Eli Roth is one of the few name brands in modern horror. That’s weird because THE GREEN INFERNO is his first directorial work released in eight years. He’s spent more time producing and writing (the non-horror MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS being his most notable in that area in my opinion) and he was an Inglorious Basterd and what not. But as a director this is only his fourth film. At this point in John Carpenter’s career he was on his twelfth film, PRINCE OF DARKNESS.
I’m glad to have him back though because I’ve liked all of his movies. I remember CABIN FEVER being fun when I saw it at a midnight show, and though I had mixed feelings when I first saw HOSTEL it has grown on me on further viewings. And I especially like HOSTEL PART II, which I think is very underrated, even something of a modern horror classic.
Roth has always been one to talk worshipfully about the Italian horror directors, not just arty Argento but the slimy guys out in the jungle filming muddy maggot ridden zombies and cannibal savages cutting open ancient tortoises. So this is his tribute to those movies, his story of western travelers intruding on the territory of indigenous people who have, you know… different customs.
In the old ones they carried film cameras to make documentaries, these kids carry smart phones to livestream what’s happening. (Don’t worry, it has no found footage elements.) They come as activists trying to stop a corporation from plowing down the rain forest and the people inside it to get to the natural gas underneath. Or “unobtainium,” let’s call it. But their small plane crashes and leaves them stranded near the village, where they are manhandled, poisoned, caged, carved, cooked, eaten, etc. by a fictional Peruvian tribe (portrayed primarily by indigenous farmers who had never left their village deep in the Amazon). The captives plan and fight amongst themselves and try to escape.
I’m not a fan or veteran of this subgenre. Let me tell you my entire history with it. Once, many years ago, I saw Umberto Lenzi’s CANNIBAL FEROX on the big screen. I think I enjoyed it, but it was the finale of an all night horror movie marathon, so I approached it more as an endurance challenge than a movie, and getting through it felt like an accomplishment. Years after that I thought maybe I should see Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, to know what people are talking about. I watched the beginning, where a woman gets impaled on a stick from hoo-ha to mouth. I mean I’ve seen fucked up things in movies, it didn’t really upset me, but it gave me the rare-for-me feeling of “Nah, I’m not gonna get anything worthwhile from watching this.” So I didn’t.
THE GREEN INFERNO has somewhat similar gore and brutality, but it has a completely different feel, one that in this case is to me more (dare I say?) enjoyable. Roth being who he is, and such an excited fan of these movies (the end credits even provide a handy bibliography of cannibal movies and a dedication to Deodato), his homage has a sense of being a put-on. It doesn’t have the same “is this actually made by crazy people?” danger and sleaziness. They don’t kill any real animals, as they did in both of the aforementioned Italian ones. And there are many funny jokes, and a sort of goofy, though not comedic, tone. So although it’s more over-the-top gruesome than your average American horror picture it’s not a grueling, punishing experience like MARTYRS or something. It’s a fun movie for those of us who allow for the possibility of a fun movie where a nice guy gets his eyes, tongue and legs cut off and eaten.
Okay, I just typed that, but I understand that many people would think only a sicko would call this enjoyable. It’s true exploitation in that it intentionally goes beyond the bounds of taste to push our buttons. At school before the trip the heroine Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s now-wife who starred with him in AFTERSHOCK and is in his next film KNOCK KNOCK) attends a lecture about female genital mutilation. This serves multiple purposes:
1. To give Justine a cause to care about
2. To ground the far-fetched idea of modern day cannibal tribes in the reality of drastically different cultural traditions
3. To instill a fear of what specifically could happen to these poor characters. So if anybody goes to see this movie there will be think pieces, that’s for sure.
In the movie’s defense, though, I absolutely believe that the (very upsetting) lecture scene will do more to raise awareness of this problem in certain circles than any of the publicity that’s already out there. I doubt that’s Roth’s intent, but it’s his result.
The movie’s main strength is a likable performance by Izzo. She manages to be very sympathetic even while playing an American dumb enough to fly to Peru without seeming to learn a word of Spanish. (Since Izzo is Chilean I know this is intentional, and now I feel more inclined to believe Roth’s claims that the guys in HOSTEL are intentionally douchey as a critique of “ugly American” tourists.) It’s also nice to see Daryl Sabara as the funny stoner character Lars. Ever since he grew out of being a Spy Kid I’ve just seen him playing despicable assholes like the bully that gets killed by li’l Michael Myers or the horrible son who auto-erotically asphyxiates himself in WORLD’S GREATEST DAD. In this one I didn’t want him to die.
Ariel Levy (also from AFTERSHOCK) works well as the activist leader Alejandro, who just seems corny when we first meet him strumming a guitar at a campus protest, but gives the audience more and more reason to hate him as it goes along. He has some surprisingly funny parts, though it’s weird when he’s serious because I had a hard time not thinking of him as a Fred Armisen character.
By the way, I noticed this was edited by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, director of Marko Zaror’s movies KILTRO, MIRAGEMAN, MANDRILL and REDEEMER. I didn’t know Roth knew that guy. Maybe he could get Espinoza and Zaror on a MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 3.
* * *
It’s weird that Roth, who seems to enjoy traveling the world to film movies and attend film festivals, has made four movies in a row about how dangerous it is to go anywhere. I wonder if they offered him TAKEN? Obviously one way to read the story of THE GREEN INFERNO is “Ha ha, you tried to save their village but they don’t care about you, they’re gonna eat you.” And of course this world view is disproven by the existence of the movie itself, since Roth and crew worked with real natives who seemed to like them okay, and did not try to eat them.
There’s definitely something dumb that Roth is trying to say here about activism. To hear him talk about it, he’s criticizing “slacktivists” and “hashtag activists” who think they can change the world by finding out who Kony is on Twitter. He has that southparkian attitude of wanting to pick apart and shit on anybody who believes in or cares about anything. In a statement to Business Insider, he writes:
My film, however, is about bandwagon activism, or ‘slacktivism,’ which is people jumping in on social media and retweeting causes they actually know nothing about (something these activists seem ready to do with my film). The whole idea of the kids saving the rainforest only to be eaten by the tribe they saved is a metaphor for how people are shamelessly consumed by their vanity and need for validation on social media. These kids in the movie care, but they care more about getting recognized for caring.
I mean come on. #1, what kind of a self involved weiner is more passionate about stopping twentysomething kids from showing off too much than greedy energy companies destroying lives and the planet? That’s just straight up stupid priorities.
#2… “a metaphor for how people are shamelessly consumed by their vanity and need for validation on socia” oh jesus please don’t ever defend your movies in writing again, you bring shame to us for enjoying them. I mean I don’t believe for a second that he thought of any of that until after the fact, but come on. A movie about activists in the rain forest as a metaphor for kids doing retweets that he believes they are unqualified for?
I mean, even if he REALLY DID write it as a metaphor for something he doesn’t like on Twitter WHY would he tell other adults that? After you write that sentence you gotta go back and re-read it and then you will know to delete it before other humans see it. Have some pride buddy.
In an interview with Defamer he elaborates on his anti-consummation-by-vanity stance:
I really noticed Occupy Wall Street was the first moment when, as it was spreading it starts off as this hugely important cause, this kind of tipping point in culture, and all of a sudden, there was a relative of mine that had graduated college and wasn’t working because he was occupying. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how the banks fucked him over, and maybe he feels strongly,’ but I got the sense that he was going there because his friends were doing it and they were meeting girls and it was fun to occupy.
I suspect you could say that about any important cause throughout human history. For sure you could say it about the Vietnam War protesters. Yet when we remember that era we very reasonably focus our anger and despair on the war and all its consequences and not on god damn it, that asshole with the guitar was just in it to get laid, he didn’t really give a shit about peace.
Who cares? Eyes on the prize, dummy. Do you know that some people thought some of the white abolitionists were posers? Maybe if your were alive back then you wouldn’t have raised a finger against slavery because you’d be too busy trying to expose those guys for being in it just to impress their friends. What a hero you would’ve been, too.
Or to put it in more internetty terms, this is like Superman saves the world from Lex Luthor and we all say he’s an asshole because why does he have to wear a symbol, he’s just trying to make sure everybody knows it was him, plus Batman was doing it already before it was popular, now that Superman’s doing it it’s way too mainstream.
The tagline of THE GREEN INFERNO actually says it: “No good deed goes unpunished.” In the movie’s case by being eaten, in real life by having your motives questioned by people like Eli Roth and South Park.
Roth also uses the right-wing-video-gamer terms “Social Justice Warrior” and “SJW” in the interview. Could he be aligning himself with a cause he “doesn’t know anything about”? And his complaints about people taking credit for their activism are interspersed with boasts about working with PETA and bringing metal roofs and electricity to the village where he filmed. WHAT A SHOW OFF! Why can’t he just do it anonymously, under the cover of night?
Because it’s okay to do good things! He should be proud of that stuff and of other people who try to do positive things for the world. Duh.
If he didn’t say that kinda horse shit publicly, though, it wouldn’t seem to me like the movie was saying any of that. Though he chastises his characters for being excited about recognition on Twitter and Reddit, it’s well established in the story that their goal is to expose the wrongdoings of the company to the public, just like in a million movies before the invention of social media. They may be goofballs, but they’re using a legitimate strategy.
These daring-activists-who-are-I-guess-a-metaphor-for-stay-at-home-slacktivists (?) fly and boat deep into the rain forest and put their lives on the line as human shields in front of bulldozers and gunmen. To me it doesn’t matter that they’ve been misled about it by their asshole leader, they’re doing something we would never be brave enough to do in the name of a cause we all agree with. Even Roth in his Business Insider statement tells the real activists that “if you want to save the uncontacted tribes in Peru, you’re doing something that all of us believe in and many of us secretly wish we were a part of. I applaud you.” Yet in his movie he says he’s scolding the kids who do it to get attention.
Our culture encourages belittling people who take a stand for something they believe in without government sanction, because aren’t they stupid, they’re gonna get themselves killed, and why are they so angry, etc. But I bet Roth wouldn’t be so “politically incorrect” about soldiers going to war for “causes they actually know nothing about.” He’d be okay with praising their bravery and selflessness, and hesitant to make fun of them for being naive or jumping on a bandwagon of #ProtectingFreedom or #StoppingTerrorism because #NeverForget.
His type of kneejerk cynicism is itself consumed by vanity, believing it’s some kind of rebelling against conformity, when really it’s doing the bidding of The Man. Rebelling by crushing the rebellion.
But again, most of that is outside of the movie. In the movie we clearly identify with Justine, Jonah and Lars, who are all idealists trying to do a good thing. In the end when (spoiler) Justine returns to campus and to her tired-eyed stoner best friend Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who didn’t go on the trip because “activism is so fucking gay,” it’s definitely Justine who we’re supposed to admire. The one who went across the world and escaped the green inferno while the other one laid around in bed talking about nothing with her moronic dread-locked boyfriend.
It’s also worth noting that Roth’s last movie HOSTEL PART II does not side with The Man. It paints a picture of a world where rich men secretly get sexual thrills by torturing and murdering innocent women. The heroine is only able to get out of it by being super rich. It seems angry about it. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite of Roth’s movies. It seems to care. But maybe it’s just doing it to meet girls, I don’t know.
* * *
After all that I want to make it clear that this is a positive review. THE GREEN INFERNO is a funny, squirmy rollercoaster, the type of scrappy, entertaining indie horror movie we used to have but they got replaced by winky referencey horror comedies. Eli Roth, I don’t like your attitude, but I like your movie.
P.S. It goes without saying that they shoulda brought C3PO with em. Be safe, kids.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.