Thoughts On: Okja (2017)
A girl who raised a super pig fights to keep it from being slaughtered.
I didn’t like this film much, but, I didn’t hate it. It is well shot, the CGI is clearly CGI at all points, though that doesn’t cheapen the experience, the writing isn’t terrible, but, the message and the manner in which its communicated… yeesh. Okja is very plainly about factory farming, activism, veganism, lies, corporations and animals rights. And whilst this movie makes a few great points on all of these topics, it really adds nothing and provides little of much worth into the world – and so is a pretty pointless film that doesn’t amount to much at all. Moreover, this movie only really serves to be a satire of itself, which it may aim to be in parts, but clearly isn’t supposed to be entirely.
The initial element that I understood, but didn’t like about this movie was its attack of corporations. Whilst, yes, there is terrible corruption in the world and an incredibly significant problem with greed and people just wanting more, the portrayal of this in Okja is very messy and inarticulate. As mentioned, in many respects this is a satirical film, one that, in part, makes fun of corporations and all it is clearly opposed to. However, one lasting joke that seems to pervade the narrative as one of its main messages comes with a late teen, a truck driver, who couldn’t be more apathetic. He works for his corporation, but feels they do not care for him, and so doesn’t care about them at all. Whilst this is entirely understandable, this kid imbues the narrative with quite an ugly tone of self-righteousness, laziness and nihilism – a tone that is encapsulated by a protest of teenage apathy and indignation, which isn’t incredibly attractive and which is never escaped by the overall story. The main problem with this film is then that it creates no characters, nor points, worth caring about; it is plainly immature and unsophisticated.
Moving, then, to our primary protagonist, we have a girl that helps raise the super pig, Okja, that is at the heart of this narrative. The element of her character that really ruins this movie comes at the point in which the pig, which was given to her family to raise – all for obvious reasons, is taken back by the corporation. This trope is present in many movies and is usually the moment at which a child learns that animals aren’t necessarily your friend and that they serve a purpose – a point at which kids usually show their maturity or not. In the movies in which kids fight the adults and want to save their pet… I don’t know, it’s always just seemed really childish to me. However, for the most part, these are kids’ movies, so we can give them some edge. What is so off about Okja, however, is that our protagonist (who, on a side side-note, is almost a superhero) was not a 7-year-old, yet acted with the heart and mind of one – especially through the manner in which she treats her grandparents. So, whilst I know her actions lead to a whole corporate lie being exposed, this immature attachment to what is supposed to be a farm animal imbues the narrative with immaturity – which mirrors the apathetic teen kid rebelling against ‘the man’ with laziness.
A large part of this narrative that really didn’t work for me was then this general aspect of overwhelming immaturity. I tried communicate this to my girlfriend, who I watched the movie with, by saying, if this movie was about huge fish, you wouldn’t care at all; and, as Bill Burr says, all because fish don’t have eyebrows. She just laughed at me and called me dumb. But, the point still stands.
This movie has a clear agenda and point to make, and it makes it in an incredibly devicive manner. In such, Okja tries to make a point about factory farming with animals that are almost on a human level of smartness and who are cute. This was done so that this movie had mass appeal and, somewhat ironically, made sure those dollar bills (S.K wons) started rolling. However, this only hurts the movie’s point. We are tricked into caring about animal rights; we are sold an idea that we should love all creatures, but are provided with an animal that is so easy to love. What I would love to then see is this movie be about giant cod…
… not smart, poo-flicking hippopotami, and see what happens. What this would do, I presume, is distinguish the people who really subscribe to a philosophy which suggest that all life has equal value from those who just like to share cute animal pictures on their social media and pet their cats/dogs who they love so dearly.
So, whilst I will inevitably come off as cynical by criticising this movie in such a way, I can’t sympathise with half-baked narratives that show no real meditation on their themes, rather, just squeeze out pop-political topics which attract teenagers who think they’re to change the world after being inspired by cute animal porn.
What we then have to address is this movie’s core and ignored conflict. There are hundreds of millions of starving and hungry people, primarily in developing countries, across the world. This is an ugly truth that we never, and can’t really, consider enough. Okja clearly wants this to change, but, before everything else, criticises factory farming. In my view, factory farming is a necessary evil in the world that needs to be somehow eradicated over time. However, is everyone turning vegan going to sort this? Uhhh… who knows? Is everyone going to turn vegan? Hell, no. Moreover, by showing the terrible conditions of factory farming, will everyone turn vegan? Hell, no; you can tell people that there’s rats in their favourite food chain kitchens and they’ll still go in with a self-deprecating smile on their face. Why? Because people are very facilitating of necessary evils. This is a very complex topic that could very easily be utilised to make a more compelling point for veganism and change in the factory farming industry, but this movie doesn’t even come near to approaching this.
To begin to ask some questions that this narrative doesn’t, we’ll start with the fact that Okja is a pig that was constructed in a lab with numerous failures and ugly results. Yes, the failures are terrible, but is there a distinction between the farming of animals that are constructed by humans and those that exist in nature? There is certainly a semantic difference, one that implies that, because humans constructed the meat, we have more control over them and so more of a right to do with them as we please. However, how different is this from rearing animals? Yes, they weren’t created in a lab, but they wouldn’t be alive without our input. Does this not give us rights over them?
I don’t think I can answer those questions as I think they stem from a faulted position, but, these are questions that people will be asking in the future – 10, 50 or 100 years down the line. After all, a lamb was only recently raised in an artificial womb…
… so this is an ethical problem that is going to be very important sometime soon. So, what underlies the question “is it wrong to farm artificially produced livestock”, are alternate questions of intelligence and suffering. In such, most animal rights ethics are centred not around the idea of an animal’s life and it being killed, rather, it suffering. This is the most sensible stance someone can take as an animal activist as factory farming is the world’s only real answer to the fact that there are billions of hungry mouths to feed, and as implied, almost a billion who go hungry. So, whilst this giant machine can’t just be destroyed, preventing the suffering of animals is more than justifiable. However, to play devil’s advocate, whilst the torture of animals over prolonged periods as they live is reprehensible, why is it so bad that they suffer moments before they die? Does it really matter so much that they die comfortably, or is this just people massaging their ethical dissonance?
The truth that I am trying to access and exposit by discussing all of this is not just argumentation for the sake of it, nor is it just to point out how this movie is faulted, rather, it is to reach the point that this movie should have made – and so nearly does. This point is: there is an awful lot of ugliness in the world, and most people don’t know how to look at it. For instance, corporations do fucked up things, serving people only as to serve themselves. Activists also do a whole bunch of dumb and (conceptually or physically) damaging things – all whilst trying to make people’s and other organisms lives better. Some farmers raise their animals with love, but then kill them, but only at a price that those who are rich enough to care really about the ethics of factory farming can afford. Because our society isn’t perfect, we need all of these opposing forces locked in a productive conflict so that the activists don’t enforce a fascist vegan rule and the corporations don’t force us into a capitalist dictatorship.
However, will we ever be able to move beyond a point at which society only works, concerning food production, without antagonism of this sort? Well, I think there’s it’s a big “possibly” to be said. And in such, if people, on a wider societal level, are to confront some of the issues raised in this movie, we need to work from the bottom up; by actually questioning the actual ethics of this problem and even why this debate needs be had. And the crux of why this debate even needs to be had all comes down to the fact that people don’t know how to look at ugly things. In such, as the movie depicts through a poignant application of ‘facade’ as a theme, we would all like it if world hunger went away, but, want this done cleanly and with politically correct and smiling faces running the corporations managing this. We would also all love it if there was no suffering in our bacon. The fact is, until the artificial food production companies get a whole lot better at their jobs and find a way of mass producing that doesn’t cause just as much environmental damage as factory farming, as currently we know it, does, we have to look this ugly issue in the face. We then either have to sacrifice something for a higher ideal, or simply ask the question, what is life worth?
Whilst I understand and appreciate the philosophy of “all life is equal”, especially in regards to human life, as it doesn’t leave any gaps for horrific applications of social Darwinism, eugenics and genocide, I think it’s too much of a blanket statement – and one that most don’t live by. People have to kill to survive – energy has to be passed from one body to another. Because we can’t photosynthesise, at the very least, we then have to eat plants. But, what would happen if we found out that plants are quite a bit smarter than we give them credit for – and there is quite a bit of evidence that suggests they are, at the least, more complex then we’d like to think. Would the vegans be unethical and the neo-photosynthesisers be the new moral pinnacle? Who knows, and maybe that’s a silly question. But, the point we build towards again is, if this movie was about fish, no one would give a shit. Plants, just like fish, don’t have facial expressions and so we have a very hard time giving a fuck about their suffering and feeling (if it even exists). What this suggests is that people only care about themselves, and only begin to care about other organisms through personification – and Okja is a brilliant example of just this. This ugly truth is something that people need to confront so that maybe corporations can just be transparent and forget about their ridiculous marketing (lies), and that activists don’t feel the need to radically change the world.
But, before I begin preaching to the choir, we’ll end things. Okja is a pretty bad movie in respect to its purpose and narrative message, primarily, because it doesn’t even come close to confronting the problem of ugliness. For this, Okja is a fun, but immature movie that’s not really worth paying attention.
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