Saturday, July 07, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Primeval (2007)

Okay, I realize I am going to take shit for this movie review. I can hear it now: "Muir hated John From Cincinnati but liked Primeval? What the f%&k!?"

Yeah, yeah. Blah blah blah. I guess I'll just have to take my lumps on this one. Because Primeval - a high-energy horror film about a killer crocodile - is a surprisingly good genre effort of the "revenge of nature" variety popularized in the 1970s. You know the kind of movies I'm talking about: Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972), Grizzly (1976) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) to name but a few.

Now, I am going to take the unprecedented step of cataloguing precisely the reasons why you might - with clean conscience intact - disregard this positive review and give Primeval a polite "no thank you":

1.) I went in to the screening with low expectations and the movie exceeded them; thus a low threshold was set.

2.) I get a kick out of "when animal attack" movies anyway so there's a personal bias at work (mea culpa - I even enjoyed Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea).

3.) I've often been accused of being both a "contrarian" (which means I don't run lemming-style with the critical herd if I can at all help it...) and a "champion of the underdog" (meaning simply that I do - on occasion - give a movie an "A" for effort if I feel it is working hard to be ambitious, scary, innovative or different). How does my contrary nature fit with this particular film? Well, I've scanned critical reactions to Primeval on the IMDB and Netflix and and the general audience consensus seems to be that this is a "two star' (out of "five star") movie. I would give the film four stars, frankly. So here's the debate. Either I'm wrong or everyone else in the universe is wrong. You choose.

There you have it. You can dismiss my positive review of Primeval based on any of the above-listed points without second thought. Or you can stick around and read the reasons why I think this is a good horror picture.

First, some set up, Primeval is "inspired by true events" according to the opening title card. It's the story of a giant, century-old, man-eating crocodile named "Gustave" who prowls the rivers and swamps of Burundi in Central Africa, near Rwanda. Gustave is 30 feet long and likes to dine on human blood. After the brutal death of a British animal lover at Gustave's "jaws," a surrogate for Fox News sends a scandal-plagued news producer Tim (Dominic Purcell), a sexy animal producer hilariously named Aviva (Brooke Langton), a camera man, Steven (Orlando Jones), a "great white hunter type" named Krieg (Jurgen Prochnow) and a Crocodile Hunter rip-off, Matt (Gideon Emery) to capture the animal alive "in time for sweeps." Once in Burundi, the team is joined by a little dog named Wiley that natives have been using as Gustave-bait, and a boy who wants to go to America, named JoJo. With the assistance of locals, our team deploys a steel cage to trap the giant croc...but things predictably go wrong and carnage ensue. Not just from an animal with a taste for human flesh, but from the murderous local thugs, led by a dictator named "Little Gustave."

Okay, what's good about Primeval?

Here's a list of virtues, be they as they may.

1.) The film is aggressively mean and lean and wastes absolutely no breath on anything not immediately intrinsic to the narrative and the gore. The movie moves at such a hectic, fast clip that it slides more exposition by the viewer in the first 18 minutes than most movies can in 45. This isn't a virtue in and of itself save that Primeval starts - gets the bloody job done - and then rolls end credits before you can tire of it. Which is more than I can say of some genre movies. In other words, Primeval knows precisely why it exists.

2.) The breakneck pace results in some extraordinary action set-pieces. There's one in particular that is worthy of mention...and nothing short of breathtaking. It occurs in the middle of the movie as the local thugs (armed with rocket launchers and machine guns...) chase down the survivors of a croc attack in a swamp. The baddies pursue the protagonists in a range rover, and our heroes are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place: we've been informed that Gustave is hiding somewhere nearby, in the high grass, but it's either face the monster's slavering, snapping jaws, or get blasted by bullets, and the scene escalates and escalates until the shock and awe really gets to you. There's an explosive moment involving an ejection from the range rover (and an impact with a tree.), explosions galore, a confrontation in the mud with a machete, a desperate race to get two bullets and a shotgun into one pair of hands, and all the while the looming threat of Gustave. This is a sustained, glorious bit of action and it is not just brilliantly edited and framed, but actually exhilarating and authentically suspenseful.

3.) Primeval is not just faced paced and action-packed, but damn scary. There are two crocodile "attack" jolts that will pop you off your ass; early in the film. Later - during the climax - Gustave chews his way through the Range Rover in a thrilling moment that rivals anything in the Jurassic Park pictures. Another great set piece involves the heroes trapped in a gazebo during a storm by blackest night, as Gustave attacks. Because we expect our monsters to be smart, Gustave doesn't just assault the group head on. No, he takes out the pillars the gazebo is supported by, one at a time, knocking each corner of the abode into the opaque water. Again, this is scary and suspenseful...and the scene doesn't end the way you think it will.

4.) The film features some absolutely beautiful natural photography. These (and other) shots are well-composed. There are some great aerial views, for instance, of the team and the supportive locals carrying the giant steel cage across the land to the water. And horror films will welcome the multiple crocodile P.O.V. shots from water's edge. Again, Primeval is more deftly shot and edited than it has any right or responsibility to be.

5.) The dialogue is sharp and funny. This is one of those movies where there is one character who provides consistent comic relief. In this case, that character (played by Orlando Jones) is actually funny. He gets in some great jokes.
I laughed out loud at least four times; and I'm usually the first person to ridicule these types of stock characters.

6.) The movie knows movie history, and realizes it is part of an established genre. To wit, there are self-reflexive (but not campy) references to Jaws, and When Animals Attack. But more importantly than such throwaways is the fact that Primeval carefully and assiduously adheres to the central axiom of the "Revenge of Nature" films: it is never the animal's fault that it kills people. No, it's man's fault. Think about it, pollution causes the frogs to go nuts in Frogs. The spraying of pesticides (from a cropduster) causes spiders to grow aggressive in Kingdom of the Spiders. A whole in the ozone (caused by hairspray!) makes animals attack in William Girdler's classic, Day of the Animals (1977). It's the same here. All the bloodshed caused by Little Gustave has literally gone "downstream." The corpses generated in the political bloodbath have been dumped in the water and become Gustave's primary food source. That's why he's developed a taste for human blood: because we - apparently - like to spill human blood. Some critics have called Primeval a variation of Anaconda and Hotel Rwanda and you know...that kind of makes sense. Which brings me to...

7.) There is a higher aesthetic or moral purpose to Primeval; a social commentary beyond the blood and guts. It's not just that violence in man has caused violence towards man in nature (always a good theme in these films...) but more than that. Primeval is, in some sense, a culture clash between glib, self-interested Americans and the people of Africa, who are clearly involved in a life-or-death struggle. Our "heroes" are there for ratings - for a stunt. The people who live there are just trying to survive...or escape. There's an interesting conversation in the film regarding the news people and whether or not they should even report on the political strife occurring in Burundi. Darfur, Rwanda - and obliquely, Katrina - are all raised here in a way that isn't preachy but bluntly truthful. So yeah, this "dumb" killer crocodile movie boasts a heart...and a brain.

8.) Forget the heart and the brain, this movie is carnage candy. There's a great moment in the film when the crocodile chews up a human being and Gutave pops his victim's head like an exploding zit. Granted, this argument will only find appeal with some genre-loving demographics, but I cackled here. I saw the over-the-top moment as precisely the right use of gore. Not merely to horrify and gross out...but to engender a laugh.

Now don't let me send you down the garden path here. I'll be the first to acknowledge that some of the Gustave CGI is dodgy; or that the main characters are about as dimensional as cardboard. Ultimately, I judged those considerations secondary to the film's sense of dangerous energy, it's over-the-top gore, it's sense of humor, and the thrilling jolts and rock 'em, sock 'em action scenes. Again, this is a good horror movie, not a great one, and if it had been made in the 1980s, we'd be lauding it today as a modest (but well-remembered) cult classic. Because it comes out in 2007 and has CGI in it, I think some viewers will be less forgiving, or find it harder to identify the good stuff amidst the dross.

What prevents Primeval from being a great horror movie? Well, that's simple. In my book, to qualify for greatness, a horror film must prove not just scary or even socially valuable, but rather it must transgress. It must go after taboo; and in the process, advance the horror film...nudge it forward in a new or unexpected direction. Primeval pays homage to the revenge of nature films of the 1970s, but it never transgresses. It never breaks society's barriers in the way that a brilliant horror film should.

It almost does. There's a scene wherein a burly African man bursts into a tent, rips open luscious Aviva's blouse and attempts to rape her. The scene ends with an ejaculation on her naked stomach...of torrents of blood. it's coitus interruptus by way of hungry crocodile. Right here - for a split second - you can almost sense the filmmaker's skirting to the edge of transgression; offering - even briefly - a commentary on race, about rape, about domination and sexual politics and power. But then it all gets backed away from and the taboo isn't really or meaningfully breached.

Still, give Primeval kudos for almost reaching the point of transgression. Again, this is a modest, cheap B-movie...but in my opinion, it's damn good one. And - once more - the unpretentious Primeval is better and scarier and more fun than it has any right or responsibility to be.

Or...maybe I just had low expectations.


  1. All points well taken. My theory is that you enjoy the "when animals attack" genre because you would like to defend your family and house cats against the feral neighborhood cats that roam Monroe, NC.

    Just a theory.

  2. Kevin,

    I like your theory. Perhaps I fancy myself a 1970s William Shatner fighting the animals from Kingdom of the Spiders. Or - God Forbide - a (svelte) Joe Don Baker battling rabid hordes in "The Pack."

    If (when...) the animal apocalypse comes, I'll be ready to do battle.

  3. Just bopping in here to say that the enduring pleasure of John from Cincinnati may be that it's fun to write about...