For a while, it seemed that the go-to move for an established film franchise that had reached a shark-jumping level of creative desperation was to shoot it into outer space — the cinematic equivalent of a family sitcom adding a baby into the mix. James Bond, Hellraiser, Airplane, Leprechaun, Friday the 13th and Dracula all left the safe confines of Earth, and rarely for the better…although I will forever be a Jason X apologist. Save your scorn for Jason Goes to Hell, you jackals!
Not last but perhaps least on the list of cinematic space sequels is Critters 4, a movie whose primary appeal is watching a 33-year-old Angela Bassett on the brink of stardom slumming it for the last time in her career. A little over a month after Critters 4 was released in 1992, she was starring on-screen as Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X, marking the biggest one-month quality disparity in acting gigs until Eddie Murphy followed up Dreamgirls with Norbit.
As inert as Critters 4 is, however, Bassett’s mere appearance as a primary character in a major horror franchise entry is noteworthy in the early ‘90s, an era in which a black film movement was by necessity gaining traction in response to the dearth of black faces not named Eddie or Whoopi in ’80s cinema. And while she’s not the primary hero here, Bassett actually manages to be one of only three survivors to make it to the end! (Note: Had she herself saved the day, by the rules of B.C.H. — Black Cinematic Heroism — she probably would’ve had to die in the process.)
Her character, Fran, is the pilot of a spaceship in the year 2045 that finds some Crite eggs that have been floating in space for the 50-odd years since the events of Critters 3…and that’s really all the plot you need to know. It’s basically a low, LOW-level Alien clone, as the creatures pick off the crew one by one. The end.
Fran is the only (human) female character in the film, and as dictated by the ethos of the era, she thus must partake in a gratuitous shower scene — with a body double, because Angela Bassett has standards, goddammit. All things considered, though, her role is otherwise generally free of objectification, and racial stereotypes are really nowhere to be found. Let’s face it: “unobjectionable” is the ceiling for compliments when it comes to this quality of film.
Fran is smart, take-charge (overruling the captain when it comes to accepting the salvage mission — granted, the decision kills nearly everyone on board, but hey, no one bats a thousand) and no-nonsense (punching the same captain in the face when he casually strolls into her aforementioned shower with a Weinsteinian level of sleaze). Frankly, she seems more suited to be the hero of the story than the other survivors, geeky kid engineer Ethan (Paul Whitthorne) and bumbling series mainstay Charlie (Don Keith Opper), who inexplicably Forrest Gumps his way through all four films.
Clad in the genre-standard kickass heroine tanktop, Fran looks like a shoo-in to be the Ripley in this Alien redux, but I suppose that would’ve been too reasonable and forward-thinking for filmmakers who assumed there was enough of a thirst for the Critters franchise to film parts 3 and 4 simultaneously.