Pity the screenwriters for Primeval. A purported serial killer movie “inspired by true events,” it’s not just another rehash of the much-rehashed Ed Gein Story, or even Ed Gein Goes to Africa. Rather than go for rote, the film entwines two stories of brutal killers. Though neither of its subjects would, technically, be classified as “serial,” both involved research into recent Burundi history.
The first of these stories concerns a monster (20+ feet long) crocodile named Gustave by beset locals (see: National Geographic‘s version). He’s introduced via the second story, about the 13-year civil war in Burundi (Hutu insurgents against the Tutsi-dominated government, from 1993-2006,). These two plotlines come together thematically, as the militias are “killing machines” much like the crocodile is purported to be, and neither attracts the attention of white Western media or intervention by international peacekeepers.
Primeval introduces its paired themes in the opening scene. A nice white lady forensics scientist (Erika Wessels) and her team are inspecting a mass grave, the camera focused on wormy remains. When she wanders off to a second site, where she pokes her shovel into a particularly grim-seeming spot, up from the muck leaps Gustave. While her assistant looks on in horror, the crocodile takes a big bloody chomp and drags her off into his river.
Her death generates immediate international interest. Or, as cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) puts it, the crocodile is “like O.J. Simpson: he messed up when he killed that white woman.” Part of the tabloidy Network News Channel crew sent to capture Gustave, Steven repeatedly voices his doubts concerning the assignment. (Aware of the civil war, the crew hopes only to avoid it, not report it.) Along with Steven (who provides comic relief and political commentary), the team includes blandly he-mannish producer Tim (Dominic Purcell), “animal reporter” Aviva (Brooke Langton) (whose moral compass is revealed when she saves scraggly pup left out as bait for the monster croc), and Matt (Gideon Emery), a self-absorbed Aussie croc expert, intent on preserving and studying Gustave: “There are more than enough human beings on this planet,” he says disdainfully, “This croc is special.”
Or, maybe not. The crocodile — so crucial to the horror movie’s scary parts — is not nearly convincing, whether he’s chasing some puny human through the jungle or lurching up out of the dark water. Part CGIed and part animatronic, Gustave never quite looks like he inhabits the same space as his victims. Early images keep him in helpful shadows or night-vision-greeny filters, but once the time comes to reveal his hulky form, the movie runs out of steam. While it’s clearly emulating Anaconda and Jaws as the thing comes up out of the water, implacable and apparently hungry, the effect is less homagey than unoriginal. And when Matt — who brings along a specially designed cage (shades of Jaws, again), carried by a crew of bare-chested “Africans” (shades of Tarzan) — helpfully shoots the animal with a tracking device, it becomes visible on a beeping monitor, turning Gustave into a slightly higher-tech descendent of the crocodile who swallowed the clock in Peter Pan.
Matt’s primary adversary throughout the adventure is the weathered guide Krieg (Jürgen Prochnow), who first appears sharpening his ax on a wheel, all screechy sounds and ominous effect. Part Captain Hook and part Ahab, part Sarone (Jon Voight) and part Quint (Robert Shaw), Krieg doesn’t have much room in which to create his own mission or backstory. Determined to kill the beast rather than capture it, Krieg has the expected personal vendetta, which he details, tearfully, at a key moment. Tim and Aviva — who feels a particular grief for the crocodile’s victims — come to appreciate Krieg’s view, as Gustave attacks the group repeatedly. (Apparently, he has his own vendetta.)
But the crocodile isn’t the only problem facing the crew. Steven makes a new friend, the orphaned adolescent Jojo (Gabriel Malema), whose family has been killed by the “hoodoo militia,” a squad of teens “high on amphetamines” and armed with rockets and AK-47s. Miserable as he looks out on his own future, Jojo asks Steven to bring him back with him to America: “How I get there, USA?”, he asks, at which point, Steven answers, “My people came on slave ships, but it’s not so easy now.”
His jokes initially indicate Steven’s dissatisfaction with the US, which he compares unfavorably to Africa, the “cradle of civilization.” The more he sees of the motherland, however, the less he thinks of it (by film’s end, he’s turned around completely, asserting, “I hate fucking Africa”). His change of mind is simplistic but the images that get him there are disturbing, in a horror movie as well as a war movie sense. When he witnesses a shaman’s execution by the warlord known as “Little Gustave,” Steven has his camera with him (he’s been shooting “local color” footage of giraffes and rhinos). Just so, the violence is broken into pieces: the straight-on frame, the grainy video frame, and shots of Steven’s face, aghast.
On seeing the footage, Aviva indicts him: “You just watched that happen?” At first he takes the affronted tack (“I’ll have nightmares for the rest of my life on this shit”) but then he reveals his own rage at what he’s seen and its broader context: “Darfur,” he says, “no one cares. Rwanda, no one gives a shit. White people don’t care about black on black crime when it’s around the corner. You think they’re gonna care when it’s 6,000 miles away?”
With this plot turn, Primeval underlines its comparison between the legendary monster (reportedly, Gustave has eaten 300 people) and the malicious humans (200,000 persons have been killed in ethnic violence). It’s a worthy comparison, but trivialized by all the humdrum horror flick machinations.