Detective Pikachu and its Cyberpunk overtones

Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Ever since I laid eyes on the release date poster for this movie, I was struck by how Cyberpunk the aesthetic felt. Perhaps it was just the marketing? Of course, it makes sense that it would fit the stereotypical neon-lit vibe of Cyberpunk. It’s a detective movie and the videogames were all set in downtown Tokyo-like cities, after all. But after seeing the film this week, I’m happy to say that while not entirely cyberpunk, Ryme city definitely matches the theme perfectly. What’s more, there were a lot more cyberpunk tones to this film than I was expecting.

From re-watching the second trailer, and then after seeing the movie in theaters, I knew that I loved this film. But I’ve been trying to figure out WHY this film works so well. Because it’s hard to pinpoint, and by first glance, this film shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s a film about Pokemon, that takes itself seriously, and is based on a video game. Video game films have historically been major failures (such as the Mario Bros or Mortal Combat adaptations) and although there have been some successful films ABOUT video games (such as Ready Player One or Jumanji 2), ones BASED on video games have still floundered.

So why is it that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is rated by some as the most successful video game adaptation film to date in history?

Well, as best as I can tell, this has several factors.

The first is that while it is technically a Pokemon film, the movie is really more of a comedic action-mystery film, set in the Pokemon world. Although I usually hate films that explain themselves at the beginning of the film, this one just touches on its world-building to explain Ryme city in a brief 30-seconds before getting on with the story, in a way that doesn’t ruin the film at all. It also starts with a scene that sets into motion the mystery of the film, the driving question, and then continues by setting up one of the main characters–Tim Goodman, played masterfully by Justice Smith. And this is one of the main reasons why the film works so well. Ryme city is a city where Pokemon and humans live side-by-side in co-existence, and as such it feels more like a Star Wars planet of unfamiliar inhabitants that are minding their own business doing everyday tasks. Pidgeys fly in the sky in flocks like Pigeons would, and Snubbulls accompany their partner humans much like a dog would accompany its master. There are Machamps using their multiple arms to direct traffic and rattatas scurrying along the streets and sidewalks. There are squirtles working with firefighters to put out fires. During the day Ryme city is filled with energy and color, while at night the neon lights and steam from the sewers give it a darker tone, although it never feels like an unsafe city like Gotham. Rather, it felt very reminiscent of how New York City is today, complete with its plethora of lively characters going where they need to go and construction always in progress.

As soon as we get introduced to Goodman, a loner who makes it clear that he doesn’t mind being alone (no, really! It’s fine!) something happens to him that sets the entire plot into motion: he gets a letter saying his father, whom he hasn’t seen in quite some time, has passed away. It’s now up to him to collect his affairs and take care of the apartment his father left behind. Simple enough, right?

But at the apartment, he would then meet an amnesiac Pikachu who can mysteriously speak to him, and him alone.

Because, see, in this world, Pokemon can speak to each other but to humans it sounds like they’re only saying their own name, or parts of their name. This matches how language works between humans and Pokemon in the video games, so a Pokemon speaking fluent English is understandably something unusual and quite valuable–something that only Meowth and Mewtwo were able to pull off in the animated series.

And this is the second reason why this movie works so well. A lot of the film hinges on the hilarious and relentless banter between the pokemon-with-a-mouth Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and Tim. And what they’re talking about is relatable and makes sense given the world they inhabit. Any other Pokemon they run into offer only very brief dialogue, which means that the silliness of talking to an adorable-looking Pokemon who keeps on repeating its own name is kept to a minimum. In fact, the longest they do try to talk to a Pokemon is with a Mr. Mime, who hilariously mimes the entire time and the duo end up playing along.

When we see a human peer into Pikachu’s eyes and he says “Pika-pika”, we are instantly reminded that this is for kids. So the fact that that doesn’t happen in most of the movie means that we can take it more seriously, and delve further into the mystery and action part of it all. Why doesn’t Pikachu remember anything? Why is it that Tim can understand Pikachu, and vice versa? And is Tim’s father truly dead, or simply missing, as Pikachu believes? And why?

The audience is kept guessing, and the answers, for me at least, weren’t apparent at all. There’s a couple big reveals in the end, which in retrospect I guess I could have predicted but I was too busy having so much fun taking in the world and enjoying the film to have predicted it anyways. And that’s another reason why this films works.

The pacing in this film is perfect. It keeps the action going, and adds a great balance of seriousness to humor and lightheartedness. There were times when I remembered this was a PG-13 Pokemon film, but other times when I felt like it was just a very creative action thriller, like Avatar.

If I could have one complaint, I would say that the other characters of this film are too simplistic. Tim ends up partnering with Lucy Stevens, played by Kathryn Newton, who at first seems a bit irritating in her idealistic zeal for rising up the ranks from unpaid intern to high-profile investigative journalist and reporter. Although she grew on me as the story continued, her motivations stay the same, without any backstory provided whatsoever. The villain(s) are also equally simplistic.

Ultimately, however, that didn’t ruin the story for me, as the creative team of this film clearly had a fun time taking the premise of the Pokemon world and seeing where they could run with it. There were some pretty epic scenes that I wasn’t expecting as well, which made me glad I caught the film before it left the theaters.

Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that there is more Cyberpunk to this film than simply being set in a neon-soaked Tokyo-inspired Ryme city. The city itself was designed by a visionary billionaire as a Utopia to allow Pokemon and humans to co-exist without any Pokemon battles, unlike the rest of the world. As such, it seems more advanced, with media billboards and skyscrapers filling the skyline.

There are also several scenes with futuristic tech, such as holograms, although admittedly the “high-tech” is not a dominant theme in the film.

There are also scenes of bio-modifications and gene tampering, which will come as no surprise if you are at all familiar with the origins of MewTwo.

So let’s recap. Neon-drenched Tokyo-inspired city filled with endless capitalistic billboards and advertising, and no robots or cyborgs but Pokemon coexisting with humans. Utopian city that may not be what it seems, created by visionary billionaire, with gene-tampering and some high-tech elements. Also, gumshoe mystery-solving detectives. There’s even a scene with an illegal underground cage match!

Sounds Cyberpunk to me.

I would give this film a 9/10, with 1 point off because it could use deeper supporting characters. Go see this movie! It’s a great escape and a lot of fun. Ryan Reynolds is brilliant, the pacing and creative direction is great, and it’s an all-around delight.

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