This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
We can’t see the algorithms, and we probably don’t even know how they work, but we know they’re out there, watching us. On a site like Amazon, algorithms look at what we’ve bought in the past and use that information to offer us new stuff they think we might like to buy.
You bought a Downton Abbey calendar? Then you might like this book on early 20th century rich people. You purchased a lawnmower in 2016? Other people who bought lawnmowers also purchased weedkiller, so you’ll probably want some too. You like Michael Bay movies? Here, have some ibuprofen.
At least, this is how we assume Amazon works behind the scenes. Because, when we start poking around in the darker corners of Amazon Prime Video, the shopping giant’s streaming service, the sense of intelligent design begins to break down. After a while, reality itself begins to feel as though it’s starting to dissolve, like wet loo paper.
If you’ve used Amazon Prime, or Netflix, or any similar service, you’ll know what to expect: a range of TV and film choices, neatly arranged in rows like DVDs on a shelf. Depending on what app your using, they’ll likely be broken down into sections with headings like “recently added,” or “because you watched The Florida Project.” Alternatively, of course, you can browse by genre, or hunt for entertainment in your own watch list – that online pile of films and shows you’ve been intending to watch but secretly know you never will.
Both Amazon Prime and Netflix behave similarly on the surface, but there appear to be subtly different rules governing the algorithms behind each – last year, Wired published a fairly exhaustive article about Netflix’s complex, three-legged approach to picking movies for its customers.
Amazon Prime, meanwhile, appears to front-load its movies based not just on customer preference, but on the popularity of the film amongst other people who’ve seen it. According to this blog, it’s also free for movie-makers to put their films on Amazon Prime – and, perhaps more significantly, people who submit a film to Amazon Prime can tag it in as many genres (or sub-genres) as they like. All of this could explain why browsing Amazon Prime can make for such a curious experience.
At the time of writing, for example, the first two films in the sci-fi genre on Prime Video are Interstellar and Inception – logical choices, you could say, since they’re among the more better-known and acclaimed genre films of the past eight years. Not far behind, we find Arrival – Denis Villenueve’s critically lauded and very moving alien visitation drama – and after that, In Time, Andrew Niccol’s post-financial crisis thriller starring Justin Timberlake.
The further into the sci-fi genre list we go, however, and the weirder the options become. Films like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla or Peter Berg’s Battleship gradually give way to lesser-known items like Vampire Nation (starring Andrew Lee Potts!) or Sink Hole, a little-seen disaster thriller featuring Eric Roberts. While it’s no surprise that the films would become more obscure, given what we’ve just discussed about putting most of the familiar offerings at the top of the list, some of the other bits of entertainment on offer are a bit harder to explain.
Nestled in amongst Sink Hole, Princess Of Mars (Asylum’s low-budget John Carter and Avatar cash-in), we found an hour-long documentary, UFOs Reconsidered. A bit further on, and we discovered something called Ancient Aliens – Archons – Extraterrestrial Invaders, a documentary exploring “the facts” behind an invasion in Ancient Egypt.
The titles only become more bizarre the deeper we go into the Amazon Prime archive. Here’s Space Boobs In Space, starring a lady named Dee Flowered.
Later comes UFOs: The Best Evidence Ever Caught On Tape 2. A few dozen titles in, we stumbled on Robo Vampire 3: Counter Destroy – a film that has RoboCop firing a machine gun on the cover, but is actually a Hong Kong martial arts horror comedy with some truly horrific dubbing. RoboCop clearly didn’t make the final cut.
Once Amazon Prime moves past the big-hitters described above – the Inceptions and Arrivals and so forth – it’s difficult to figure out how it’s selected these lesser-known titles for our viewing pleasure. Even halfway through the list, we’re finding smaller movies that are nevertheless worth a watch: things like The Last Man On Earth – an Italian, zero-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, this one starring Vincent Price. Chopping Mall, an odd-ball 80s slasher about a bunch of teenagers trapped in a building full of killer security robots. But to find these, you have to sift through a mind-bending array of deservedly obscure clones of monster movies (Alien 3000, Five-Headed Shark) and spurious documentaries about ancient aliens and Illuminati conspiracy theories.
Admittedly, you could find some of these cult films through the search function, but unless you know they’re listed on Prime, you’d struggle to find them while simply browsing through the dozens of similar-looking titles cluttering up the listings. Roger Corman’s wonderful X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, for example, is placed somewhere near Healing Codes For The Biological Apocalypse on our list.
Amazon Prime’s thriller section, meanwhile, lured your humble writer in with some worthy film choices – Detroit, Gone Girl, The Town, and, er, Gerard Butler’s Law Abiding Citizen. But again, everything starts to go awry once we head down the list: Titanic II, directed by Bruce Davison; 10 Most Evil Serial Killers, or Death Island: Paranormal Retribution.
This isn’t to say, of course, that other streaming services don’t have their own fair share of weird, wonderful and often quite bad titles – Netflix has plenty of them as you scroll through the listings. What’s strange about Prime, though, is how many of these pseudo-scientific documentaries and other, somewhat homemade-looking bits and pieces are, and how pervasively they get into each genre as you’re hunting through them. In the thriller section, we were offered things like Bible Conspiracies, The Truth About Aliens, and Mysteries Of Angels And Demons.
Back in the sci-fi section, we stumbled on things that looked as though they’d wandered in from YouTube: a video review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ DVD release. An overview of Stranger Things seasons one and two – a show that isn’t even on Amazon Prime, but its rival, Netflix. A compilation of Atari 2600 videogame reviews. As for the documentary genre – well, that way lies madness.
There’s nothing wrong with choice or a breadth of content, but we’d argue that the sheer number of odd videos makes scrolling more than a few listings into Amazon Prime a bit of a chore. As we mentioned earlier, there are some great, lesser-known movies tucked away on Prime – Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, classic sci-fi, wonderful examples of world cinema.
Seemingly anyone can make a movie and get it to a huge audience in multiple territories thanks to Amazon Prime, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But for the end user, actually trying to find great entertainment among the lesser stuff, strewn about apparently at random, is something of a chore.
The experience is less like rooting through an old-fashioned video store – a quite enjoyable pastime in years gone by – and more like being an archaeologist in a HP Lovecraft story: the deeper you dig, the more bizarre and unrecognizable the discoveries become.