Science fiction often involves sweeping space wars, journeys to other dimensions, and future worlds full of alien technology unrecognizable to our 21st century minds. Not Okja. Okja is about pigs.
That’s on the surface, at least. Underneath a story about a global pig-farming competition, an absurdly great cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton and Giancarlo Esposito, and the masterful writing and directing of Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), Okja is a kaleidoscope of complex moral questions that twists and turns to reveal a near-future that seems just around the bend. It’s easy to see how we might get there, but harder to know what’s right. Okja speculates about the future to expose problems of the present, and for that, it’s the realest sci-fi movie of the year so far.
Okja is still about pigs, though–”super pigs,” to be more exact. A Manhattan-based company called Mirando Corporation, led by Swinton’s ephemeral Lucy Mirando, has discovered a new species of hippo-sized pigs that she says will end hunger worldwide. She sends the super piglets to be raised by farmers around the world as a publicity stunt. When we catch up with one ten years later, the enormous, gentle creature has become inseparable from a young girl named Mija. Soon Mirando Corp’s goons, including the lovably psychopathic doctor played by Gyllenhaal, come to collect. You can see where this is going.
Where Okja elevates itself above dumber sci-fi–a delicate carving knife to the latter category’s blunt mallet–is in its refusal to villainize the central antagonist. Lucy Mirando is a deeply troubled person who Swinton portrays with alternating swagger and frailty, but she truly believes she’s doing the right thing. Her methods aren’t perfect, but the ends justify the means. It’s a slightly clichéd justification, but Swinton seems crazy enough that it works.
In contrast is Mija, played by Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun, who embarks on a fantastically dangerous quest to rescue Okja, assisted by an Animal Liberation Front (ALF) crew that includes characters played by Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, and Lily Collins. She’s on the wrong side of the law–Okja the super pig is Mirando Corp property–but in a just universe that wouldn’t matter.
Lucy Mirando isn’t evil for trying to end world hunger, even if her dishonest methods–which the ALF works to expose–are. Can she help that a Korean farmer’s granddaughter bonded with her prize hog? Bong Joon-ho’s familiar condemnations of capitalism and modern society triumph in the end (after all, this is the writer and director behind The Host, in which a military lab’s careless waste spawns an amphibious river monster that wreaks havoc on Seoul). But Okja is primarily populated by antagonists who hate themselves a little bit for what they feel they have to do.
What can we really do about hunger? Is factory farming a necessary evil? Okja’s disturbing third-act scene set in a hellish slaughterhouse seems to say “no,” but most people in the real world don’t appear to mind.
Just as important is the question: Are Mija and the ALF at fault for interfering? Is one animal’s life–no matter how intelligent or caring–worth so much?
“Films either show animals as soulmates or else we see them in documentaries being butchered,” Joon-ho told The Guardian in June. “I wanted to merge those worlds. The division makes us comfortable but the reality is that they are the same animal.”
Okja isn’t trying to turn anyone into a vegetarian. Instead, it deftly and with deep emotional resonance highlights a very real problem that we face today. Mija and her grandfather aren’t vegans, but they live a more pure existence outside of modern capitalist society, eating what they grow and catch (besides the bottles of soju grandpa keeps under a floorboard).
Most sci-fi is satire to one degree or another, if only because we’re incapable of viewing things from any perspective other than our own. We can’t help but compare the worlds we see on screens with the one in which we live. But some sci-fi, like Okja, asks complex, relevant questions without providing easy answers. That’s about as real as fiction gets.