June 3, 2017

A Brief Review of the Green Inferno

The Green InfernoWhat is the worst thing one can say about a horror movie? Saying that it was not scary comes to mind as one possibility. A horror movie that does not deliver on the scares might not be worth watching. But I think there might be an even more damning criticism: the movie was boring. The way I look at it, a horror movie could manage not to be scary and still have some other redeeming qualities that made it worth watching (e.g., outstanding special effects, an interesting story, great acting). On the other hand, a horror movie that is boring is going to be hard to redeem just as would be the case for a boring movie from any other genre.

I went into The Green Inferno (2015) with low expectations. I rarely enjoy cannibal movies, and I'm somewhat conflicted when it comes to what I've seen from director Eli Roth. I liked the original Cabin Fever and did not hate the Hostel films even though they were far from my favorites (I almost never enjoy the "torture porn" stuff). It did not surprise me much that I didn't care for The Green Inferno. What did surpsise me was that I found it to be rather boring. I say this not just because the film took nearly 45 minutes to get going but because even once it did get going, I found there was little to hold my attention. This was supposed to be a gross-out tribute to the classic cannibal films Roth loved in his youth. I figured I might feel queasy while watching it; I was not expecting to have difficulty staying awake.

Unlike most of the other horror films I have reviewed here, The Green Inferno is different in that there is no real need to avoid spoilers. The film makes no attempt at suspense, and it was marketed to let you know the plot going in. I think they recognized that nobody would bother to see the film otherwise. The plot is about as basic and derivative as it gets. A group of social justice warriors travels to South America to engage in some misguided guerrilla activism to defend a native tribe against developers. Their plane goes down on the return trip, and they are graphically butchered and eaten by cannibals. That's pretty much it.

I think there were at least two different pathways through which The Green Inferno might have worked. First, they could have dropped the anti-social justice warrior aspect entirely and presented likable characters the audience would want to survive. This would have been in sharp contrast to the one-dimensional versions with which we were provided, and it would have made the second half of the film much more disturbing, harder to stomach, and all around horrific. I'm not suggesting this would have made the film more enjoyable, but I think it would have made for much more effective horror. The second path might have involved amping up the anti-social justice warrior aspect so that the characters would be thoroughly despised by the audience and then focusing more on delivering over-the-top gore for the second half. The second half would be stripped of much of its emotional impact since we wouldn't care about the characters, but it might delight gore fans.

The problem I had with Inferno was that Roth couldn't seem to make up his mind which of these paths to travel. He left us with characters we didn't care about enough for the second half to have much impact, but we also didn't despise them enough to enjoy watching most of them die. The one character in the film who I might have enjoyed seeing die was the protagonist's roommate, and she didn't even go on the trip! At the same time, the kills were nothing we haven't seen countless times before. The first one was pretty graphic, but those that followed were nothing special. Fans seeking over-the-top gore had to come away disappointed. It was a step beyond what one sees on The Walking Dead (mostly due to the use of brighter red in the color palette for the blood), but that was about it.

While I'm on the subject of the color palette, I have to say that the best thing about the film were the visuals. The contrast of the green trees with the red body paint of the cannibals was visually striking, and the use of yellow for the cannibal leaders was great in helping them stand out. It wasn't enough to make up for such a weak story and poor direction, but it was nice to look at.

Most of Roth's films seem to push the message that Americans should never leave America because the rest of the world is evil and intends us harm. I suppose The Green Inferno certainly could be considered xenophobic, culturally insensitive, and whatever else. I wouldn't argue with any of this, but I would suggest that such criticism might not go far enough. It isn't just the absurd idea that the rest of the world is out to get us and we should never dare to travel; it is the extreme cynicism that any efforts to improve one's world are doomed. Roth's contempt for social justice warriors is understandable, but I have to wonder where we would be without idealism and the often misguided passion that drives many young people to address what they perceive as injustices.

I'll continue to criticize the behavior of social justice warriors, but I'm not about to throw out social justice advocacy in the process. There are important differences between the two, and I'm not going to embrace fear and cynical nihilism just because some refuse to draw any distinctions. Like the characters in Inferno, it may seem like we are trapped in a cage awaiting a horrible fate; this does not mean that we should just give up.