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[This story contains spoilers for Pokemon: Detective Pikachu]
Detective Pikachu has a crazy plot, even for a movie where one of the main characters is a lemon-colored rodent that can talk and shoot electricity out of its cheeks. And we’re not talking Chinatown crazy, we’re talking David Cronenberg crazy. Yet, for those with a long history with the franchise, this won’t be all that surprising. That’s because Detective Pikachu’s big twist was foreshadowed in the very first Pokémon games.
Body-swapping and the (terrifying) melding of physical form are key to the climactic parade scene in Detective Pikachu, when the audience learns that the mysterious gas R was manufactured in order to prime Pokémon for their owners’ consciousnesses. Corporate bigwig Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is out to make Ryme City a place where Pokémon and people don’t just live side by side in harmony — he wants people to live in their Pokémon.
That’s a big departure from the source material, which saw a media company’s owners trying to fabricate their own disasters thanks to the rampage-inducing drug. The media company is still present in the film, but Detective Pikachu moves its plot somewhere between The Fly, Freaky Friday, Society, and The Thing. And it’s for kids.
Its strange body horror is also one of the first things I remember from playing Pokémon back in 1998.
Pokémon Red and Blue started the whole catch-’em-all phenomenon and, three towns into their first Pokémon journeys, players could find themselves meeting a guy named Bill, north of Cerulean City. Bill’s a tech guy, a nerd that developed the computer system trainers use to store the various monsters they catch. He’s also rumored to be named for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, since his name in most other translations of the game reference his seaside home on Cerulean’s cape. The first time the player meets this Pokémaniac, he appears to them in the form of a talking Pokémon — and not the cutesy Ryan Reynolds type either.
“Hiya! I’m a Pokémon,” Bill jokes, before explaining to the player’s shocked Pokémon trainer that he “screwed up an experiment and got combined with a Pokémon.” Yes, just like Jeff Goldblum and Vincent Price before him, Bill had a teleporter accident. It’s with a generic Pokémon sprite in the original games, a Clefairy in the remakes Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen, and a Nidorino in the more recent remakes Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! Rest assured, it’s freaky no matter the version. In fact, in Pokémon Yellow, the player’s shocked Pikachu sees the whole thing. The player has to use the Cell Separation System on his PC in order to undo this affront to nature. Bill even gives you a ticket to a swanky boat party as thanks. But it’s not so simple in Detective Pikachu.
That’s because when another Bill, Bill Nighy even, becomes a Pokémon in Detective Pikachu and starts doing the same to others, it’s thanks to the dangerous power of Mewtwo. Mewtwo is a manmade Pokémon, created from the DNA of the ancient and powerful Mew, whose status as an unnatural obscenity has been fueling Pokémon films for two decades. This classical “man against nature” conflict, the place where technology and Pokémon meet, has long been a theme for the franchise, and the only difference in Detective Pikachu is its intensity.
Nighy’s wheelchair-bound Clifford spent the whole movie plotting to utilize the power of Pokémon evolution. Pokémon evolve into bigger and better forms — Bulbasaur into Ivysaur, Magikarp into Gyarados, etc. — which is something that Clifford wants for humanity. This has another tie-in to the game’s Bill. If the player returns to his house after helping him return to his human form, they can access his computer and learn about Eevee and its multiple evolutions. This is the Pokémon meant to embody all that evolution can be, and it’s telling that the first thing that Justice Smith’s Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu see in Clifford’s office is an Eevee evolving into a Flareon. Evolution is clearly on the villain’s mind. He’s been afflicted with a degenerative disorder, which sends him off the deep end — the bottom of which is a plan to combine people and their Pokémon. How’s he going to do this? By taking over Mewtwo’s body, of course.
In the film’s most disturbing scenes, Clifford dons a neural control helmet that links up with one strapped to the legendary manmade Pokémon. The result is surreal, a little amusing, and a lot more terrifying. Mewtwo speaks as Nighy, no longer using its multi-layered telepathic voice and instead moving its weird lips in a much freakier way than the movie’s talking Pikachu. Sure, Goodman and Pikachu come out on top, but only after Clifford/Mewtwo zaps all the trainers at the parade into their Pokémon. Kathryn Newton’s Lucy Stevens becomes Psyduck; Ken Watanabe’s Detective Hideo Yoshida becomes Snubbull. It’s the awful conclusion of the “pets looking like their owners” sentiment.
Eventually it’s all undone thanks to the heroic efforts of Tim and Pikachu, knocking off the helmet and allowing Mewtwo to undo the various body takeovers. That includes, in the movie’s final twist, that of Detective Pikachu himself. The inciting car accident that left Tim’s father missing and his father’s Pikachu an amnesiac was really the incident that required them to combine bodies. Tim’s dad needed a new host body for his mind to survive, so Mewtwo stepped in and injected his soul into Pikachu. This raises plenty of metaphysical questions that are conveniently sidestepped by the omnipotent Mewtwo, who conjures Ryan Reynolds up a new human body and, in doing so, harkens back to the very first crazy, scary, and body-horrific moment many fans remember from the original game. And he doesn’t even get a boat ticket in thanks.
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