by Philip Price
It's been just over a year since I saw the first trailer for Eli Roth's “The Green Inferno.” The trailer for the film was attached to my screening of “22 Jump Street” in June of 2014 and while it was odd to see such a gorrific trailer for a micro-budget horror pic right before a big budget broad comedy sequel, it made sense. The target audience would essentially be the same and the intrigue of the trailer was more than engaging. It promised a peak into the Peruvian jungle at a tribe that had never been filmed before. It was an undeniable hook that the film rode throughout its promotional campaign, but one that unfortunately doesn't pay off in the way one might have hoped. This is often the case when the idea of something is built to be greater than the reality of what that something actually is, but this is a distinctly different kind of disappointment given there is clearly potential to be mined here still. Of course, this shouldn't be considered a surprise given director Eli Roth hasn't made anything remotely solid since (maybe?) the fake trailer segment "Thanksgiving" he produced for “Grindhouse” eight years ago (granted, I haven't seen “Hemlock Grove,” but he was only at the helm for a single episode). So, how I expected this to be any different rested solely on the hope that the director had done some growing over the past few years and found it interesting to begin experimenting with new storytelling ideas in a genre he clearly loves and feels comfortable operating in. Consider that hope officially lost.
Set deep in the heart of the Amazon, “The Green Inferno” follows a group of student activists who travel to Peru to attempt a protest that will preserve a dying tribe. The land on which this tribe has made its home for what we assume is longer than most of organized civilization has existed just so happens to contain some profitable material a large corporation needs to dig up. We meet Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a college freshman in New York City, in the beginning who becomes interested in a social activist group on campus led by charismatic or creepy (depending on who you're asking) fellow student Alejandro (Ariel Levy) and his girlfriend, Kara (Ignacia Allamand). The remainder of the ensemble includes the chubby nice guy Jonah (Aaron Burns) who's crushing on Justine hard, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) who are figuring out their lesbian love for one another, Lars (Daryl Sabara) the boy from “Spy Kids” who's all grown-up and more than happy to be the comic relief in an R-rated horror flick and finally Daniel (Nicolás Martínez) the tech-guy who is the group’s best hope for getting out of their predicament alive. You see, Alejandro's master plan is to fly into Peru with the help of backer Carlos (Matías López), who looks like a Chilean Adam Levine and is definitely a drug-dealer, and film the logging crews with their cell phones so as to stream the live footage and raise awareness of their cause. Oh, and Justine's father (Richard Burgi) is also an attorney for the United Nations which Alejandro knows, but Justine doesn't know he knows so there is some clear ulterior motives on Alejandro's part for including this freshman solely for her father's connections. All of this is the basis for that first hour of the film and it's not until the group is on their way back that their plane crashes and they're taken hostage by the same natives they came to protect.
Issues. Issues with the film range from that of Levy's horrible acting and Alejandro's laughable character changes to that of the fact that the last 40 minutes of the film are basically every teen slasher film we've ever seen re-located to the Amazon. The only question to be asked is which one will die next? We know it won't be Justine as she is the lead and the only character with any context to her, but the others are fair game and we couldn't care less. Once the plane crashes and the darts come flying out of nowhere knocking our principle cast to the ground we sit up for the first time of the entire running time. The next several minutes are filled with genuine dread. Roth presents The Bald Headhunter (Ramón Llao) in extreme close-up as Justine wakes from her drug-induced sleep. It's a sight that would freak the hell out of anyone. The arrival on the island is even more harrowing given neither we nor the characters have any idea what is going on or what is to become of them. It becomes clear quite quickly what the plan is though and we wince and grimace then look away, but not long enough to actually miss anything. It is here that Roth might have at least saved the last act of his film by delving into the mechanisms that make-up this culture of natives that is horrifying to even our desensitized eyes, yes, but never explored in any kind of depth. At the end of the film the audience is asked to look at this tribe of cannibals not as an enemy simply because their habits are largely unknown, but as people just trying to survive who see us as a bigger enemy then we see them. We all undoubtedly have similar ideals and end games, but are naturally going to come at them from different perspectives. While this is a simple, but effective statement the film does nothing to motivate us to see things this way as the tribe is largely presented as a collection of caricatures. You can't hope to create a tone of neutrality when you clearly paint one set of characters as the enemy by exaggerating the characteristics that should make them feel fresh and interesting, especially if the most interesting aspects are this grotesque. Drop the social commentary and just focus on what makes this "never before filmed" tribe actually fascinating.
As I said before, this is all rather disappointing given the project seemed to initially have so much promise on its side. If that intrigue is still strong after reading the largely negative things that I and others have written about the film, by all means go and see it. The experience of the film itself should be worth more to you than my word, but don't be surprised if your hopes too are squandered on the formulaic way in which it's all presented. That said, there are certainly a couple of high points to the film that Roth has clearly strove to incorporate in this film in particular. The look of the film is largely bright and has a sheen to it that is uncommon in the horror genre. The jungle location allows for a film that gushes over its greens and uses the colorful make-up of the indigenous to give way to an aesthetic that, unlike the plotline, feels newfangled and ultimately more contemporary. There is also an admirable sense of humor to the film at times, providing a relief from all of the heavy-handed preaching and gore. “The Green Inferno” has an interesting half to it that still doesn't aspire to the potential it holds, but at least for the last half of the narrative we are on a ride that at least attempts to deliver on what it promised to be. Any hopes that the film would be something of a new phase in Roth's career and a rejuvenated take on the gore/torture side of horror were dashed when the film meandered for the first hour. That Roth and co-screenwriter Guillermo Amoedo would even dare to make its seeming hook a back burner for a larger statement about the hypocrisy of activism and the total shithole of cynicism this world has become feels like a betrayal. Of course, we must critique the film we've been given, not the one we wanted. The truth though, is that all we really wanted was to see spoiled, west culture symbols of ourselves be torn to shreds by an indigenous tribe that survives on torture and cannibalism. Instead, what we've received is rote, run of the mill Roth that thrives on the presentation of gore and not the dark motivation behind it.