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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Primeval

Primeval is pure escapist entertainment with quite a bite! Oh sure, the poster and the preview trailer lie like a rug when they lead you to believe this is a movie about a serial killer, and if you come to see Primeval expecting to see a flick about a would-be Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer you are going to be terribly disappointed. The ad campaign has to be the most shamefully misleading line of bull since we all heard that long-winded crock about those supposed weapons of mass destruction set to wipe us off the face of the earth.

Speaking of crocks, well ‘crocs’ anyway, the true star of Primeval is just that ~ a 25 foot long crocodile named Gustave who has a penchant for eating roving African natives by the hundreds. This is apparently what qualifies as a ‘serial killer’ to the pubic relations people at Touchstone Studios. This is about as shaky an argument as calling a Christmas tree farm a ‘modern day Auschwitz.’ It just doesn’t ring true, but ~ what the hey! ~ let’s just drop it and listen quietly for a moment. Do you hear it? Do you? Shhhh. That’s the sound of Steve Irwin rolling over in his grave because of the terrible image this movie paints of his favorite friend, the crocodile. Crikey!

The premise of
Primeval is simple. The story takes place in the mid-1990s, in the midst of a time during a vicious civil war between the Hutu-dominated Front for Democracy in Burundi and the rebel Tutsi army, which has incited this violence by assassinating the country’s first Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye just a few months after his election in the little nation’s first democratic elections. In retaliation for Ndadaye's killing, Hutu extremists have massacred thousands of Tutsi civilians and the Tutsi-dominated army has responded by massacring just as many Hutus. I’ll bet you asking yourself “Why the history lesson in the middle of telling me about a monster man-eating crocodile movie?” and that is precisely the speed bump in the road when it comes to enjoying the simplicity of a carnivorous croc munching away on a collection of natives and Americans brought in to vary the reptile’s diet a bit. After all, even a crocodile must enjoy foreign food now and again.

For God-only-knows what reasons, writers John D. Brancato and Michael
Ferris (Catwoman), decided to incorporate vast political monologues and occasional side trips away from the story about the scaly killing machine to provide social commentary on the wretched human conditions and injustices as well as the failures of the United Nations and the United States to intervene in the conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, and Darfur. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with uncovering the crises in these hot spots, but it is about as welcome in the middle of a horror movie as a subplot involving Donald Rumsfeld in a love story with Rosie O’Donnell. Nobody wants to see that, at least not right now.

The two disparate forms of film do not complement one another and actually hurt both. There has already been a slew of animals-gone-wild movies, and
among that genre there is a big enough pool (sorry) of better (Jaws; Deep Blue Sea), or at least prior entries in the water sub-category that didn’t need repeating (Crocodile; Krocodylus aka Bloodsurf, and even Alligator). While veteran television Director Michael Katleman, making his first leap to the big screen, may have hoped to turned what he had been offered (a “B” horror movie) into an A List “Important Cinematic Event” by giving it gravitas and hence (hopefully) comparisons to films like Syriana and Babel, it didn’t work. What he ended up with was a dull and predictable retread of 1999’s Lake Placid but without nearly the same talented cast. Instead, he gave us long interminable pauses in the action, offering the audience plenty of opportunities to consider leaving mid-picture.

Now, for all my griping about the movie, let me say this: I did quite enjoy the big fella himself. Oh sure, he was obviously the result of the miracles of CGI and “lives” only inside a computer
somewhere, but Gustave was decidedly scary when he did attack. I seriously doubt any crocodile could really run or jump as fast as Gustave did unless he was from shipped here from the planet Krypton, but if you are willing to believe he even exists then you might as well go all the way and let him be a speed racer as well as everything else. He is smart, sneaky, and he knows how to outfox just about everybody out to get him. I half-expected to see him wearing a hockey mask and carrying a machete before this thing was over. His climactic confrontation with the last of the party sent in to capture the beast really is an exciting ten minutes as Gustave engages combat with a Landrover from way-too-close-up (at least it is if you are the one in the front seat of the SUV).

The cast is mostly made up of little known actors who won’t become any better known because of this. The “big name” of the moment is Dominic Purcell of tv’s “Prison Break” as Tim Manfrey, a news reporter sent from New York to capture the crocodile as his “punishment” for a story gone wrong that had damaged his credibility and enraged the network executives upstairs. Brooke Langton (The Benchwarmers) plays the buxom blonde colleague who accompanies Manfrey primarily to provide the film with the requisite hot body and a woman willing to be in peril and out of (most of) her clothes for lengthy periods of time. Sadly, the very funny Orlando Jones (Looking for Sunday), who should be headlining the films he is in, is relegated to a minor spot as the team’s cameraman, an African-American who is anything but happy to embrace mother-Africa. Some of his lines are very funny, but when he ventures into a monologue about how “slavery was a good thing because it got black people out of here” you may find yourself uncomfortable. I was, and I was surprised Jones would be amenable to saying it.

Primeval is not going to make you forget even the minor “classics” like Anaconda (cough, cough) any time soon, but it won’t kill you with complete boredom either. You just need to approach it as more of a learning experience than a “hang-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat” thrill ride. You’ll learn a lot more about Burundi than you ever cared to know before, you will get five or six cheap thrills at the sight of more than a few folks getting eaten alive, and you’ll also gain an entire year’s worth of film school education about how not to make and market an effective horror movie. That’s worth something. School’s in at the Essex Cinemas. Check it out, if you dare.

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