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The underrated sci-fi thriller that's crushing it on Netflix

If you were searching for a hidden gem buried within the streaming slushpile, you could do a lot worse than Lockout, a 2012 masterwork of French science-fiction that's currently burning up the charts at Netflix.

When Netflix released their Top Ten list this week, viewers were surprised to find the underappreciated foreign film showing a strong 8th place. As of May 19th, Lockout breached the streamer's most-viewed list, joining the ranks of hotly anticipated Netflix originals like The Wrong Missy (#1) and recognizable franchises like Despicable Me (#5). Lockout even edged out a few projects with massive built-in audiences and widespread appeal. The animated adventure film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa landed just shy of the sci-fi action flick at #9, with the 2018 crime thriller Den of Thieves rounding out the list at #10.

The popular streamer only recently lifted up its digital curtain to make at least a tiny sliver of their tightly held viewing statistics public. Since earlier this year, they've been promoting a weekly "Top Ten" of their most watched content (albeit without revealing the actual numbers), and the results have definitely been interesting. So far, the rankings have been dominated by a predictable mix of buzz-worthy original content and licensed properties with broad family appeal. Films like Lockout surprise us when they crack the list, because they don't fit comfortably in either box. 

So, what business does a little-known French film from eight years ago have climbing the rankings to such heights? As it turns out, Lockout is actually a pretty wild ride, and U.S. viewers who likely missed its original release have been there for it.

Lockout is an exciting sci-fi romp...

The 2012 action film is the directorial debut of French filmmakers James Mather and Stephen Saint Leger. They hired writer Luc Besson to assist with the screenplay, though both Mather and Saint Leger are also credited as writers on the film. For a first foray, the greenhorn directors landed a pretty blockbuster cast. Lockout stars The Innocents' Guy Pearce as protagonist Snow, opposite Fear the Walking Dead's Maggie Grace as Emilie Warnock. They're joined by Vincent Regan (Troy), Joseph Gilgun (This Is England), Lennie James (The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead) and Peter Stormare (American Gods).

Pearce's Snow is a man framed for a crime he didn't commit in a far future world. He is offered the opportunity to earn his freedom if he rescues the President's daughter, Emilie (Grace), from a notorious orbital prison known as MS One. MS One has been taken over by a violent gang of inmates in full revolt, and Emilie is currently their captive. Gilgun and Regan play Alex and Hydell, the inmate ringleaders who engineer the prison riot and take Emilie as a bargaining chip.

... that has been deemed too similar to Escape from New York and Escape from LA

If you think some of these elements sound familiar, legendary sci-fi director John Carpenter agrees. He successfully sued Mather and Saint Leger for plagiarizing the story of his classic genre films Escape from New York and Escape from LA. Carpenter was eventually awarded €20,000 for the infringement, in addition to the €10,000 awarded to screenwriter Nick Castle and the €50,000 awarded to MGM. An appeal of the decision was rejected back in 2016, bringing the matter to a close (via Yahoo News).

Reasonable minds can differ as to whether the European courts ruled rightly in this case. It should be noted that European intellectual property law tends to be much more unforgiving than U.S. law. What might qualify as an infringement in the European system, could reasonably be deemed a respectful homage under the American paradigm. If Mather and Saint Leger were going to look to older works for inspiration, they could do a lot worse than Carpenter's films. In this regard, the results on display in Lockout speak for themselves.

Lockout didn't make much of a splash in its theatrical release, but it's found new life on Netflix

Lockout was originally released to 2,308 theaters in the United States and Canada. Over its brief run, it only made $14 million domestically, adding another $18 million to that total, worldwide. In its opening weekend, Lockout was the ninth-highest-grossing film, taking in $6.2 million in box office receipts (via Box Office Mojo).

Critical response was mixed at the time, though most reviewers lauded Guy Pearce's performance in the lead role as Snow. Derek Malcolm at the London Evening Standard wrote that, "It's laughably over the top but Pearce, a decent actor, anchors it somewhere between Escape From New York and The Transformers."

Some critics speculated at the time that Lockout suffered from unflattering comparisons to Carpenter's Snake Plissken movies, but others saw merit in what Mather and Saint Leger were trying to accomplish. Debbie Lynn Elias at Behind the Lens wrote, "Lock and load! Don't get locked out of Lockout. And yes .... I want my sequel now." Sarah Gopaul at Digital Journal agreed, writing, "For a night of shameless entertainment and explosions, Lockout is a winning choice." 

That seems to be exactly what Netflix viewers are after. Eight years after the film's initial release, it appears that streaming audiences have decided that Lockout deserves a second hearing, and many of them officially like what they see.