Primeval (2007) ***
By 2007, it was getting awfully difficult to dream up new and interesting ways to play the Jaws card. The most obvious approach was to switch up the animal species serving as the threat, but most of the sensible possibilities in that direction had already been exploited before the 70’s were out. It wasn’t just that one filmmaker or another had used nearly every variety of shark with a history of attacking humans, either. Others still had built their Jaws clones around killer whales, alligators, crocodiles, giant octopodes, grizzly bears, packs of dogs, schools of piranhas or barracudas, flocks of seagulls or vampire bats— even fucking Sasquatch got a chance to hone his Bruce impression within those first five years. Meanwhile, large swaths of territory were also covered by those who kept the shark, but tinkered with the human story, especially as the 70’s gave way first to the 80’s and then to the 90’s and beyond. There had been Jaws copies that were really science-run-amok movies, or heist films, or softcore skin-flicks. Hell, at least one Jaws rip-off spent most of its energy ripping off Willard instead! Consequently, the makers of Primeval have won considerably more of my respect than their movie probably warrants on its modest merits, for their crocodile-centered contribution to the genre is actually a “serious” exercise in hand-wringing over the plight of chronically strife-riven Africa, and it was promoted with an advertising campaign calculated to make it look a slasher flick. A pretty good hustle all around, I have to say.
The setting: Burundi, 2005— quite possibly the worst place on Earth, although Rwanda next door and Sierra Leone on the other side of the continent offer pretty stiff competition. Red Cross activist Dr. Cathy Andrews (Erica Wessels) and a United Nations peacekeeping force are out in the wilderness searching for mass graves when they discover that something else has already found them. That something else is the biggest fucking Nile crocodile anybody ever saw, a notorious, nine-meter man-eater known to the natives as “Gustave.” The crocodile had been snacking on a pile of bodies buried beside the bank of the Ruzizi River, but it finds live prey like Dr. Andrews much more appetizing. You know how UN peacekeeping forces are famous the world over for being unable to keep the peace? Well, it turns out they’re no damn good at saving people from giant crocodiles, either.
Meanwhile, in New York, TV news reporter Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell, from Blade: Trinity and The Gravedancers) has just made a fool of himself and the network he represents by falling for a malicious hoax directed against a prominent US senator. Station boss Roger Sharpe (The Bone Snatcher’s Patrick Lyster) doesn’t fire him, but he does assign Tim to what the latter man regards as a sideshow story, on which he’ll have to work with Aviva Masters (Brooke Langton), the puff-piece anchor who specializes in stories about cute animals. As you might have guessed, however, the animal Masters is looking at now isn’t quite so cute. Word of Dr. Andrews’s death in Burundi has filtered back westward, and Masters wants to use the story to break into a more serious role in the newsroom. Specifically, she wants to fly out to Burundi with famous reptile expert Matthew Collins (Gideon Emery, of Red Water and Project Shadowchaser II)— imagine Steve Irwin if he actually were the buffoon he posed as in front of the camera— to capture Gustave. Sharpe, for his part, likes the idea because Matthews thinks she can get the job done and have the story ready for broadcast in time for Sweeps Week. Manfrey doesn’t like it at all, but he has little choice in the matter; he, Masters, and cameraman Steven Johnson (Orlando Jones, of Evolution and From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter) are Africa-bound in a matter of days.
Now obviously one doesn’t capture a 30-foot crocodile by shooting it in the ass with a tranquilizer dart and stuffing it into a plastic cat-carrier for the trip home. When the TV people rendezvous with him, Collins has with him the components for a huge steel cage with a pressure-sensitive floor connected to the locking mechanism of the door at the front end. The plan is to lug this cage to the part of the Ruzizi where Gustave hangs out, bait it with a live goat, and wait for the crocodile to climb inside. Gustave’s weight will depress the cage floor, triggering the door release, and trapping the animal within. Also, just to be certain, Collins has a couple of big thermoses full of a mixture of blood, piss, and crocodile mating hormones, with which to spike the river water in the hope of attracting Gustave’s attention, and radio transmitter darts that should enable the hunters to track their prey’s movements, even if the trap doesn’t catch it on the first try. Collins has hired a guide, too, a Trader Horn type by the name of Jacob Krieg (Jürgen Prochnow, from Wing Commander and House of the Dead). Still, the TV people are going to need a boat and a hell of a lot of manpower, but “Harry” (Dumisani Mbebe), their liaison to the Burundian government (his real name is something with a lot of syllables and several decidedly non-Indo-European consonant clusters), sees to it that they’re taken care of. Harry’s assistance even includes a team of very heavily armed soldiers, for the part of the country where Manfrey and the rest are headed is home not only to Gustave, but to a rebel warlord not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Little Gustave” for his habit of killing people almost as profligately as the crocodile. None of the Americans are happy at first to be surrounded by guys with rifles and machine guns, but they change their tune when the boat comes under fire from a squad of guerillas during their very first night on the river.
We can probably surmise how our heroes are going to run afoul of Gustave (I mean, they’re going looking for the big, scaly bastard!), but the question of how they’ll wind up on Little Gustave’s menu, too, is more of a puzzler. As it turns out, Steven accidentally witnesses some of Little Gustave’s men committing a triple terror-killing. A lieutenant we’ll be seeing a lot before all is said and done (Eddy Bekombo) and a couple of his men kidnap the shaman (Ernest Ndhlovu, of Dark City and Cyborg Cop) of the village where the Americans had recruited their porters, together with another man and a woman, Steven notices the rebel soldiers making their captives kneel down under a tree while he’s walking back to the campsite to transfer last night’s footage from his camera to expedition’s main computer, and he films the whole thing when Little Gustave’s minions murder the three villagers one by one. Steven escapes notice, but unbeknownst to him or any of his companions, the soldiers Harry sent to watch over them are double agents working for Little Gustave on the side. Powerful though he may be, the warlord would nevertheless find it most inconvenient to have his terrorism displayed before the world, so he orders the Americans killed and all their filming equipment retrieved. Man-eating crocodiles have no political loyalties, though, so when Tim and his fellows try to evade the guerillas by fleeing deeper into the Northern Wetlands, Big Gustave will be as big a threat to their pursuers as he is to them.
I don’t want to over-praise Primeval, but it really is about as good a 21st-century animal-attack film as I’ve seen. It helps a great deal that the human story is strong enough to stand on its own even without the aid of a 30-foot croc (which, as if this needed to be said, is half again as big as Crocodylus niloticus has ever been observed to grow), and that screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris are substantially more ruthless in their treatment of the protagonists than might have been expected. (Admittedly, that last bit would have a little more impact if there weren’t so many people in the cast whom you’ll want to see eaten or machine-gunned.) Primeval is one of the very few movies about a large, man-eating critter that I’ve seen in which the human villain is something more credible (and more credibly dangerous) than the typical caricatured Evil Capitalist, with the result that it is able to keep firing on all cylinders even during long stretches when Gustave is nowhere to be seen. It’s also one of the relatively few in which the animal itself bears some meaningful resemblance to its real-world counterpart, wildly exaggerated size notwithstanding. I suspect that the credit there belongs to the writers, the special effects people, and director Michael Katleman in roughly equal measure, since what makes Gustave so atypically convincing for a B-movie killer critter is a combination of visual details and behavioral tics. In any event, though, somebody obviously read up on the Nile crocodile before shooting started. I’m sure a professional herpetologist would find some mistakes (“Oh, come on! Those nuchal scales are all wrong!”), but in coloration, head morphology, and overall body proportions, Gustave looks very much like the real thing. And while I’m disappointed to see that the state of the art in computer-generated crocodiles has not advanced further than this in the eight years since Lake Placid, the pattern of Gustave’s movements is more or less right, even if there’s still no real sense that he has mass and takes up space. We even get to see him do the classic crocodilian death-roll a couple of times! But to return to Brancato and Ferris, I probably should have expected good things from them, for the last time we saw that pair around here, they were writing Mindwarp, one of the few truly independent-minded post-apocalypse movies of the early 90’s. Of course, they also wrote Catwoman, so it isn’t as though their record is completely free of blemishes. Even there, though, you kind of have to give them credit for sucking in ways that few of us would ever have thought of if left to our own devices. Regardless, the point (and this gets us back to what I was saying at the beginning of this review) is that Primeval is in most respects a commendably unconventional animal-attack film, and Brancato and Ferris look to have contributed the most to making it so.