Hours before making the piss-poor decision to attend a 4 p.m. showing of Pokémon Detective Pikachu opening day—just as every public school in a five-mile radius began filing in—I stumbled upon a recent study in the journal Nature Human Behavior that determined people who played the video game in adolescence and continued into adulthood have a “Pokémon region” of their brains. Essentially, as Vox explains it, the occipitotemporal sulcus (the section section that “often processes animal images”) lights up at the sight of Pikachu and friends. I doubt there are very many other commensurate cultural phenomenons, at least in the last 30 years, able to cause such a spike. Without speaking to a neurologist, I can’t confirm I’m in that camp, but I’d like to believe I am—even before Pokémon Detective Pikachu established its plot, I found myself ecstatic to identify the live-action Pokémon of the universe that unfolded on screen, creatures whose names I haven’t forgotten since childhood. Nostalgia was only one of the film’s many charms, and the same elements those unfamiliar with the franchise may find tedious. Don’t see this movie with those people.
Some spoilers follow.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu’s protagonist is Tim Goodman (portrayed by newcomer Justice Smith), a 21-year-old former Pokémon trainer-turned-insurance agent. Tim is forced to travel to Ryme City, a theme park-esque version of Tokyo, to clean out the apartment of his estranged father after learning he died in a random, violent car crash. While there, Tim meets Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an unpaid intern moonlighting as a junior reporter at CNM (heh) who senses something about Goodman’s dad’s death is much more involved than the media portrayed it. She’s dedicated to sniffing out a career-making story because she’s sick of writing listicles about the cutest Pokémon all day long, which hit a little too close to home for a magic-mystery-future noir. She leaves, and Tim meets the amnesiac, caffeine-addicted Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), his father’s partner, who he is miraculously able to understand. The rest of the world only hears him squeak “pika, pika.”
Together, Tim and Detective Pikachu decide to search for the truth about Harry’s passing, and the movie becomes something like a Humphrey Bogart film, just with 100 percent more Rita Ora as a Pokémon geneticist and Diplo as the host of an illegal, underground Pokémon battling ring. (Considering the amorality of forcing creatures to battle one another for human entertainment—exactly like a cock fight—the role is pretty fitting for the appropriative EDM DJ.) Lucy and her perpetually stressed-out Psyduck join forces with Tim and Pikachu when it becomes clear that the mystery of Harry’s death is tethered to a massive government conspiracy that endangers the lives of Pokémon and people, and the balance of power they’ve apparently been able to maintain up until this point. Intriguing, right?
There are moments where the movie recalls Rampage (another video game adaptation predicated on manipulating genetics, destructive creatures and distrustful militarized powers) and something much more sinister, because it’s IRL villainy: Silicon Valley. Without giving everything away (and trust me, the last five minutes are worth sitting through the other 100 alone, with a reveal I found to be more rewarding, and certainly more hilarious, than Avengers: Endgame), part of the conflict is a direct commentary on greed of the wealthy, and an attempt to “optimize” human life at the expense of others (quite literally a trend in tech bro world right now). In this irrational mindset, the end image justifies the means, even if it results in death, disease, or in the case of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Pokémon testing to manipulate genetics and “evolve” humanity. The good guys win in the end, naturally, but I hope a sequel goes full-on class war.
If you, like me, are very concerned about wealth distribution and abuses of power, and possess an insatiable desire for nostalgia only where beloved characters from your childhood are concerned, you will leave Pokémon Detective Pikachu satisfied. At the very least, I can’t imagine another situation in which you will be able to head to the bar directly after the theater and talk to your friend about how strangely edible the CGI Bulbasaur looked. That is a gift I don’t expect again anytime soon.