Dr. Johnny Wilcox is an absurd and repulsive character. His voice is grating, his wardrobe is a nightmare, his behavior is borderline cartoonish, and his constant whining is almost unbearable. And yet, despite all these qualities, he’s probably the most intriguing character of the film.
But why? I mean, what does this whiny, selfish, over-the-top-man-child-scientist-meets-Jeff Corwin offer us that the other characters don’t?
Well, for one, he’s the only character who isn’t completely one-dimensional or predictable. Lucy and Nancy Mirando are clearly cut-throat capitalists with no consciences, The ALF members behave exactly how you’d expect them to, and Mija is the innocent girl who just wants her giant animal friend back.
So where does Dr. Johnny Wilcox fit in among the list of cookie-cutter corporate bad guys versus honorable vigilante good guys? The answer is that he really doesn’t.
Unlike other characters, we think we know who Johnny Wilcox is until we realize we don’t. We are immediately thrown off by his odd behavior and voice. We cringe at his child-like temper tantrums and his pathetic impotence. We are annoyed by his entitled attitude and the shameless artificiality of his media personality. And yet we are still left with one giant question: Who the hell is Johnny Wilcox?
Is he a respected doctor or a complete loser? Is he a famous media figure or a laughing stock? Is he a lackey for the Mirando Corporation or a hapless victim of it? Does he really love animals or does he only love himself?
If the answers to these questions seem unclear, it’s probably due to the seemingly psychotic nature of the character himself. Indeed, throughout the entire movie Wilcox seems to be engaged in a deep internal struggle as he oscillates between exploited scientist and confident showman, bungling buffoon and sympathetic drunk, caring human and callous monster.
The first example of this psychotic nature can be seen in the character’s first reveal roughly twenty minutes into the film as he arrives on the top of the mountain where Mija lives, accompanied by his media crew and another scientist. Upon arriving, Wilcox Immediately shows his selfish, entitled attitude as he starts to complain about how far he had to hike, even accusing his crew of trying to “rile” him.
This is soon followed by an unsuccessful and unpermitted foray into Mija’s grandfather’s refrigerator before he gags at the smell and asks for water, but instead grabs one of her grandfather’s beers (again without asking) and unthinkingly guzzles it down. In this way, Wilcox makes it clear that he is the center of attention, whereas everything and everybody around him his simply background – a means to achieving his own selfish ends.
However, a second later within the very same scene, Wilcox immediately stops what he is doing and approaches Okja with a real sense of wonder and awe, placing his hand gently on her nose. For a brief moment, Wilcox snaps out of his self-obsession as he gently strokes Okja’s body and rests his face against her side, appearing to have a deep and meaningful connection with her that nearly brings him to tears. However, this connection is short-lived as it is immediately interrupted by Wilcox’s demand for his crew to “fucking film” him, remarking that, “You can’t fake these emotions.”
The second and perhaps the most memorable Jekyl-and-Hyde-esque moment in the film takes place in the laboratory. Here Wilcox is can first be seen sauntering drunkenly down the hallway and crawling beneath a large metal door as what can only be described as creepy carnival music plays in the background.
In the first few moments of this scene, Wilcox’s actions are more reminiscent of Jack Nicolson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance than anything else. Here he cackles madly and playfully waves his hands at Okja, goading her out of her secure cell so that she can meet her “boyfriend” – a horny male superpig that he essentially allows to rape her.
But strangely, in the scene just after the horrible act is complete, it’s abundantly clear that Wilcox is deeply remorseful and sympathetic to Okja’s plight, as he lies down beside her and offers her alcohol to numb the pain, just as he tries to numb his own. Here again, Wilcox’s humanity is revealed in an important but fleeting moment as he pathetically rolls over on the laboratory floor crying loudly and exclaiming to Okja, “This is an unspeakable place!…I know! I know!”
Of course, after this display of sympathy and kinship (much like their first encounter), Wilcox abruptly goes back to being self-absorbed, complaining that he won’t get to taste any of Okja’s meat right before switching back to his knowing, compassionate side: “I shouldn’t be here…I’m an animal lover…everybody knows that about me!”
So, what are we to make of all this strange behavior? What exactly is the point?
My own take is that Wilcox’s tormented character is meant to externalize the internal psychological and emotional struggle that many of us have regarding animals, and to thus make visible the very real cognitive dissonance (as well as the ugliness and cruelty) that most of us unknowingly or knowingly take part in when we sit down at the dinner table.
In other words, although we may be repulsed by Wilcox’s actions and behavior in the film, the hard truth is that most of us are Johnny Wilcox when it comes to our relationship with animals.
Like Wilcox, most of us have been raised to be self-centered by viewing other living creatures around us as objects rather than subjects – a means to fulfill our own ends. We have also been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to kill and eat other living beings (even highly intelligent ones like Okja) for taste rather than necessity, all the while lying to ourselves (or being lied to) about where our meat comes from and how it is procured.
Also like Wilcox, it is only through our brief interactions with our fellow-sentient beings in the form of pets, zoos, and wildlife excursions that feelings of compassion, kinship, sympathy, and guilt can rise up within us, only to be later discarded from our minds when we unthinkingly stuff a burger into our face.
Many of us also like to think highly of our ourselves and our own self-image. We publicly claim to be animal lovers – some of us even going so far as to buy bumper stickers proclaiming our love – while privately engaging in their destruction on our dinner plate. Perhaps the only meaningful difference between Wilcox and most people in the real world when it comes to animals is that Wilcox is forced to confront the full extent of his moral inconsistency, whereas most people cannot or will not.
Wilcox knows full well that he is putting on a charade when he plays his TV persona of the “animal lover” because he is deeply familiar with the ugliness and cruelty that lies beneath the surface. He is a man that genuinely seems to love animals, yet he still can’t seem to escape his complicity in their suffering and death or conquer his craving for their flesh. In the end, his ego always seems to win out over his morals.
Unlike the other villains in the film who appear sociopathic, Dr. Johnny Wilcox is somehow different – appearing more human than monster. In the best possible light, he is a pathetic fallen hero who once had a moral backbone and a successful career, and at the very worst he is a cowardly, buffoonish, and reluctant villain who has not quite lost his humanity. At any rate, it’s clear that he has a conscience of some kind, even if that conscience is engaged in a losing battle with his job, his taste, and perhaps most of all – his desire to be liked by others.
But again, isn’t this all of us? Don’t we often prioritize our pleasure and ego over another animal’s well-being? Don’t we opt for being liked by others over being viewed as an outcast for doing the right thing? Don’t we all dissociate the meat we consume from the reality of factory farming? Haven’t we all, to some degree, been forced by large corporations to be complicit in animal suffering? Haven’t we all felt powerless against these large corporations and against our desire to consume the very creatures we love?
At the end of the day, if we are truly repulsed by Dr. Johnny Wilcox, we must first admit that he is merely a reflection of ourselves and our relationship with animals. If we dare admit to this disturbing reality and are willing to fully acknowledge the person in the mirror, then we are ultimately left with a two choices: we can either get angry and smash the mirror, or we can change our eating habits so that the mirror better reflects who we want to see.