Written by: Scott Lobdell
Directed by: Bobby Miller
Starring: Tashiana Washington, Dee Wallace, and Jaeden Noel
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
This time, everybody's on the menu.
You ever felt like the universe was just straight up trolling you? I mean, if you know anything about me, it's that I’ve been pining for one more Nightmare on Elm Street sequel for a solid decade now, only to see Hollywood treat the franchise with utter indifference. In the meantime, that decade has been exceedingly kind to the likes of Puppet Master (which has had four new entries), Children of the Corn, Hellraiser, Chucky, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Evil Dead, Saw, Phantasm…the list goes on. Even fucking Leprechaun got a respectable new entry recently. Leprechaun! Continuing this trend is Critters, beneficiary of not one but two new projects in the year of our lord 2019, either of which sounds like a pretty nice consolation prize. Sure, it’s not the 80s New Line Cinema franchise I was hoping to see resurrected, but it’s more than welcome for someone who kept the original four films in his rental rotation throughout the 90s.
Unfortunately, both outings just allow us to double down on facing the hard truth that maybe Critters should have remained a nice memory. When A New Binge debuted with little fanfare earlier this year, it was easy to dismiss as a strange little one-off experiment with the franchise in a web-TV setting. It was bad but ultimately harmless, especially with Critters Attack, a proper feature film sequel with Dee Wallace back in the fold looming on the horizon. Well, about that: it turns out this take isn’t a whole lot better and suffers from the same misguided notion that this premise is too much of a joke to take seriously.
While its heart sometimes feels like it’s in the right place, there’s an overwhelming sensation that this is Critters by way of someone who only heard a secondhand account of the original movies. It’s easy to hear “intergalactic bounty hunters team up with Midwest hayseeds to hunt down killer furballs” and assume it’s among the stupidest things you’ve ever encountered. What’s great about Critters is that it’s both silly and sincere, a balance that’s admittedly tough to strike: no matter how outlandish those original movies (or at least the first two) get, there’s a conviction to them. You believe in them in a way you can’t with Critters Attack, which often feels like a shameless attempt to leach off of a legacy it hasn’t earned.
Wallace returns not as her original character, Helen Brown, but rather as the mysterious Aunt Dee, whose quaint, unassuming home has a hidden command center, where she monitors extraterrestrial activity. An alert sends her off in search of a recently arrived bunch of Krites, but she cedes most of the film to the actual protagonist: Drea (Tashiana Washington), a sushi delivery girl still mourning the recent death of her mother. Now stuck in a home with her UFO enthusiast younger brother (Jaeden Noel) and her alcoholic uncle, she’s also struggling with being rejected from her dream college when an opportunity arises that might at least get her foot in the door. Just babysit a prominent admission board professor, her friend insists, and it’ll go a long way in making sure she’s accepted during the next enrollment period. Desperate, Drea agrees, only to eventually find herself in the middle of an alien invasion when a trip to the park turns up both a bunch of ravenous, killer Krites, and their albino counterpart that’s apparently trying to thwart the invasion.
That latter point is obviously a new addition to the mythos, or at least it would be if Critters Attack were attached to any of the previous films. Instead, it’s a complete reboot with no ties to the others, something that feels disappointing at first until you gradually start to realize it’s actually for the best since it’s not harming the legacy of the original continuity. Like A New Binge, it practically begs to be quarantined away from the proper series because it does so little to honor what made those films great. It’s not just the bizarre additions—like the introduction of the Krite Queen that resembles Falcor from The Neverending Story—that rankles: it’s the lack of wit, the flat characters, and the misguided notion that Critters needs to be reduced to a completely goofy, gore-soaked monster movie.
Look, I get it and realize full well how outrageous it must sound to hear someone criticize Critters 5 as being “too silly.” I’ve wrestled with it myself: at this point, shouldn’t we just be happy if a long-belated Critters sequel delivers practical creature effects and some decent gross-out gags? If so, this one is pretty much a success: even if the Krites aren’t quite as expressive and convincing as the original Chiodo Brothers designs, they are brought to life with old school puppeteering techniques, giving the film at least a little bit of tactile weight and keeping it from feeling too cartoonish. Likewise, this is easily the goriest Critters feature film outing, as the various eviscerations pile up more bloodshed here than the previous films combined. You’ll also see plenty of the Krites themselves splatter all over the screen as the cast blasts, smacks, and plows their way through the pint-sized beasts, reducing them to a green, gory pulp. If this is all you’ve wanted while eagerly awaiting a new Critters entry for the past 25+ years, then, by all means, you are likely to be satisfied.
However, I can’t help but think that this isn’t what this series was ever really about. With their PG-13 ratings (Critters Attack is the first to carry an R), the originals were light on explicit carnage, meaning they had to thrive on actual humor, witty dialogue (some from the Krites themselves, even; meanwhile, they don’t even talk in this one) and memorable characters. Attack takes the opposite approach by foregrounding the monster mayhem, with several characters and subplots existing merely to pay off a gory punchline. Humor is sorely lacking, mostly because the tone veers towards over-the-top camp, where the audience is supposed to do most of the legwork by simply laughing at how ridiculous everything is. Other comedic relief is of the awful, try-hard sort, like a character who plays awful bagpipe music because, well, that’s the joke. Obviously, the original had its fair share of sophomoric humor and zany characters, but it was all grounded just enough to remain believable. This, on the other hand, is so unhinged from reality that it’s impossible to take seriously.
Even the handful of characters that are supposed to be somewhat believable fall a little too flat, as their arcs rest entirely on cliché melodrama that the film doesn’t truly invest in. While you appreciate that the script bothers to give Drea an arc, it only does the bare minimum with it, effectively hanging Washington out to dry as it saddles her with lame quips and “rousing” speeches that don’t do much to inspire. The kids she’s babysitting are likewise one-note characters: one is too curious and precocious for her own good, while the other communicates exclusively via texts. The only character who seems natural here is the brother, whose UFO enthusiasm gives him an obvious investment in the proceedings, and even he becomes more of a footnote as the film goes along. There is only the pretense that we should care about these characters, whose adventure with the Krite Queen becomes increasingly ludicrous and full of baffling decisions from one scene to the next. Despite carrying around actual proof of alien life, they go through the same motions each time they encounter skeptics who think they’re only making the story up for attention. Maybe just lead with the alien critter stashed away in your bookbag and go from there, you know?
You might insist that maybe this shouldn’t matter so much since Wallace is back anyway, but, let me assure you, Aunt Dee might as well be wandering around in a completely different movie for most of the runtime. Her screen-time amounts to an extended cameo that finds her cryptically following the Krites’ trail before intersecting with the rest of the characters for the finale, where she reveals what she’s been up to the entire time. Sure, anyone familiar with the series can probably guess she’s a bounty hunter, but it’s all so needlessly mysterious. And, again, it almost seems to exist purely as a sight gag: “isn’t it funny to see Dee Wallace toting around a huge laser gun?” Critters Attacks asks, nudging you in the ribs like a drunk uncle repeating some meme he read off of Facebook. Meanwhile, you’re left kind of mortified that someone you respect has sunk to such lame lows.
Suffice it to say, Critters Attack is a huge bummer, especially given the franchise’s long layoff. Practical effects aside, it’s a cheap cash-in trying to coast on a familiar title as it exploits an eager fanbase. The opening establishing shot brings dread, as seasoned viewers will immediately recognize the flat, over-lit, SyFy aesthetic that requires the film to effectively outrun its own lackluster, shot-on-a-tax-credit production values. It’s a race it has no chance of winning, unfortunately, which is something I am in no way happy to report. I’ve been banging the drum for a Critters revival for years now, and this had the potential to be a nice little surprise at the least. The only reason Critters Attack doesn’t feel like the worst case scenario is because A New Binge exists; if nothing else, this one isn’t as farcical and broad as that effort, which almost courts the audience’s contempt at every turn. This one mostly inspires indifference and disappointment.
I hate to be that guy—you know, the one who just laments that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, but I feel like it applies in this case. Critters Attack just doesn’t have that certain charm of the earlier productions: sure, maybe some of that stems from nostalgia-tinted glasses, but I genuinely believe even the worst of the original movies had a little heart and soul that’s lacking here. Resorting to this line of reasoning almost feels like a cop-out because of course 2019 Critters isn’t going to feel like 80s and 90s Critters; hell, at one point, the film itself acknowledges as much when a pair of the kids sarcastically asks “what is this, 1986?!” when Drea suggests playing cards. For audiences, the answer is obvious: no, this isn’t 1986. 1986 had wit, charm, and fun to spare; 1986 had compelling characters and an intriguing mythos; 1986 maybe even had a little Amblin-inspired magic that resulted in a minor miracle. As always, 2019 only brings disappointment and a sense of faded glory.
Some might point to the future in the hopes that SyFy will produce further sequels and get it right; others might (rightfully) cringe at the realization that they’re also producing a new Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Meanwhile, I’ll just be sitting over here wondering how we’re living in a world where the Leprechaun’s revival was better than two Critters reboots. Please respect my privacy in this difficult time.
Critters Attack arrives on DVD/Blu-ray on July 23rd ahead of next month’s SyFy Network premiere. The disc features over 20 minutes of supplements, including a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s gore effects, interviews with the cast and crew, a specific look at this film’s rendition of the iconic “Critters” ball, and a scene specific commentary featuring director Bobby Miller and one of the “Krites.” Honestly, the most important information are the reminders at the end of each supplement that the first four Critters movies are also available.
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