Fantasia 2019: CRITTERS ATTACK (2019)

Critters Attack.jpg

Studio:      Warner Bros.
Director:    Bobby Miller
Writer:      Scott Lobdell
Producer:  Rupert Harvey, Barry Opper
Stars:     Tashiana Washington, Ava Preston, Jack Fulton, Jaeden Noel, Dee Wallace

Review Score:

65.jpg

Summary:

A babysitter teams with three kids and an unusual bounty hunter when killer alien creatures invade their small town.


Synopsis:     

Fantasia International Film Festival Review:

Producers made an intriguing choice by tapping Bobby Miller to direct “Critters Attack.” Miller’s previous film “The Cleanse” starred Johnny Galecki as a down-on-his-luck sad sack. Galecki’s strange self-help solution for bodily purification expelled vomit that inexplicably transformed into a mini-monster straight out of a Jim Henson hallucination. Although the film featured these pint-sized puppets that resembled close cousins of Crites, “The Cleanse” (review here) was actually a quirkily introspective indie tailored for the film festival circuit, not for a midnight movie slot on Syfy.

Even though Miller had prior experience working with grotesque little ghouls, it seemed slightly strange to hire an up-and-coming auteur with an arthouse eye to helm an intentionally cheesy creature feature. On the other hand, it also seemed like an inspired stroke for putting an unusually off-kilter spin on a 30-year-old B-movie franchise that had seen more fruitful days.

Curiously though, Bobby Miller doesn’t turn “Critters Attack” into a Jarmuschian personal essay loaded with metaphoric meaning or anything hipster like that. Miller and writer Scott Lobdell, who also scripted “Happy Death Day” (review here), instead keep “Critters Attack” respectfully, yet snarkily, close to its roots in airy drive-in delirium. Without any technical tricks like film scratches or overblown “Stranger Things” nostalgia, Miller and Lobdell tune “Critters Attack” to a fun 1980s tone purely through staging, story, and style.

For the first 20 minutes, the film even looks like it might take place in an indeterminate time period that very well could be 1986. The first kid we meet is Phillip who, instead of looking at a cellphone or a video game, gazes through a telescope at two UFOs streaking over his small bumpkin town. His older sister Drea drives a car with a cassette deck, and receives a literal mix tape from the bagpipe-playing campus security guard who harbors a crush on her.

Then the movie mentions podcasts and introduces other modern amenities confirming it actually is set in the present. Still, Miller holds tightly to Amblin-esque touches to keep a thick coat of throwback paint over proceedings. A homey score accompanies inviting establishing shots of pleasant neighborhood houses. Drea and Phillip typify affable siblings who were commonplace in PG/PG-13 movies of The Reagan Era, although they receive an update by being a mixed race family, which was only common on “Diff’rent Strokes.” Since the tragic car accident death of their mother two years ago, which Drea blames herself for, they’ve been raised by Uncle Lewis. Also acting as the local sheriff, Lewis means well, but is secretly an alcoholic who doesn’t put stock in the kids’ seemingly crazy claims.

With the way we’re initially lulled into feeling like we’re watching something in the vein of “E.T.” or “Gremlins,” “Critters Attack” sneakily harkens back to a time in cinema when a group of kids could find an alien creature in the woods and not immediately think to stream their discovery on YouTube. With her brother accompanying her on a babysitting assignment, Drea and her weird wards Trissy and Jake find a friendly female Crite who basically serves as a surrogate Gizmo. What the foursome doesn’t yet know is that Stripe and his grem- er, killer Crites arrived in a second spaceship and are about to go on a rampage.

One of the movie’s bigger bummers is that lead protagonist Drea starts out too mopey. Her disappointment over getting rejected by the university her mother attended defines Drea, which makes for a depressing attitude that isn’t immediately endearing.

But if I’m going to volley complaints at “Critters Attack” for not developing thin characters as deeply as a proper drama, I’m focusing on the wrong frequency. A wise writer like Scott Lobdell and a deft director like Bobby Miller know all about the tropes they put in play. Rest assured they don’t think the bit about Drea’s guilt over her mother’s death is original.

Cheeky triteness is by design since the filmmakers recognize no one comes to “Critters” for the plot. MacGuffins exclusively move pieces around according to how everyone needs to be arranged for the next scene of mad mayhem which, let’s be honest, is the true main attraction for these movies. In that regard, “Critters Attack” does not disappoint.

“Critters Attack” could pass for a soft remake of the first “Critters” film. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that was the creative directive being worked with, as this sequel follows the original’s formula to a T while making marked improvements that increase contemporary entertainment value.

We don’t get a goof like Charlie McFadden, but we do get Dee Wallace taking over intergalactic bounty hunter duty, and what’s not to like about that? Loose storylines fade into looser sequences merely meant to set up silly sights of sushi chefs slashing Crites, airhorns exploding alien heads, and a giant Katamari Damacy ball of critters rolling over a fleeing college student. “Critters Attack” is the movie “Critters” would have been if it had the modest budgetary uptick to go a little crazier with its irreverent ideas for Crite carnage.

Clearly, Miller and Lobdell intended to harness the first film’s 20th-century energy and refashion it into a flighty 21st-century flick. Arguably, they do too good of a job because while “Critters Attack” pairs well as a direct successor to 1986’s “Critters,” it’s almost too similar to fully feel like its own separate thing. Nevertheless, if we’re grading according to how well execution matches intent, you’ve got to give it up to “Critters Attack” for being as gorily gooey and charmingly goofy as a “Critters” film ought to be.

Review Score: 65