I’m not sure anyone’s ever accused Critters 2 of being deep. The 1988 schlock-fest is a puppet-driven sequel to 1986’s Critters — a silly b-movie that managed to make a bit more than four times its budget and spawn several sequels. When your whole budget consists of puppets and enough explosives to thoroughly explode mockups of Midwestern towns, it’s hard to go wrong.
I flicked the movie on during a rough day. Somehow I woke up with an anxiety-depression-dysphoria cocktail, and I needed something — anything — to distract from the poisonous thoughts. I didn’t expect to find something special about gender and identity in the tale of intergalactic exterminators eliminating carnivorous porcupines.
If you never saw these movies looped during basic cable monster sludge blocks as a kid, I’ll get you up to speed on the important bits. Critters 2 catches up with a small team of bounty hunters who zip around making planetary house calls on aliens that other aliens want dead. In this case, one exterminator is a human from the previous movie, but the other two are of their own extraterrestrial species that can mimic their appearance at will.
The fact that the two are named Ug and Lee tell you all you need to know about the flick’s subtlety. For their part, Ug took the look of a super-hairsprayed rockstar wannabe seen in the first movie (and is why sometimes I shout “The power of the night!” apropos of nothing to make my girlfriend laugh), but Lee is unformed — they’ve got the same steampunk-leather-heavy metal vibes going on, but their face looks like an unformed lump of Nickelodeon GAK.
Why hasn’t that alien picked a face?, the human asks. Well, replies the cut-rate Bon Jovi, that the alien hasn’t found the right self. “Can’t live in the wrong self,” they say.
I leaned forward from my spot on the couch. That’s how I felt for most of my life. I was in the wrong self. I can look back at photos from my first 36 years and see so much pain, how beaten down I felt. When I started sticking estrogen under my tongue three times a day, I gained a smile as well as breasts.
But there’s more.
So our antiheroes arrive on Earth, and Lee hasn’t picked a face. They need one, or else they’ll stand out even more in the California-trying-to-pass-for-Kansas town. The first image they see is of a Playboy centerfold. The greenish mush of Lee’s turns to high cheekbones and curly hair. Breasts pop out of their armor. The alien takes the form of the stereotypical image of a “blonde bombshell” — played by actress Roxanne Kernohan — and of course the men have no complaints about this.
Critter-chasing and blasting small-town buildings to splinters ensues, including a showdown at a local greasy spoon. Our femme bounty hunter Lee then sees Eddie Deezen — Eugene, from Grease if you need a second — and, for some reason, takes on his form, right down to the glasses and the nerdiest walking gait I’ve ever seen. Our exterminator’s terran colleague is upset by this, noting that they should change back, which Lee eventually does.
This is all played for laughs, of course. This is not deftly-handled gender commentary. There’s no “Oh shit, that’s what it’s about?” as with The Matrix. But Critters 2 still winds up being an accidental fable about presentation and gender fluidity.
Yes, it truly is painful to live in the wrong self. And for trans femme people — hi! — there is often pressure to conform to Western standards of feminity. It’s often our armor, an image that can sometimes seem exaggerated because we want to avoid being called “sir” or “it” or being laughed at in public. Especially early in transitions, when we need something to hang on to so that we can feel seen for our true selves, finding just the right clothes, honing makeup skills, and fitting what our surrounding, suffocating culture recognizes as feminine can help us plant our feet more firmly in a world that doesn’t want to recognize we exist at all.
Now let’s go another level down. On a whim — experimenting with their appearance — Lee presents male, and in a super geeky way. They’re trying to find what feels right for them, while facing pressure from their colleagues to look and appear a particular way. Of course the movie doesn’t maintain the nerdy version of Lee for any number of reasons — probably that the filmmakers and their target audience preferred gawking at Kernohan instead of Deezen — but it still tripped over another truth.
Experimenting with gender is still bold, especially among those of us who treat gender as fluid and changeable. Even with greater trans awareness, there’s often an expectation that everyone needs to pick a side and stick with it. The idea that gender really can be altered on a whim, and is something that can and should be played with, hasn’t truly sunk in yet, and non-binary people are constantly erased.
People who want to present themselves as femme in one context, androgynous in another, and masculine in another are often viewed as confused, just as bi or pan people used to be accused of being indecisive. Taking time to find your own comfort zone — or even changing it because you want to — is viewed with suspicion at best and contempt at worst, as if your intention is to confuse and exasperate. (“I don’t know what we’re supposed to call you people anymore” was the sigh of a stranger I met at a Christmas party when I asked them to please not use masculine pronouns for me.) People are invested in making assumptions at a glance. Signaling that no, you need to question what you thought and make an effort to treat someone with respect, raises the ire of people who wish that you’d fit in a box and not make them reconsider their own behavior.
This is what I’m pulled from the cheesy depths of Critters 2. I don’t think the movie intended to have something deep to say. It was just a neat scifi thing that could set up a joke or two — having a genderless alien become hot without knowing it is a joke. Having Lee not know they’re hot, to change into a geek, is meant to be a knee-slapper. All the pitfalls and excesses of 1980s monster movies are there, and the genderswapping is really just an excuse to toy with the young masculine audience that would count themselves lucky to stumble upon a Playboy in the woods, too.
Still, the idea that it takes time to find your right self — and that you should have the power to experiment with it — stuck with me even after the roving ball of Critters skeletonized much of the town. I wish we could all have that, even if we never used the ability. That it’d be normal and expected to try different looks, appearances, and presentations to find a self that you feel right in. Without meaning to, Critters 2 gave me something to chew on.