Thursday, July 20, 2017

What's On Netflix?: OKJA

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's selection is the newest project from the director of Snowpiercer, OKJA.

Of all the different types of movies Hollywood is known for, "a kid and his critter" flicks may be one of the few that have hardly changed over the hundred-plus year history of motion pictures. I don't claim to have seen every single example of this type of movie, and I treasure my health and sanity too much to try. But as I write this, I find I can't think of a single example of a kid-and-critter movie that I have seen that stands out from the others. It's a common gripe among cynical moviegoers that any given example of a type of movie is basically the same as all of the others of that type. But with kid-and-critter flicks, that may actually be true.

They all seem to follow the same setup. Meet Kid. Meet Critter. Kid and Critter are pals, and live an idyllic life in picturesque Somewhere. But then, horror! A Bad Thing happens, and Kid and Critter must go on a journey to rival the Greek Epics to preserve their happiness. But preserve it they shall, because that's how these movies always, always, always turn out.

And so it is with Okja, the latest thinly-veiled sermon on the Way Things Ought To Be from director Bong Joon Ho. If you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa goes to a petting zoo, meets a cute lamb and becomes a militant vegetarian, you've basically seen Okja. Instead of a cute lamb, the film is about a genetically engineered "superpig" created by a multinational corporation in an effort to solve the world hunger crisis. As part of a long-term promotional gimmick, 26 superpiglets are sent to farms around the world to be raised by local farmers, with a prize going to the best one in ten years.

And this is how Kid and Critter come to be. The Kid is Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl living on a farm somewhere in remotest Korea; the Critter is Okja, the superpig sent to that farm to be raised. Mija and Okja have pretty much grown up together, so Mija's grown attached, which is understandable but unfortunate, because -- never forget, children -- Okja is meant to be food. So of course Mija finds it disconcerting when Okja is taken away from the farm to be transported to America for the Best Superpig competition and her ultimate destiny, which Mija learns just about the same time as her beloved critter is loaded onto a truck and carted away. Mija gives chase, ridiculously turning into a little action hero-cum-acrobat just long enough to catch up with the truck, and that's when the pair's epic journey really takes off. The two will find themselves spirited away to the Land of Opportunity and Texas-sized steaks. Okja will endure an adventure that is appropriately horrifying, because Meat is Murder. Mija, meanwhile, will struggle against resistance from the employees of the corporation that owns Okja, up to and including their millennial snowflake of a CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), and the hindrances caused by the self-serving efforts of a cabal of activists from the Animal Liberation Front. This latter group, led by the charismatic Jay (Paul Dano), claim to want to free Okja and return her to home on Mija's farm, but really only see the superpig as a means to the end of discrediting Okja's creators in the court of public opinion.

Okja is not subtle at all about its message, there is still plenty to make it work watching. Paul Dano plays Jay like a distant relative of Eli Sunday from There Will be Blood. Tilda Swinton's Lucy Mirando is a narcissistic idiot from the jump, hosting the press event which opens the film as though it were a children's television show, and later boasting about the special school she attended, to "visualize success". She's unlikeable, but never struck me as irritating. I never doubted her fall was coming soon, so I was able to enjoy her antics until the inevitable finally happened. But the hidden treasure of this movie is Johnny Wilcox, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a cross between a vapid Animal Planet presenter, and hyperactive fitness guru Richard Simmonds. Gyllenhaal has made a career of playing characters who are f'd-up in profound ways, and this may be my new second-favorite of the bunch, after Donnie Darko.

But in spite of all that distraction, Okja's message, the Finding Nemo-esque credo of "Animals are Friends, not Food" never completely takes a back seat. It's strange, though, that the characters who actually live by this creed, the ALF members, are also used as some of the film's comic relief. Among the ALF activists is Silver (Devon Bostick) who believes that "all food production is exploitation", and believes it so vehemently that he's frequently collapsing from hunger. So credit to Bong Joon Ho for including that aside that it's possible to take food-activism to a literally unhealthy extreme, though committed vegetarianism has its own Straight and Narrow Path these days. But that's a different topic.

Okja wants so much to convince you that animals should be allowed to live out their lives in peace and freedom instead of being turned into dinner, but makes the old mistake of relying entirely on cartoonish emotionalism to make its point. Which is hilarious, since the animals at the heart of the movie are idealized, fictional CGI creations with no real-world analog to begin with. But it gets better, starting with Okja, and later the other superpigs, first being impossibly docile, and later, showing human-level problem solving skills on two separate occasions. None of this equates to any practical reasons why we, the audience, should swear off meat forever, which isn't uncommon for these kinds of movies. But using a fictional animal as the vehicle for this message, and to set that message against the problem of world hunger, is the problem at the core of this movie. Declaring that people are hungry because there isn't enough food, then moralizing that the More Food produced isn't the "right kind", smacks of trying to have it both ways.

Okja is as much cheap indoctrination as it is flashy family adventure. It has its redeeming qualities, but take its message with a grain of salt. Preferably on a bite of jerky.

Okja is rated TV-MA.

Robert's Score: 6.5 / 10

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