Trigger Warning is making people ‘boycott’ Netflix – but it’s too dreadful to be offensive

Jessica Alba in ‘Trigger Warning’ (Ursula Coyote/Netflix)
Jessica Alba in ‘Trigger Warning’ (Ursula Coyote/Netflix)

When you sit down to watch a film called Trigger Warning, you ought to expect a bit of provocation. And sure enough, Netflix’s latest original offering – a revenge thriller of that name starring Jessica Alba as a hard-bitten American commando – has left viewers triggered. Well, not exactly triggered so much as annoyed and offended, with some threatening to “boycott” Netflix over the film’s crass depiction of warfare in the Middle East.

One social media post, “liked” over 65,000 times on X/Twitter, zeros in on a scene at the start of the film, in which a Special Forces team disguise themselves as humanitarian aid workers, and come under fire from a group of Syrian militants. Sharing stills from the action sequence, including subtitles that read “[Terrorist in Arabic]”, the X user wrote: “Boycott this racist ass movie that normalises Americans hiding in aid trucks to shoot and murder Arabs. Does this sound familiar to anyone?”

Others chimed in with similar sentiments, claiming that they would be avoiding the streaming service due to the film’s reductive handling of this sequence. (Trigger Warning doesn’t go so far as to explicitly endorse the American characters’ actions in the scene, which amount to a war crime, but the film instead just kind of breezes past the issue.) Proclamations of a boycott should of course be taken with a grain of salt: grousing on social media doesn’t always equate to actual widespread outrage. But the sheer reach of these posts was noteworthy.

On a very basic level, the movie itself doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Trigger Warning is, to use a rather nebulous term, problematic in its fleeting depiction of conflict in Syria. But this is also only a small part of the film. Elsewhere, the movie, directed by Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya, seems more progressively inclined. Most of the story takes place back in the US, to where Alba returns after the suspicious death of her father; the villain is a slimy right-wing politician played by former teen star Anthony Michael Hall.

But any political commentary here is ultimately just as redundant. Underneath it all, Trigger Warning is simply too messy and poorly crafted a film to convey any kind of coherent political ethos. It is a sort of shoddy spin on Rambo that lacks even a whit of First Blood’s political venom, or its righteous, energising fury.

Despite its current position atop the Netflix viewing chart, Trigger Warning is far from a success story. Critics’ reviews have been near unanimous in their scorn: the movie holds a rating of just 25 per cent on the aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Even more damningly, it seems that regular people feel the same way.

Viewers have taken aim at everything from the action, to the cinematography, to the dialogue. (A particularly insipid example of the latter: describing her father’s perishing in a mining accident, Alba’s character remarks, “I’ve been thinking there was some kind of… poetry or something, in the fact he was swallowed up in his favourite place… he loved that damn cave.”) Alba, taking on her first film role in five years, is never the big problem with Trigger Warning, though the film is not the gritty and propulsive comeback she may have craved.

Trigger Warning is also bad in ways that are wholly unremarkable; it is merely the latest forgettable action schlock to emerge from a system that churns it out on a regular basis. It is hard to say whether it is any worse than, say, the Ryan Gosling thriller The Gray Man, or the Chris Hemsworth-starring Extraction; these films are not just lacklustre, but utterly generic in their failings. Amusingly, Trigger Warning is not even the first Netflix Original to bear that title: it shares the moniker with a 2019 docuseries fronted by Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike.

It’s a good thing when genre films like this are scrutinised with critical rigour. Movies shouldn’t be exempt from a proper accountability just because they ostensibly fall under the banner of light entertainment. But there also has to be some perspective. Trigger Warning is too throwaway to get worked up about. Better to save the boycott for something that actually stands a chance of winning people over.

‘Trigger Warning’ is available to stream now on Netflix