Killer crocodiles and gut-munching gators grace a hundred shocking wildlife documentaries and by all rights, should make great monster movies though the results are often hit-and-miss. Aside from the John Sayles scripted genre highpoint of Alligator (1980) and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976), fans of rampaging reptiles drew what tepid thrills they could from the Italian made The Great Alligator (1979), the belated sequel Alligator II: The Mutation (1990) and the nondescript Lake Placid (1997), culminating in Tobe Hooper’s abysmal Crocodile (2000). But wouldn’t you know it? You wait ten years for a killer crocodile movie then along come three at once.
Beating the Australian duo of Rogue (2007) and Black Water (2008) to cinemas came the American produced Primeval. Supposedly “inspired by a true story”, the film opens in Burundi, West Africa where a United Nations team uncover a mass gravesite housing the victims of genocide. However, a suspicious mound turns out to be a freakishly enormous crocodile that drags the shrieking female UN Inspector to her grisly death. An American media mogul teams hard-hitting newshound Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) with sexy, ambitious wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Brooke Langton) to bring the killer croc back alive for a ratings smash. Nicknamed “Gustave” by locals, the man-eater is rumoured to be bullet-proof and responsible for the deaths of hundreds, but ace crocodile hunter Matt Collins (Gideon Emery) has invented an impervious steel cage. The team arrive in a war zone terrorised by soldiers loyal to a mysterious warlord nicknamed “Little Gustave”, and ally themselves with surly poacher Jacob Krieg (Jurgen Prochnow) and plucky young villager Jojo (Gabriel Malema), who dreams of escaping to America. Inevitably, Gustave proves more ferocious and intelligent than the team had expected. But when wisecracking cameraman Steven Johnson (Orlando Jones) catches the killing of a local family on film, the Americans are caught between crazed militiamen and the murderous monster.
Instead of telling a fairly straightforward monster-on-the-loose story, screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris take a more scattershot approach and shoehorn some socio-political commentary into the mix. Don’t expect much penetrating insight into African politics, but the filmmakers at least try to tackle the thorny issue of how to deal with the Third World, using Gustave itself as a lumbering metaphor. As Steven observes in typically crass fashion: “This crocodile is like O.J. Simpson. He messed up when he killed that white woman.” While Aviva argues they should expose the genocide caught on camera, Steven counters that their largely white, middle-class audience don’t care about black-on-black violence either on their doorstep or in Africa, while Tim is caught between similar cynicism and the urge to do something positive.
The film’s inconclusive ending is a copout (albeit one presumably intended to underline a point) and symptomatic of an overall approach that tries to mimic Roger Corman’s patented 1970s New World formula, juxtaposing monster mayhem with social commentary, goofy comedy, and exploitation (the filmmakers ensure voluptuous Brooke Langton has blood splattered across her cleavage), but while grisly enough is lacking in lurid thrills and incisive wit. Orlando Jones almost capsizes this jungle cruise entirely with his inanely scripted wisecracks (“I feel like a pork chop on Queen Latifah’s dinner plate!”) while the whole cast are called to do incredibly stupid things, like wade into the croc-infested waters to retrieve a cute little dog. At least Jurgen Prochnow brings some gravitas to an ultimately nondescript role.
Michael Katleman has a solid resume of genre television from Smallville to Dark Angel and uh, Gilmore Girls. His flashy direction makes use of mixed formats in a manner distantly similar to Cannibal Holocaust (1979) and he pulls of a handful of arresting suspense sequences, particularly the group’s flight from two gun-toting militiamen. The crocodile is an effectively scary CGI creation, though not quite as believable when it continues its agile pursuit across dry land.