Okja: The Streaming Summer Blockbuster of 2017
Looking for the summer’s best blockbuster? Then get some popcorn, sit on your comfiest couch, and fire up Netflix, because the most satisfying action film of the year can be streamed directly into your living room. Okja, the latest film from South Korean master Bong Joon-Ho (Snowpiercer), is a total crowd-pleaser, as well-written as it is exciting and surprising. A combination of Gremlins, The Iron Giant, and Godzilla, there is something for everyone here and, if there is any justice in the cinematic world, Okja will become an action movie staple for years to come.
In a fictionalized version of 2007, a group of farmers from around the world are selected by the mysterious Mirando Corporation to raise “super pigs” for ten years, with the promise that the biggest pig will receive international fame at a celebration in New York before the company launches a line of organic, GMO-free meat. But there’s just one problem: the winning “super pig”, Okja, has forged a strong bond with her farmer’s daughter, and neither pet nor human have any intention of going on without the other.
So, in 2017, as Mirando Corp. plans on launching their hotly anticipated new line of pork products, Okja’s 14-year-old owner Mija goes on an adventure to save her pet. Things become complicated quickly: not only is Mirando Corp.’s leader (Tilda Swinton) deadest on launching her product line without a problem, but a bumbling group of animal activists (Paul Dano, Steven Yuen, Lily Collins) consistently cause problems for both Mija and Mirando.
Any fan of Snowpiercer can attest to Bong Joon-Ho’s skills as a brilliant director of action, and his abilities remain firmly on display in Okja. One stunning sequence begins as a small-scale foot chase but slowly evolves into a massive car chase moving through the streets of Seoul, with more parties being introduced at just the right moment to appropriately raise the stakes. Other moments are much more serious, with the film’s final set piece pulling the audience to the edge of their seat with gut-churning anticipation.
But Bong Joon-Ho deserves praise for more than just the way he stages action; with Okja, he brings a sense of excitement and energy to even the dialogue driven portions. Many scenes take on an old-school slapstick tone, while one sequence driven entirely by subtitled dialogue is just as suspenseful as the car chase that preceded it. There isn’t a dull moment in this film, and Bong Joon-Ho is to thank for that.
The international ensemble cast, however, also does some of the heavy lifting. Thirteen-year-old Ahn Seo-Hyun makes her character, Mija, an empathetic vessel for the audience into this universe, while also bringing a sense of agency and intensity to her young heroine. Meanwhile, as the loose-cannon animal activists, Dano, Yeun, and Collins find the perfect balance between “cool badasses” and “bumbling idiots” for their often-hilarious characters. Tilda Swinton is also, expectedly, terrific, while Jake Gyllenhaal gives an off-the-wall comedic performance that is bound to divide audiences but shows the actor’s willingness to break out of his Hollywood sex-symbol mold and add unique roles to his repertoire. The best performance, however, is a computer-generated one.
While Okja might not look as polished as the CGI creations in, say, a Marvel movie, the way the “super-pig” (which looks more like a hippo, with the face and energy of a puppy) interacts with her environment is stunning. Furthermore, this animated character will quickly burrow her way into the heart of even the coldest viewer, allowing the emotional beats in the film’s final half hour to land.
Some will certainly find Okja one of the more intellectually stimulating action films of the past few years, as it explores the ethics of the food industry, as well as the problem with well intentioned but poorly planned activism. But while the film is undeniably political at times, it never quite reaches the same levels of social satire as Bong Joon-Ho’s last film, Snowpiercer. And that’s fine – Okja works entirely on its own, as both an action movie and a heartwarming tale of a girl and her pet. While the film is a bit edgy (Netflix doesn’t rate their movies, but Okja would definitely get a PG-13, if not an R), it’s not difficult to imagine a world where families enjoy Okja together. There truly is something here for everyone, with beautifully shot action scenes and genuinely emotional moments.
Don’t just scroll past this one when you’re looking for your next nightly Netflix binge – Okja is guaranteed to please.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10