Critters was maybe the first franchise that I fell in love with as a kid. The local video store had a sale selling off some of their old tapes, so I wound up with Critters 1 and 2, later scoring the third at Suncoast Video after I had already endlessly watched the first two. When I reached Critters 4, there were mixed feelings. I was pretty kind to movies as a child, even when they didn’t necessarily give me what I wanted. Critters 4 has very little monster action, which doesn’t really do much for kids raised on this franchise, as well as the similarly-themed flicks like Gremlins and Ghoulies. This is interesting because Critters 3 and Critters 4 were shot back-to-back, and yet they could not be more different.
But as I grew older and revisited the franchise again, it honestly struck me how strong the last twenty minutes of Critters 4 are and how much they reward long term viewers of the series. The final act of the film provides closure to the major character arcs that have been progressing since the original, and that sense of closure is heartbreaking. As a kid, it took me a while to even understand the betrayal that happens at the end, especially the reasons behind it.
There’s no redemption arc, there’s no turning back from it. By the end of Critters 4, Ug, the hair band bounty hunter we were introduced to back in the original, has become the bad guy. And for those seriously invested in Critters, as I was, it feels like what would have happened if Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader in the final moments of the Star Wars saga. It feels abrupt, even out of nowhere, making that betrayal even more shocking.
But looking back on Critters as a whole, I actually think this turn is set up quite well. And obviously, we’ll be spoiling the entire franchise, so for those looking to see it for the first time when it hits Blu-ray next week, I apologize.
For context, at the end of Critters 4, our lead bounty hunter, Ug, who was introduced as someone hell-bent on eradicated the krite infestation, is revealed to have gone corporate. No longer the reckless hunter he once was, he’s taken a seat at the big table, he’s grown cold and even heartless, doing whatever he can to ensure that the Krite specimens are kept alive, and it would seem really abrupt and shocking if it weren’t for the fact that we can go back through the series and clearly pinpoint the exact moment in the series when his heart was ripped out of his chest.
From their introduction in the original film, Ug and Lee are bounty hunters notorious for destroying everything in their path in order to get the job done, and when they reach Grover’s Bend that’s exactly what they do. They destroy a church and a bowling alley in their pursuit of the Krites. While both of them are blank-faced shapeshifting aliens, they take human form to blend in with the environment—ironic, considering that they stick out like a sore thumb just for their clothing alone—and Ug immediately connects to the image of successful, rebel rocker Johnny Steele.
Charlie, meanwhile, is a loser in the first movie and when we’re introduced to him, a loser is all he’s ever really been. Watching the original, it’s hard to imagine that the town drunk with paranoid alien fantasies is going to become the protagonist of the entire franchise, but it makes for a great character arc that specifically touches on things like inner heroism and self-worth. At the end of Critters, with their mission seemingly over, Ug and Lee return to the stars, only this time they take Charlie with them. And it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him, because he doesn’t have to live with being the town drunk. In space, nobody looks at him like he’s a moron or makes fun of him behind his back. When he and the bounty hunters learn that their mission on Earth is not quite complete, Charlie’s nervous at the thought of returning home, even worried that the bounty hunters might leave him behind.
For Charlie, Critters 2 is very much about finding a sense of belonging. In the original, his only friend had been Brad, a kid at the time, because literally no one else in the entire town would take him seriously. He gets no judgment from the bounty hunters, who clearly saw something in him when they elected to take him into space with them in the first place, a sense of heroism and bravery that Charlie did not even see in himself at the time. This is cemented when Charlie has his moment of self-sacrifice (even though he survives) at the end of that film, proudly screaming “I’m a bounty hunter!” as he flies his ship into the last remaining critters. He even elects to stay on Earth for awhile, feeling that he’s gained the confidence to actually handle life on his own planet in a way he never could before.
But if Critters 2 is about gaining a sense of belonging for Charlie, it’s about losing all of that for Ug. From the first movie to the second, Ug already has that sense of structure. He’s a bounty hunter and that’s all he really is, he’s even more complete than his partner, Lee, as he has found a permanent face that he is comfortable with. Lee, in Critters 2, actually has a surprisingly great transgender narrative. In the first, all of the forms they shifted into, from Charlie to the local pastor, were male.
In Critters 2, they’re turned into a Playboy model thanks to a magazine they see lying on the ground, and they embrace their new body, even proclaiming “Body fit” in a line cut from the theatrical version of the film. The companionship between the two of them is made much clearer in the second film, but it also carries on the notion from the first that Lee is even more of a loose cannon than Ug, that they’re confident and reckless and tend to go into situations without an escape plan. That’s exactly what gets them killed.
After Lee dies, Ug resorts back to his natural nothing face, which is shocking since he had been wearing the same appearance for almost two films. He’s barely able to stand, he’s hollowed out so much by the fact that these monsters got to his partner, a character he had been inseparable from in every single scene. While Ug plays much less of a prominent role in Critters 3 and Critters 4, I think the events of the second movie completely set him on the path to the character he becomes by the end.
Critters 3 and 4 were shot back-to-back, and this is very clear in the fact that the entire end credits of 3 are just set-up to get the ball rolling on 4. These final scenes mark Ug’s only appearance in the movie up to that point, as the bounty hunters have been left behind to focus on the residents of an apartment building. Here, Ug is much more reserved than he has been in the past, and he regrets to inform Charlie that the krites he’s about to destroy are the last remaining eggs and that the Intergalactic Council forbids any species being hunted to extinction, even one as deadly as this. There’s a small sense of melancholy in his voice, but for the most part he—both the character and the actor—just sound like a guy doing his job. Ug sends a pod to collect the eggs, which Charlie gets trapped in, and when he wakes up he learns that he’s been floating in space for over fifty years.
Much has clearly changed for Ug in this time, as when Charlie is reunited with his former friend at the end, he barely recognizes him. Ug has become Councilor Tetra of TerraCor. He’s gone corporate, he’s taken a seat at the big table and he understands the value of managing the krites instead of wiping them out, to the point that he is willing to kill anyone without thinking twice in order to get the job done. Charlie is heartbroken at the man Ug has become, especially because this is probably the closest friend that Charlie’s ever had. But looking back through the series, this transformation was a long time coming.
Ug was devastated at Lee’s death, that much was made abundantly clear in the second film. Both he and Lee had earned a reputation for being destructive and reckless in their antics, and that reputation was entirely correct. They nearly tore the town apart trying to kill the critters the first time and they weren’t much more careful on their second outing. There was no accountability, they didn’t think about what could happen to themselves or what would happen if they failed, and their actions and the way they leapt into everything without thinking only wound up getting Lee killed. It’s hard to imagine him continuing to be a bounty hunter without Lee, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t.
It must have been clear that things needed to change, and so it makes total sense that they did in such a radical way. Ug moved his way up the ladder, probably with the intention of being in a position of power to keep others from making the same mistakes that he had made. The intentions may well have been noble, but it’s clear by the time we hit the end of Critters 4 that no matter what kind of person he had set out to be, the person he became was cold, heartless and merciless. And it’s impossible to think that that has nothing to do with the way he was affected by the death of his closest companion.
This betrayal is doubly tragic considering everything Charlie has gone through since Critters 2 as well. At the end of that film, things could not have looked more optimistic for him. He had proven himself as a bounty hunter and gained the confidence to feel like he could actually fit in and make a difference on his home planet, with Harv going as far as to pass the mantle of sheriff down to him. But when we catch up with Charlie in Critters 3, he’s pretty much back where he was at the beginning of the original.
He’s right back to square one, a guy who’s pretty much treated like a laughing stock and that absolutely no one takes seriously. In the first film, he was raving about aliens because he was drunk. Now, he’s raving about aliens because he’s lived in space and encountered plenty of them, making him sound even crazier than he did originally. It’s really sad to see him have to backtrack so much after how great things had been going for him. Even though it’s a shock to the system to wind up so many years in the future, the return to space was probably welcome for Charlie as he had proven once again that he just couldn’t quite make it work on Earth.
On this new ship, he’s once again surrounded by people who don’t take him seriously and it’s clear that he needs a friend, a familiar face to ground him. He needs to see Ug again and that’s part of what makes the ending so genuinely emotional. Ug doesn’t just betray Charlie, he happens to do it when Charlie is at his absolute most vulnerable. Charlie needs a familiar face, but Ug’s isn’t one he recognizes at all. The phrase “things change” is passed from Ug to Charlie, first said by Ug when he shows his true colors by attempting to take the krites alive and showing a willingness to kill the entire crew to do it. And it’s echoed again by Charlie when he is forced to kill one of his oldest friends, because that’s just the effect that time and circumstance have on people.
Charlie began the series as the comic relief, but he evolved into a genuine hero over the course of the films. In his final encounter with Ug, he’s forced to prove himself as someone who could kill someone he loved if he needed to. Even though he retains some of his oafish charm by the end, there’s no way to move back to innocence from that. While he doesn’t make a turn for evil—if anything, he does the opposite and proves himself as a hero who can make genuinely tough choices—Charlie is just as changed by the end of Critters 4 as Ug, so that repeated phrase between them rings true.
The friendship at the core of the Critters franchise is ultimately a heartbreaking one, it’s a story of betrayal and I think it’s underrated in just how well it actually works. Had this storyline not been wrapped up in such an emotional way, it would be hard to imagine the series continuing without the involvement of stars Don Opper and Terrance Mann, who had appeared as Charlie and Ug in all four films. With things tied up in such a powerful way, it’s much easier as a fan to get excited for the future, as the Critters franchise has truly earned a clean slate.