When the trailer for Detective Pikachu dropped last year, it looked like it might be the strangest film in the world. The premise, of course, is almost dementedly weird, the sort of thing that might have been spit out by one of those AIs that randomly generates new scripts from the Seinfeld canon (only, you know, for Pokémon). What if Pikachu, but... a detective. A Detective Pikachu. Who wears a little Sherlock Holmes hat. And he has the voice of Ryan Reynolds. And he lives in what looks like the set of Blade Runner.
If you'd told people before they saw the trailer: “there will be a movie starring Ryan Reynolds called Detective Pikachu, which is about a Pikachu who is a Detective,” I think most people would probably have said: “that sounds terrible. That sounds like the worst thing in the world. Why would anyone make this?” But the trailer — all skepticism about the nefarious machinations of the culture industry aside — was enough to convince anyone of the exact opposite position.
So obviously I've been to see it. It's good. I mean definitely go and take your kids to see it if you have them. It could have leaned more into the noir-iness of its basic premise a bit more (needed more scenes where melancholy Jigglypuffs are singing for tips in dark clubs, or where Detective Pikachu is torturing a Mr. Mime). But Detective Pikachu is not only an example of how a balls-weird premise can somehow be borne out as an entertaining family film: it also feels like a paradigm shift.
The human heroes are young people who are clearly capable, yet forced by a corrupt old order to toil in jobs that are either cartoonishly boring, or completely unpaid.
As someone who was born in 1988 and is about to become a father for the first time, I have a feeling I will be seeing variants of Detective Pikachu over and over again for at least the next 12 years. Because Detective Pikachu is, as far as I know, the first family film aimed in the first instance at parents who are millennials. If in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, films like Toy Story and Shrek made children's films palatable to Gen Xers by combining a sort of glib “obviously just for the parents” humor with a general postmodern mash-up sensibility (Toy Story's various eras of toys, all together in the same box; Shrek's taking place in a sort of Fairy Tale Extended Universe), Detective Pikachu does the same for people who, before they were parents, spent most of their lives drifting from dead-end service job to dead-end service job and shitposting online.
The human heroes are young people who are clearly capable, yet forced by a corrupt old order to toil in jobs that are either cartoonishly boring or completely unpaid. One of the villains is clearly styled to resemble Milo Yiannopoulos. There is a Psyduck with anxiety. Need I go on? This all makes still deeper sense when we consider the film’s marketing, which has involved among other things the one of its stars posting a link to a fake bootleg which consists of almost two hours of Detective Pikachu dancing to synthwave.
What does the future hold in store for us, as more and more people my age have kids? Anthropomorphic geese obviously styled after Jordan Peterson. Plucky mice making veiled references to classic @dril tweets. Distracted boyfriend meme: the movie. A film just called Milkshake Duck. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids only it’s Honey, I Am My Wife. The millennial psyche contains endless depths: the point, I suppose, is to plumb them.
For now, though, the real question is what Detective Pikachu says about the millennial mindset. Why has the culture industry designed this particular family film to appeal to us?
(At this point the article is going to get a bit — well, completely — spoiler-y, so... if you do want to see the film, and you are for some reason interested in plot more than critical analysis... maybe don't read on?).
The film is set in a world where Pokémon have been completely harnessed for human purposes. Pokémon, of course, might seem like “animals” — in the sense that we have “animals” in our own world: they often superficially resemble animals, and perform many of the same functions (although some also resemble plants, and there is one Pokémon that is just a bunch of keys. But this resemblance is not quite total. Our animals need us to classify them: the concept “species” is not just a natural fact, it is a social construction, our way of sorting and understanding them. A Pokémon speaks its own name: they are nature that comes pre-classified, thus pre-sorted for human purposes.
Detective Pikachu takes this basic fact about Pokémon and extends it to its logical conclusion: it is set in a metropolis, Ryme City, where humans exist alongside Pokémon in civic harmony. While the Pokémon cannot communicate anything to humans beyond their own name, they are seen directing traffic; tending bar; being used Flintstones-style as machines; assisting with the production of television news. Some, it is implied, own businesses.
What we see performed in the film is the human drive towards self-preservation causing people to appropriate more and more of nature until what was once useful becomes destructive.
Initially, this world seems harmonious: Ryme City isn’t perfect, but broadly speaking it comes across as a prosperous, thriving, modern city, where both humans and Pokémon benefit from the arrangement. But over the course of the film's narrative, this harmony is disrupted. Not from the outside, but by the super-rich tech entrepreneur Howard Clifford — the very man initially responsible for founding Ryme City, thus bringing the old harmony about.
Clifford has a degenerative disease that has resulted in him losing the use of his legs — and so he feels compelled to extend the appropriation of Poké-nature to the extent that human beings are literally able to transfer their consciousnesses into the bodies of Pokémon (Clifford wants to “evolve” himself to his fullest capacity). This he achieves through a chemical called Substance R, generated from the Pokémon Mewtwo (the first genetically-engineered Pokémon, thus: a piece of wholly artificial nature).
Initially, Substance R appears as a performance-enhancing drug used in Pokémon battles: it causes Pokémon to revert to a wild state, which is what allows human beings to enter their minds. Towards the end of the film, Clifford enters Mewtwo and goes on the rampage across Ryme City, releasing huge clouds of Substance R gas from Pokémon balloons to transfer every human inhabitant into Pokémon bodies.
Thus what we see performed in the film is the human drive towards self-preservation causing people to appropriate more and more of nature until what was once useful becomes destructive — a once-repressed wildness returning with still more fangs. Interestingly, this is almost exactly the process that Adorno and Horkheimer describe in the early chapters of Dialectic of Enlightenment. Enlightenment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, aimed to liberate human beings from fear — but Enlightenment's own inability to reflect on itself has caused human beings to push technological process to the point where complete human extinction has become a possibility; the “wholly enlightened earth” now, in the age of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, “radiant with triumphant calamity.” (The bit where all the people get turned into Pokémon is similar to the Circe episode in Homer's Odyssey, a reading of which is the focus of Dialectic of Enlightenment's second chapter).
The obvious contemporary resonance here is with climate change, anxiety over which must by this point have seized at least half the mental processing power of any conscientious person under forty. In Detective Pikachu, the specter of climate change raises its head explicitly at one point in the form of a wisecrack poking fun at climate skeptics — but in truth, the whole film is full of climate change metaphors. The main thrust of the plot is about the accelerated disruption of some ideal harmony between nature and technology; in one scene, a forest literally attacks the protagonists in the form of a mutant Pokémon (whose name I can't remember because it wasn't one of the original 151) that has been artificially grown to ultra-huge size.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the way that Detective Pikachu seems to have been designed to reflect climate anxiety is that (a) the film, through its portrayal of Ryme City, effectively tells us that the ideal balance between nature and human needs has existed before, in the not-too-distant past, and that we simply need to restore this old balance and everything will be fine; (b) what is bringing climate change about is the greed and delusions of the powers-that-be. Detective Pikachu is thus marked by a longing for something like the ‘90s “end of history”: years when it was possible to maintain the fiction that the political order had basic legitimacy and that people in general had the security and opportunities they needed to “get on.”
The other major anxiety that the film expresses is about relationships between fathers and sons: the hero, Tim, has come to Ryme City following the death of his distant, policeman father in an accident; Detective Pikachu is initially introduced as Tim's father's former Pokémon partner. The villain Howard Clifford also has a very fraught relationship with his son, Milo lookalike and media baron Roger. Over the course of the film, it is frequently teased that Tim's father may still be alive; ultimately (and here is probably the biggest spoiler) it is revealed that his consciousness has been transferred to his old Pikachu — thus that Tim has been attempting to solve the mystery behind his father's death/disappearance, with his father, all along.
Ultimately, the restoration of the old harmonious balance between human and Poké-nature is identical with the revivification of the father: the two are brought about together. At the end of the film, Tim hints that he may decide to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a cop; his news media intern friend/love interest Lucy is hired as a reporter. Having restored the old order's balance, therefore, the precarious, millennial characters are finally able to be assimilated into it.
If Detective Pikachu reflects millennial desires, it reflects what are perhaps our worst, most damaging ones. Detective Pikachu is the fulfilment of a wish — that we could obtain personal security through the maintenance of the old order. Millennials were raised to think that this was possible, but in our actual adult lives it has simply not been. At my most selfish, I worry that for my family's sake I would accept a security that left most of humanity still condemned to an existence of thankless drudgery; still doomed to have their homes and their lives destroyed as the temperatures and sea levels rise. Detective Pikachu tells me that the culture industry is betting I would.