Love, Death and Robots: Shape-shifters

shapeshifters4No denying it: I’m a sucker for a werewolf movie.  The unfortunate thing is that there are seldom good ones.  I have memories of some that I liked, but I think if I view them now, I might regret it, like Peter Cushing’s The Beast Must Die.   A more recent one that I really liked was a 2002 horror movie Dog Soldiers, the first movie I’d seen Sean Pertwee in (son of Doctor Who himself, Jon Pertwee.)  Interestingly, the protagonists of this episode are referred to as dog soldiers, perhaps as a call back to that movie.  Or perhaps with other intent…

What I really liked about the fact that the soldiers are called this, even if it’s intended as a racial slur, is that unlike so many movies with a werewolf in the midst, this is common knowledge.  The US military is willingly allowing these soldiers to be on the team; it’s not a secret. 

Shape-shifters is about an army troop that’s using werewolves to hunt Taliban soldiers.  As it happens, they also have werewolves on their side.

The Good

shapeshifters1I think the animation in this episode is astoundingly good.  So good in fact, that it took me a few seconds to remember it was animated.  There are a number of really incredible touches like close-ups to show pores on skin, dust that billows up when feet hit dirt, and subtle shifts in facial features that capture facial movements accurately.  Eyes especially are hard to capture but the animation nails it.  It might still be animation, but it’s less obvious than most episodes.  

I also have to credit good writing especially where exposition is needed.  Too often, exposition is clunky but when the dog soldiers are called “unnatural”, Decker gives an explanation of what his kind can do that is all natural, whereas the humans need plenty of unnatural assistance, like cars, flashlights, etc.  These episodes are all adapted from short stories so whether that credit goes to writer Marko Kloos or the script adaptor, Philip Gelatt, I don’t know, but it deserves mention.

Also, the music used in this one is spot on.  It feels right capturing something Middle Eastern; perfect for the setting and the theme.  

The Bad

shapeshifters2This is an episode about war and it makes certain we know “war is hell”.  While there’s some brutal fighting that goes on, it’s in keeping with the theme.  I can’t fault that. As much as I dislike the werewolf transformation where the human skin is peeled off (a more recent way of showing transformations), that didn’t seem out of place.  Even the language makes sense.  There’s a fine line between where crudeness works and where it doesn’t.  For the most part, the episode doesn’t do anything wrong with this.  However, opening with Sobieski talking about having sex with Decker’s (non-existent) sister is a bridge too far.  Why include it?  When so much else is done so well, why was that needed?  Especially for Decker to them tell his buddy that he doesn’t even have a sister!

Also, I get it: these are animals by nature – well, actually, that’s a question: are they animals that inhabit human form, or humans who turn into animals?  I don’t know but I get that to fight as werewolves, they need to transform and that means they are naked.  Again, plenty of sitcoms and dramas have couples in bed with those amazing L-shaped sheets that expose the male torso but leave the woman covered.  We can get an impression without being shown the body thus making it accessible to a larger audience.  I didn’t need to see flailing bits of manhood to get the idea of what was going on.  Granted it’s brief but my question about this series has been: is it necessary?  How does it enhance the story?   This sort of things effectively stops me sharing an otherwise outstanding episode with others.    

The Ugly

shapeshifters3“I don’t like every a**hole that calls himself an American…”  Despite the language, I thought that was well said.  Sobieski acknowledges that he doesn’t have to like everyone to defend them; he has a job to do and he’s determined to do it well.  In fairness, that’s a double edged sword too.  On the one hand, loyalty to ones country counts for something and should be applauded.  However, on the other, we are all people so why can’t we get along?  Sit down and talk; find common ground, build off that.  Why need it come down to blowing each other away?  That’s further complicated by the nature of the story – I was originally going to say we’re all human, but that’s not the case here.  We have werewolves fighting werewolves too.  This indicates that nationalism is more important than common lineage even with other species.  That’s a disappointing thing to consider.  In a way, the werewolves give us a chance to look at our own species.  Humans murder humans based on a nationalistic pride, ignoring the fact that it’s still a human being killing another human being.  Is it really believable that another species would do the same thing?  Does it make us animals?  Animals wearing “dog tags”?

The other big concept is that of prejudice, evident in the troop when the “dog soldiers” are told they can’t eat at the table with their human colleagues, even though they are working on the same side.  It’s pretty deplorable that people would act like this, knowing that their fellow fighters might be in a position to save their lives one day, but depressingly, I can see this happening.  Let the werewolves stand in for any discriminated group and you have the same message, just hidden behind a lupine exterior.  This episode needs to be thought about deeply.   Like the werewolf itself, there’s more hidden under the skin.

The Game

It’s almost like deciphering a language based on glyphs… or emojis!  Oh, I feel like Bill Potts now!  The first image is the dog tags; an interesting name now given greater significance when worn by “dog soldiers”.  One can’t help but wonder if there’s an additional message about the military woven into the very tapestry of that image.  The second is again the symbol in the series title to represent death.  Unlike The Dump I think this is used effectively to depict death, but one wonders why we have variations on skulls in other episodes, presumably representing the same word.  Finally, we have the crescent moon. Werewolves tend to be into the full moon more than the crescent, but a big white circle might not have had the same impact.

The Verdict:

I think there’s a lot to think about with this episode and I think you have to be willing to look at things critically to find some of the meaning.  Then again, as I said above, I love a good werewolf story, so maybe I’m just being overly accepting.  Maybe it takes another set of eyes to know if I’m biased positively toward lycanthropes.  I think this is a solid 15 minutes of entertaining, thought-provoking material.  I just wish there was more so we could have done a deeper dive into some of the concepts; perhaps get under the skin a bit and see what’s waiting to come out.   ML

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