Pioneering a genre: where environmentalist films like Okja need to go next.

Last week Netflix released the unusual hit Okja, a film laden with environmental messaging and directed by Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho. The film centers on a young girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) who has spent most of her life in the mountains of Korea raising a so-called “super-pig”: a massive genetically modified creature designed by an American corporation called Mirando to be a super-efficient, low footprint source of meat. A competition in which 26 super-pigs were distributed internationally to each be raised by a different family farm was used as a publicity stunt to launch Mirando’s marketing campaign. After 10 years, Mija’s pig named Okja is selected as winner and unceremoniously removed from its mountainside home to be transported to New York City for the grand announcement. Mija follows in hot pursuit, intent on recovering Okja and returning it home, but becomes quickly entangled with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who also intends to rescue Okja.

okja-creature-littlegirl-woods

Mija and her hippo-like super-pig, Okja.

It seems temporarily that Mija and the ALF should have allied interests, but the ALF’s leader Jay (Paul Dano) reveals that they only wish to capture Okja temporarily in order to implant a recording device that will be used to expose the abuses they suspect to be occurring in the Mirando laboratory and slaughterhouse. Indeed, everything about Mirando seems too airbrushed to be honest, their CEO being played by an angelically beaming Tilda Swinton (who is subtly psychologically unhinged in that classic Swinton style). They even hire a somewhat manic zoologist named Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhal) to act as the face of the corporation, in an apparent attempt to lend the company scientific and ethical legitimacy. While the film makes some excellent statements about the dangers of corporate influence when it comes to managing environmental issues, I find that it unfortunately falls quite short of accurately representing the scientific community in its dystopian setting.

The problem is that Okja only gives us one entity that represents science, Johnny Wilcox, and then uses this character as a way to further emphasize the corrupting power of capitalist greed. Johnny Wilcox is never portrayed as caring about any kind of science; instead, he is increasingly desperate for fame, attention, and money. This greed drives him to insanity, culminating in a scene where he threatens to torture Okja in the Mirando holding facility. This works thematically for the film, but in the grander scheme is damaging to the already distrustful and tenuous relationship between scientists and the general public. Ultimately, Okja places scientists in the crossfire between corporate America and animal liberationists, and does not treat them as real stakeholders in the issues. This portrayal was hugely disappointing to me: environmental issues require that we work together, but this movie was mainly interested in dividing humankind into groups with irreconcilable differences. We need movies that attempt to understand scientists (and all stakeholders) and do not bend so easily to the low-hanging fruit of the “evil scientist” trope. Throughout this film, the villains are treated as simple characters with very simple motivations, reducing a complex issue down to a satisfying “us vs. them” narrative.

If scientists and company execs are the villains of Okja, then the ALF are surely the heroes. Certainly, unethical factory-farming practices are condemnable and should be exposed. In fact, Bong has stated that he based his scenes in the Mirando slaughterhouse around his visit to a contemporary slaughterhouse, but “toned down” the imagery (the film still features an employee attempting to squeegee a torrent of blood down a drain). However, our ALF heroes are decidedly short-sighted in addressing this issue: they want to expose the Mirando corporation, but then what? The film never answers this question, and does little to provide an alternative solution for sustainable food production. Clearly, the film condemns the mass-production and slaughtering of the super-pigs and prefers a world in which every super-pig finds a mountainside paradise where it can thrive. The unavoidable question follows: in a future where the human population continues to grow, is it practical to imagine that we can turn away completely from mass-production of food? Okja presents the problems of a dystopian future, and correspondingly seems to only suggest a utopian solution.

Environmentalist films in the fiction genre are few and far in between, and Okja makes a bold first step into this arena. Overall, I am glad to see that such films are getting financed (probably thanks to the new Netflix model of film-making) and that these issues are finally considered mainstream enough to warrant this type of film. One thing that is truly commendable about this film is that it takes a more thoughtful lens on the issue of genetically-modified organisms: the loveable, cuddlable Okja itself is a GMO and the film does not shy away from this fact. Tilda Swinton’s character memorably comments on the mysterious justifications that consumers use to reject GMOs. These statements, along with the acknowledgement of the large-scale environmental impacts of food production, show that despite its hostility towards scientists as stakeholders, Okja is not ignorant of science itself. To see environmental science represented in a blockbuster-style film is exciting and tells of things to come.

So what should the environmental blockbuster film of the future look like? Let’s talk about solutions. Okja and numerous other documentaries (Food, Inc., for example) have focused their efforts on verbalizing anger at the injustices of the current model of mass food production, or on visualizing the apocalyptic ends humanity could meet as a result. As a consumer I feel oversaturated with these messages, and although Okja was a well-made film, I learned nothing new. If environmentalist films like Okja are going to survive, evolve, and influence change, they need to provide a new perspective on how we can proceed to address environmental issues. Everyone loves a good dystopian future in theory, but no one wants to live in one: we need a movie that gives us hope. There should be no end of inspiration for such films, because scientists are working hard every day to address issues like these.

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