Service members and veterans have a reputation as sticklers for authenticity when it comes to military shows. Indeed, some vets become pedantic “well, actually” guys who nit-pick every minor mistake, from a messed up uniform to a mispronounced turn of phrase.
But here’s the thing: Accuracy matters, and it’s not just about getting the technical details right, like weapons handling and fire and movement. Nailing the nuances of military culture matters, too. The number of shows (and movies) that fail to do this far outweigh the few that do it well.
Of all the military-themed shows I’ve watched recently, one of the better ones at capturing military culture involved a special ops mission that pits a group of roid-raged grunts in Afghanistan against a Terminator-esque grizzly bear. Called “Kill Team Kill,” the 12-minute animated short debuted on May 20 as part of the third installation of Netflix’s sci-fi horror anthology “Love, Death, & Robots.” Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelsonthe episode’s all-star cast of voice actors includes Joel McHale, Seth Greenand gabriel moonwho play a team of Army Special Forces soldiers deployed to Afghanistan on a special ops mission that goes terribly awry when they find their sister team of Green Berets has been torn to ribbons by this hulking heap of nightmare fuel:
What follows is several minutes of gory mayhem, violence, and plucked-from the barracks jokes involving everything from a borderline erotic obsession with firearms, to quips about how nobody’s going to get Bronze Stars for “Valor” from this mission — just a Certificate of Achievement, which is a pitch-perfect reference to rank and file grips about how the big awards always seem to go to those with rank, who write themselves up for how good they are at filing paperwork.
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From the get-go, the episode knows its strengths and plays to them. Even the plug line for the short reads as follows: “US Special Forces are trained to neutralize any threat — even a cybernetic killing machine created by the CIA. Their secret weapon? A sense of humour.”
And it’s no wonder why military humor is such a strong theme in “Kill Team Kill” — the episode’s inspiration came from a short story written by an Army vet, which was itself inspired by a pill-fueled delirium while he was deployed.
“I was real, real tired, hadn’t slept in days, but instead of going to sleep I indulged in a fairly fucked up mix of crushed-up pills ranging from Ambien to Flexeril with a nice Rip It chaser,” recalled Justin Coates , a former Army infantryman who served from 2008 to 2013 and deployed twice to Paktia province, Afghanistan. “That was the one and only time in my life I ever fucked with pills.”
The result of that sleep-deprived decision? Coates said he “hallucinated a robot bear,” and that became the basis for a short story that can be read in the military horror anthology “SNAFU” or the book version of “Love, Death, & Robots.” Coates, who co-wrote the episode’s screenplay, was joined by Tim Miller and Philip Gelatt on the writing front.
While the humor in the short is, for lack of a better term, vet-bro’ish, that’s part of the charm, particularly because the episode is so very brief. If it was a two-hour feature-length production, the crass jokes — one of which involved a soldier’s last words being “tell my wife I… fucked her sister” — might begin to sour, even among some veteran viewers who would have enough time to remember that they’re no longer in their 20s living in the barracks, where the only forms of humor available were cringe and gallows.
Instead, the animated short — done in the style of “GI Joe,” but with an R rating — allows the audience to flip a mental switch and slip back into the skin of their younger more gung-ho selves, back when they all believed they were 100-foot-tall masters of the universe that pissed jet fuel, crapped plastic explosive, and could destroy anything given enough time, ammo, and nicotine. Even colossal metal-plated murder bears.