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Review: 'Damsel' Needs Saving from the Soulless Netflix Formula

By Melanie Fischer | Film | March 19, 2024 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | March 19, 2024 |


In Damsel, the latest Netflix flavor of the week that somehow manages to look cheap and expensive at the same time, homegrown talent Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) stars as Elodie, the spirited but dutiful eldest daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), a noble ruling over a struggling Northern kingdom. (Note: this kingdom is never named, as that’s not necessary.) One day, Lord Bayford receives a letter that promises to answer the starving kingdom’s prayers—a proposed marriage pact between Elodie and Prince Henry of Aurea (Nick Robinson), a prosperous kingdom nearby. Encouraged by his wife, Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett, what are you doing here?), stepmother to Elodie and her younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter), he convinces his daughter to agree to the betrothal. (Note: neither Lord nor Lady Bayford have first names, as this is, again, not necessary.)

So off this family of half-developed characters goes to Aurea, which they immediately notice has a lot of dragon-themed decor. This could be called foreshadowing, only the cold open at the top of the movie has already spelled out where everything is headed pretty clearly. An icy reception from Henry’s mother, Queen Isabelle, only further suspicions that the nuptials might not be the happy occasion one would hope. Queen Isabelle also happens to be played by Robin Wright, reminding us all that once upon a time we got such a delight of a fantasy movie as The Princess Bride, but now we don’t get to have nice things any more—or more than five named characters at a time, apparently.

Anyway, on the subject of not getting nice things, on the day of her wedding, Elodie discovers that her “happily ever after” with her prince will be very short-lived by design: she is a human sacrifice to the angry dragon who nests deep inside the caverns of a nearby mountain, and spares the citizens of Aurea in exchange for the sacrifice of three maidens every generation. Tossed into the heart of the dragon’s lair, Elodie is left with nothing but her wits to try to escape her perilous circumstances.

The thing that’s perhaps most frustrating about Damsel is that it does have the basic elements required to be, perhaps not a masterpiece, but a very fun movie. It’s a classic fairytale meets the left-for-dead revengequest narrative—hardly all that original, but the makings of a good time. The issue is that Damsel doesn’t build off its foundations in any way, and what’s left is not so much a full, satisfying story as much as the vague outline of one. And the real icing on the cake here is that this shortcoming does not feel like an accident, but very much by design.

There is a director credited on this film, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), and a writer, Dan Mazeau (Fast X, Wrath of the Titans), but it feels like the true mastermind behind this vision, perhaps more so than any other Netflix film that came before it, is Netflix itself. Everything about Damsel is Netflix-coded. The clearly expensive CGI and setpieces designed and filmed in the most down-the-middle, milquetoast way possible. The “ambient viewing” feel of it despite the obvious blockbuster movie budget involved. What Netflix has managed to create here is technically polished filmmaking entirely stripped of any kind of artistry. This very much feels like the kind of film AI could generate, fed a few books of fairytales and a copy of Save the Cat.

Damsel is not watchable so much as half-watchable, by which I mean it feels explicitly designed for you to half-watch it while doing chores, or scrolling through social media, or any other thing capable of being done with a movie playing in the background. If anything, the film punishes active viewership, hitting you over the head with every plot point and then ramming it down your throat for good measure. There is no subtext here, just text emblazoned in giant neon letters that hurt your eyes to stare at directly.

Damsel is a movie about bravery that feels inspired by little else other than the fear-based decision making of the Netflix machine, and the executives therein who understand the reality of their jobs profoundly well.

Netflix has mastered the “art” of what we might call, for lack of a better term, pasteurized filmmaking—they have guaranteed their product is safe to consume by sterilizing it. The aim here is not to make the best possible movie but to find the lowest common denominator of blandly universal and just entertaining enough not to get turned off. And with Damsel, they’ve hit the bullseye of this low-hanging target—a movie fine enough that most people you know will likely at least half-watch it, and bland enough that most of us will have forgotten about it entirely in a month’s time.