The Critters franchise is fondly remembered (by those who do remember it) as one of the more fun and memorable 80s creature feature series. The franchise centers on the Krites, a race of ravenous space aliens that come to Earth to feed, reproduce, and generally wreak havoc. The initial series encompassed four movies, and is often dismissed (not entirely undeservedly so, in all honesty) as a Gremlins knockoff, but the series has a lot more to distinguish it from its better-known cousin than you’d think. The films have a much more sci-fi bent to them, often hinting at a much larger universe going on in the background. And hey, sometimes spaceships and rayguns are enough to make you want to watch four movies about what are essentially much nastier versions of Star Trek’s Tribbles. After languishing for some time, the franchise is back with Critters Attack!, a soft-reboot aimed at bringing in new fans while also appealing to the core fanbase.
That’s the idea, anyway. However, in trying to appeal to both sides, the makers of Critters Attack! have made a movie very few will probably enjoy. Newcomers watching their first Critters movie might not find themselves too encouraged to check out the originals, and franchise fans are likely to find as much to dislike as love.
The film inhabits the nebulous region of the soft reboot, with some vague hints at being set in the same continuity as the originals, but mostly starting off fresh. Our protagonist this time is Drea, a young girl trying to get into a fancy college by babysitting for the children of one of the staff. While out with her two charges and her younger brother, Drea finds “Bianca” — a nicer, cuter version of the titular nasties. The OG Critters turn up soon after, overrunning the town and prompting Dee Wallace’s mysterious “Aunt Dee” to prowl around with a sci-fi rifle until the movie tells her she can do something.
Right off the bat, Critters Attack! feels cheap. The actual monster action feels oddly minimal, and the whole film never shakes off that Syfy channel sense of low-budget drudgery. Also, we spend an inordinate amount of time with the human protagonists, often listening to their tragic backstories as soft music plays in the background. They aren’t the most boring horror protagonists ever, but less than a day after watching the film you’ll probably have forgotten all their names and all but the broadest of character traits. But hey, we’re not here for the humans — we’re here to watch furry basketballs chew the faces off people. Well, bad news there as well. While the Critters themselves are visually unchanged from their classic appearance and are still created via puppetry, it’s oddly baffling how otherwise different they feel.
Part of the charm of the creatures in the original films were that rather than pint-sized eating machines, the Krites were actually intelligent, devious little buggers. They could fly spaceships, make plans, and even talk to each other. They had a measure of charisma, and that went a long way to making them fun. Critters Attack! seemingly does away with these aspects, making the creatures much more bland as a result. The sci-fi element has also been drastically scaled back, probably due to budget constraints, and that robs the franchise of a lot of its distinctive character. Nobody’s asking the whole movie to be set in space again (especially since Critters 4 was inarguably the worst one), but more pew-pew lasers and shapeshifting alien bounty hunters would have gone a long way toward making this installment less dull.
It’s these omissions that will probably earn the ire of fans, and Critters Attack! doesn’t do much to earn back any of the ground it loses. Obviously, making a new Critters movie just for the fans would be insane, but the film seems too eager to court a new audience, leaving only the barest hint of something for that established fanbase to latch on to. Series regulars Don Keith Opper and Terrence Mann are out, with only Dee Wallace from the original returning. At least it’s very strongly hinted at that she’s actually playing a character from the originals (though not the one she herself played), in the film’s one major bit of fan service. What exactly the fandom will make of Bianca, the cute new addition to the canon, also remains to be seen.
So, newcomers to the franchise are being greeted with a fun-but-just-ok, low-budget creature feature, and returning fans are likely to find themselves out in the cold, which all begs the question of who this movie really hopes to entrance. Fans will see it as an afterthought at best, and casual moviegoers will probably change the channel. There are hints of the campy fun in that made the originals fun, but not nearly enough of it. If the Critters franchise is going to make a triumphant comeback, Critters Attack! probably isn’t it.