When Big Animal Movies™ Attack: Review of "Primeval"
If you didn't see the trailer for the movie, let me give you the tagline as listed on IMDB and see what you think this movie is about:
Inspired by the true story of the most prolific serial killer in history.
Add to this the fact that the trailer showed the movie to take place in Africa, showed mass graves being unearthed, and bemoaned that the cause of the destruction was something "not human," and Bobby and I kicked off our 2007 moviegoing season expecting to see a supernatural horror movie about a serial killer.
No. Be forewarned now: This is a Big Animal Movie™. It is not a horror movie; there is nothing supernatural about it. It is about a "serial killer" only if one considers a hungry animal acting on natural instincts to be a murderer in the first place.
When I go to a movie, I go in with a positive attitude. I want to like the movie. Most of the time, it is something I really want to see since--at any given time--there are usually about four things playing that Bobby and I would not mind seeing. So when I choose to actually go, then I go with the full expectations of enjoying myself. (With rare exceptions, like when I lose a bet or ask Bobby to see something like Brokeback Mountain with me and end up then sitting through Miami Vice in the interest of fairness. But those are rare exceptions, and even then, I try to go in with an open mind.)
So I spent the first 75% of Primeval full of hope that the movie was misleading us for a reason. Surely, at any moment, it will be revealed that these people only think that they're hunting a big man-eating crocodile. It will turn out to be something so much more sinister, perhaps tied to the civil war and cruel political regime always lurking in the background. But after about 75% of the movie and enough examples of Big Animal Movie™ tactics--like a man being gnashed in half in mid-air--I realized, nope. This is a Big Animal Movie™.
The Big Animal Movie™ genre in itself irks me. What is a Big Animal Movie™? On the surface, it is about, well...big animals. Or big swarms of ordinary animals. Jaws was the Original Big Animal Movie™ and perhaps the only one of its genre that I have found that I liked. However, I might curse Jaws into non-existence for the simple reason that it blazed the trail for a whole stampede of other inferior rip-off Big Animal Movies™ to follow. But beyond the obvious presence of big animals, Big Animal Movies™ bother me because they are based on one very flawed assumption: that animals possess Humankind's bloodthirsty lust for violence for the sake of violence. That they hunt and kill human beings not for survival or food or to protect their young or their territory but simply because they like to kill.
Now, I suppose that I could be accused of taking things too seriously. I could be justifiably stuck in the same league as people who poo-poo horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because they believe that people who see the movie might get an itching to rev up a chainsaw and start making masks out of human skin. But unfortunately, public (mis)perceptions of wild animals are only too real. I will be the first to advocate that wild animals should be left alone and treated with caution and respect, but some people take it beyond that. Animals are often hunted to near-extinction because they are believed to pose a threat to human life or lifestyle. The recent death of Steve Irwin was followed by the mutilation and killing of stingrays in Austrailian waters. The number of people who come to the Aquarium thinking that sharks are maneaters or pirahnas will devour them alive if given the chance or that stingrays are vicious, violent creatures is disheartening...and these people often then advocate actions with their own survival in mind rather than trying to legitimately understand the behavior of wild animals and live in peace alongside them.
Even as I like Jaws, that movie instilled in many people a sheer terror of sharks and the sea. Not respect or even a healthy fear but terror. And when people feel such a strong emotion, they are apt to act in accordance. It is no wonder that the notion "The only good shark is a dead shark" is still prevalent today, more than thirty years after Jaws.
But the big animal in Primeval is not a shark but a crocodile, one grown to monstrous proportions and with a taste for human flesh. Also, it roars. I am not a herpetologist, and I don't work with the crocodiles that we have at the Aquarium, but I am pretty sure that they do not roar. Perhaps they grunt or growl but they certainly don't throw their heads back and let forth a gale-force roar. A hungry animal doesn't waste its time on trying to frighten its prey away. Usually, when you see animals vocalizing at you, they are warning you away from them. So what, we are to believe that this crocodile is issuing the warning that "Hey, I'm about to eat you!"?
But even if you can get over being duped into seeing a Big Animal Movie™ when you thought you were seeing a horror movie and even if you can suspend reality enough to get past the roaring, dinosaur-sized crocodile, you still have a bad movie. Primeval is a charming blend of Lake Placid,* Hotel Rwanda, and Lost...on crack. I am not sure whether to be amused, cheered, or utterly dismayed by the notion that someone thought of making a political statement with a Big Animal Movie™. Lurking behind the scenes of Primeval is a subplot about genocide and poverty in Africa. Only it doesn't make a very profound statement. It's very black and white: There are warlords. Those are the Bad Guys™. They have henchmen who are also Bad Guys™. And the world--particularly the US--doesn't give a shit. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that a movie that assumes that I will accept a wild animal as an evil being will also assume that I will fall for the notion that anything pertaining to the issues in Africa is black and white. It's not, and by making a complex issue a matter of simple Good and simple Evil, this movie does no one--its carefree Western audience or the Africans it is trying to save--any favors.
*Just in case no one but me remembers this very bad movie from the late 90's, Lake Placid was along the same lines as Primeval, only it was a about a giant man-eating crocodile loose in a lake in the United States. Even at the tender age of sixteen, I thought that Lake Placid sucked, and this was a mere two years after proclaiming that Anaconda was "OMG so good!"
In fact, Primeval boasts one of the stupidest lines I think that I have ever heard. Yes, even stupider than the "Knights in the Air!" uttered in Flyboys. After Jojo--an African boy keen on saving our dumb American protagonists in hopes that they will take him back to the US with them--is shot, he is carried by
. . .
Okay, yes, you have filmed evidence of this man killing a shaman, his wife, and his son, and you expect the same man to be moved to pity about the plight of a boy not much different than the hundreds he has killed before? In fact, Gustave (the warlord, not the crocodile--though a talking crocodile couldn't possibly make this movie more absurd) takes the liberty of informing
Isn't that really creative?
. . .
. . .
. . .
No? You mean, it's not??
Okay, sarcasm aside, the attempt to draw a parallel between an imaginary monster and the very real problem of civil war and genocide in Africa is a broken concept from the start. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I don't think that any writer or any filmmaker--no matter how good they are--could make this work. Animals kill because they are hungry or threatened. People kill for those reasons and a variety of others less intimately tied to survival. As for what goes on in the minds of those behind acts of mass murder, we can speculate, but we'll probably never know. There are a variety of social--and possibly clinical--psychological factors for certain. There are issues of greed and simple cruelty, neither of which animals possess in the same sense as humans. Trying to create a metaphor out of a giant crocodile for the mechanism behind the deaths of millions in Africa is shallow, stupid, and just plain insulting.
Beyond the broken concept, the movie is trivial. It is trying to be too many things at once. It is trying to be a thriller on one hand and make a profound political statement on the other. The two don't jive. You can't ask an audience to suspend disbelief to watch a giant, roaring crocodile pop a man's head like a water balloon and then sober up in time to absorb the very real plight facing millions of Africans. Beyond even that, the movie attempts to establish a dichotomy much like the TV series Lost--which is why I don't think it entirely coincidental that the movie's protagonists bear a sharp resemblance to Jack and Kate--where what appears to be a gorgeous, untamed paradise turns out to be just a cover for something far more sinister. Only where Lost makes this work wonderfully well, Primeval falls flat on its face. It's simply too obvious. To have the requisite Black American character (who dies, yes, as Black characters always do in these sorts of movies) wax sentimental about Africa being so beautiful and the cradle of Humankind and then have his last line be, "I hate fucking Africa!" even going so far as to say that being in Africa justifies slavery because it is so awful that surely people wouldn't mind being bound and beaten and separated from their families and stuffed on a ship that reeks of shit and starved for the journey across the ocean and sold as property and treated as property and murdered or mutilated at the whim of their owners...yeah. The only good thing was that my poor brain was so fried by the badness of this movie that, by this point, I could only weakly shake my head and whimper.
My point is that the device of showing the dark side of paradise--nothing new but often used very effectively--fails here as well. The characters also fail. The crew of explorers rather reminded me of a Music & Arts Center music folder, when my sister used to work there. The folders showed a group of earnest young musicians, and Sharon and I would always joke that there was always a girl, always an Asian kid, always a Black kid, and always a kid in a wheelchair. Always. We used to pay special mind to this.
Naturally, Primeval had a female character--smart and sexy with her cleavage always popping out of her tank top because that's what a real woman looks like in the African bush. And we had our Black character, who dies. Of course. And our Caucasian male character who starts as a doubter and ends up the hero. Naturally, we had to have one of those "preserve the animal at all costs!" characters who would rather be eaten than kill the predator who's eating him, perhaps demonstrating his truly poor understanding of the animal world. He usually dies by being eaten, a banal irony; this one was shot down by the warlord's henchmen. And finally, there was the old salt, the requisite "guide" with his shed full of rusty weapons and some long-buried skeletons in his closet. He did get eaten while trying to exact vigilante justice against the crocodile. In other words, Primeval took the same cookie cutters as just about every other Big Animal Movie™ ever made and used them to make its characters.
If this extensive trashing of this movie wasn't enough, I must now give it a rating. I give movies cookies: those little Keeble E.L. Fudge cookies that say "Elves Exist" on the back that I like so much. But first, if you're curious, here are the ratings by some other sites, as of 17 January 2007.
IMDB gave it 3.4/10 (319 votes)
Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 3.5/10 (31 votes)
Yahoo! Movies gave it a D+ from critics (6 votes) and a C from users (1026 votes)
MSN Movies critics gave it two stars out of five
And I give it mere crumbs of the four Keebler E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies that I ate while writing this review. It doesn't deserve any cookies.