Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Kirsty Asher

Dash Shaw’s animated adult film Cryptozoo (2021) opens as all films should: a naked hippie embalmed in post-coital bliss recounts a dream to his girlfriend. In the dream, visually reconstructed in a fractal kaleidoscope, the 1960s counterculture movement storms the United States Capitol, successfully breaking in and establishing an egalitarian utopia. The couple, Matthew and Amber, (voiced by Michael Cera and Louisa Krause) are psychedelic babes in the woods, as doomed as Adam and Eve were when their inquisitive commune with nature leads them to the boundaries of a hidden ‘cryptozoo’. A brief moment of connection with a unicorn, that most unpolluted of mythological beings, quickly unravels into the visceral death of both Matthew and the injured unicorn. Cryptozoo premiered at Sundance Festival 2021 a mere twenty two days after the Capitol was stormed by 2,000 Trump supporters. The first time the Capitol had been violently seized since the War of 1812. A prophetic scene, but not in the way Matthew envisioned. The interregnum of American politics would not herald a rebirth of decent-minded liberalism as many Blue voters hoped. 

“Now is the time of monsters.” 

That last phrase, attributed to Gramsci through a translation by Slavoj Zizek, can be interpreted as the systemic and direct violence which flourishes as long-established power structures begin to crumble, and populist thought arises across the political spectrum to confront this. Elements of this can be seen in the works of Hieronymous Bosch, which threaten the viewer with contorted figures of all beastliness in portraying humanity’s struggle to reach godliness. Bosch’s lurid work was created at a turning point in European history as feudalism gave way to market capitalism. Gramsci’s “time of monsters” referred to the political interregnum out of which fascism metastasised. And so Cryptozoo found itself premiering at the breaking point of US liberalism. With regards to Cryptozoo, it begs the question how much liberalism can assist in the birth of a better world, or whether we truly are poised at the edge of humanity.

The film concerns itself with a world in which cryptids – an umbrella term for beings enshrined in folklore, believed to exist by some but for which there is no scientific evidence – truly exist. They are rescued from trafficking and abuse by amazonian justice warrior Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a veterinarian with a face reminiscent of Rossetti’s Proserpine who kicks bad guys’ asses armed only with her trusty catch pole. She then brings them back to the ‘safety’ of the Cryptozoo, another perceived hippie utopia which was brought to fruition by her boss Joan (Grace Zabriskie), the zoo’s architect. When Lauren was a child, an army brat growing up on countless military bases, she was tormented by nightmares about nuclear apocalypse, nightmares that were assuaged by a baku, a tapir-like Japanese cryptid which feasts on bad dreams. From an early age, Lauren associated the relief of her anxiety with the benign (though ultimately not altruistic) actions of a wild creature. 

It was through this formative first encounter with a cryptid that Lauren’s charge to become saviour and protector of such creatures took hold, which comes to a head when the US army, led by cryptid trafficker Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), decides it can exploit the baku’s powers for its own purpose. Thus the liberal do-gooders represented by Lauren, who have built their dedication to a better world off a strong ethical standpoint are pitted as worthy protagonists against a powerful arm of the state. The problem with this is that throughout the first act, the narrative had seemed to be building to the idea that Lauren and Joan, well-meaning as they may be, are the (not so) secret villains of this tale. 

The Cryptozoo after all is not merely a sanctuary or wildlife park, but a full-blown consumerist package to entertain the masses. As Phoebe, the gorgon of Greek myth who assimilates to human culture with contact lenses and sedated snake hair, puts it: “It doesn’t look much like a sanctuary, more like a shopping mall.” Lauren’s response is one of pragmatism, that to keep the zoo going it must generate revenue. She also hails incremental change as key to the coming utopia: “The cryptozoo is going to change things gradually…people will learn to be more accepting”. With the commercialisation of the cryptids, so they are unceremoniously flung into the marketplace of ideas, with no attempts to promote autonomy or self-sustainability in sight. 

In this way the cryptozoo reeks of neo-imperialism and a homosapien saviour complex, imposed by two women who perceive themselves as at the apex of morality.  Lauren uses possessive language about the cryptids, argues that ‘she was there first’ when Nicholas takes a cryptid from her in an act of zoological colonialism. With every plot point that worsens the situation for the baku and other cryptids, it is always Lauren’s actions that are culpable. In her first rescue scene involving an alkonost, a woman-headed avian cryptid from Russian folklore, she bungles the attempt and Nicholas arrives to take her, having been led there by Lauren’s movements. She goes hunting for the baku and finds that a New-Age tarot reader has hidden her in her house, once again leading the US army directly to their location. This narrative rhythm of the protagonist being regularly scuppered by the antagonist is intended to create a clearer delineation between good and bad. However introducing Nicholas and the army as the film’s primary antagonists is a deflection from what would have been a more honest critique of liberalism than the film actually achieves, and having been made in the current political timeframe, it would have been a necessary critique to make. 

The defenders of neoliberalism to the left of centre often tend to inadvertently champion Thatcher in declaring that There Is No Viable Alternative. This can be seen in the Vote Blue No Matter Who movement during the 2020 US election, France’s battle to keep Macron in office, and the dismal attempts to rally around Sir Keith Starmer in the UK. It is reminiscent of the mainstream centre’s adherence to the Enlightenment, an era which saw colonialism and systemic white supremacy become endemic in global humanity and yet still is upheld as the most rational philosophy by which we should govern ourselves. The Cryptozoo, however progressive its foundational beliefs pertain to be, is what Jedediah Purdy coined as a Neoliberal ‘market utopianism’. Financed off the personal wealth of its founder on her own private property, it is not beholden to any rights organisations or government oversight. No matter what Lauren claims its impact will be, it was created as a commercialised venture to make income from the captivity of its inhabitants. It is exemplary of how all the social progressivism in the world will be inadequate without the additional attempt to recalibrate the systems which govern us. We cannot, it seems, marketise Be Kind until a better world is born. 

Lauren only learns a hard-driven lesson about her actions after bloodshed and tragedy decimates the Cryptozoo. Her adherence to a belief in utopia based on pragmatism leaves her with little to do other than baleful hand-wringing. It is testament to how the liberal desire to uphold late-stage capitalism even while decrying its most ghoulish side effects will inevitably lead to disaster. It renders the words attributed to Fredric Jameson by Mark Fisher that it’s “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” into mortifying vindication. 

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