The animated film MFKZ, also known as Mutafukaz, is a contemporary urban dystopia—redolent of John Carpenter’s They Live—in which grotesque aliens have taken the forms of humans and thoroughly infiltrated the power structure of the United States. Authoritarianism, institutional racism, economic exploitation, and even environmental degradation can be traced back to the alien conquest of the Earth that succeeded without anyone taking note. MFKZ’s main character, Angelino (Kenn Michael) awakens to the presence of these inhuman invaders after a car accident, noticing the tentacled shadows of authority figures and bourgeois types in his neighborhood.
Angelino is an oddity himself: About three feet tall, obsidian-black, noseless, and with eyes that take up two-thirds of his face, he stands out in the largely Latino and unmistakably human Dark Meat City. But Angelino doesn’t seem as out of place as his friends Vince (Vince Staples) and Willy (Dino Andrade). Vince’s head is a flaming skull and Willy is a nervous, hyperactive, talking mammal of some kind, perhaps a cat. It’s a quirk of the film that it feels no compunction to explain how Vince and Willy exist among the realistically rendered landscape and denizens of the film’s stand-in for Los Angeles, even while the plot is centered on explaining how Angelino ended up there.
While MFKZ infuses its story with some irreverence, some social commentary, and a dynamic visual style derived in equal parts from Japanese animation and street art, its plot is a proverbial hero’s journey. Angelino finds that he has hidden powers, along with a mysterious connection to the antagonistic alien forces, and as he journeys through Dark Meat City’s ghettos, he uses these powers against the forces of evil. At first disbelieving, he eventually rises to this calling, with the support of his friends and allies, including a team of luchadors who turn out to be some kind of mystical guardians.
This familiar story is compiled from a series of comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard, who also wrote the film and co-directed it with Shojiro Noshimi. The pair oversaw the animation by the Japan-based Studio 4˚C, whose style is recognizable from 2006’s Tekkonkinkreet and several segments from the 2003 anthology film The Animatrix. The background cells against which the action is staged are impressively detailed, almost photorealistic in quality, and the shots simulate live-action camera techniques—deploying canted angles, rack focus, and even jostling frames that imitate handheld camerawork, though only rarely something as spatially complex as a tracking shot. In contrast to the film’s realistic backgrounds and environment, the character animation is distinctly two-dimensional; the cartoonishly featured main characters in particular seem alienated from their environment.
That the characters stand out from their environment has thematic overtones, but it’s also part of a general stylistic excess that makes MFKZ drag as it proceeds. The predictable “chosen one” plot is briefly enlivened with the film’s pastiche of urban iconography—Angelino and his friends, for example, look like vivified skateboard logos or graffiti tags—but it all begins to wear thin as it becomes clear that the film is more interested in staging repetitive scenes of violence and rather facile bathroom jokes than in exploring its world. The bulk of MFKZ is composed of chases and shoot-outs that, despite their chaotic energy, drive the plot forward at a plodding pace.
By the time it’s revealed who Angelino really is, we’ve waited through innumerable gun fights to get to this predictable point. Inconsistencies also crop up throughout the film’s gauntlet of action scenes. Do bullets harm the aliens? How strong is Angelino? Are they trying to kill him or capture him? Ultimately, MFKZ is less interested in answering these world-building questions than it is in the precise animation of a submachine gun’s bolt action or the blood spewing from a head wound.