It is cinema that makes you think; cinema that makes you feel; cinema that quickens your heart rate. And of course, not cinema at all.

You can buy Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation here

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