Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Primeval

How many good killer alligator/crocodile movies are there? There's Alligator, directed by Lewis Teague and written by John Sayles. Then there's ... Well, Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive wasn't bad, though any lessons he might have learned from that experience must have been forgotten by the time he made Crocodile. Oh, and the end to Adaptation (I've heard good things about Rogue and Black Water but have not seen them yet).

Ok, this is not a reputable subgenre of the nature-run-amok movies. Maybe we've seen so much real footage of gators and crocs chomping down on zebras and wildebeests on the Discovery Channel, seeing a (usually) fake-looking gator or croc eating horror movie victims just doesn't match that same natural power and ferocity. Or maybe too many of these movies are cheap-o productions, put together with limited skill or competence.

Previews for Primeval (2007) seemed to downplay the inclusion of a crocodile as its animal on the prowl. A voice tells us that in a remote part of the world, the world's "most prolific serial killer" remains at large and has killed over 300 people. Of course, Primeval is not a serial killer movie, but the surprising thing is how it's barely a killer crocodile movie either. Part creature feature, part political statement, and part action movie, Primeval is, sadly, mostly bad.

After a U.N. worker is killed by a giant crocodile while an investigating a mass grave in Burundi, an American news crew is sent to locate and capture the infamous croc. The crew includes disgraced producer Tim (Dominic Purcell), eager reporter Aviva (Brooke Langton), cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones), wildlife expert Matt (Gideon Emery), and their  guide Jacob (Jurgen Prochnow). Once in the bush, not only do they have to deal with the giant, man-eating crocodile, they become targets of a local warlord after Steven videotapes him executing villagers.

Gustave is the name given to the crocodile, and apparently, he's a real African crocodile. Hence why the movie can claim it's based on a true story. Reportedly, Gustave is 20 feet long and weighs about a ton, and he could be around 100 years old. Because he is a confirmed man-eater (though how many he's killed cannot be confirmed), Gustave has attained a mythical status in that region of African. There was also a PBS documentary produced in 2004 about a failed attempt to capture the creature.

I have not seen this documentary, but I am curious to learn more about Gustave because this movie sure as hell didn't teach me anything about this crocodile other than it lives in Africa, is massive, and eats people. The attacks by Gustave in the movie are shot in a way that makes them incomprehensible to follow, and the creature itself, even in the brief glimpses of it we're allowed, fails to convince as anything more than a shoddy special effect.  Plus, the beast itself is often away for long stretches in which the threat comes from the thuggish militia of the warlord Little Gustave, resulting in chases and shootouts, but even these scenes are poorly put together.

At its heart, Primeval tries to make an interesting social critique. In a country ravaged by genocide and civil war, the Western World is only there for the freakshow aspect of the crocodile and even then because it killed one white person (meanwhile hundreds of African victims are ignored). Our nominal hero Tim is only there because his last story blew up on him while do-gooder Aviva thinks the assignment is her ticket to advancement (she also arrogantly, if you ask me, saves a dog that villagers left out as an offering for Gustave, but she doesn't say a word about how a small child was killed the day before). Meanwhile, Steven is a loudmouth jackass, the Ugly American. The crocodile to them is a hot story, entertainment; to the people who live there, it's the thing they live in fear of every day, a source of terror and misery. The downside of this strategy is that it renders our protagonists wholly unsympathetic, and that's fatal in a horror movie.

The other interesting conceit of the movie is the explanation of Gustav. He became a blood-thirsty man-eater from eating the corpses dumped into the river, the victims of Little Gustave and the civil war. True evil stems from man and breeds an uncontrollable monster. Of course, including both threats diminishes one and trivializes the other. If this is a rampage monster movie, why include a heady issue like genocide, a real-life horror a crocodile can't compete with? If it's a political commentary, why include a B-grade monster movie with it?

Primeval is trying to please too many masters. It wants to be a killer crocodile movie, a political statement, and an action movie, but unfortunately, two of these elements fail miserably. Maybe, if Gustave had only been an urban legend, the excuse to get these characters to Africa, and the action toned down to something more plausible, the movie might have made a searing social commentary about American arrogance and the nature of human cruelty. Instead, it's a mess.

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