Eli Roth is in the business of shock value. Cabin Fever made an initial splash because of its sudden jolt of sexually themed skin crawling gore, splicing in non sequitur bits of comedy and dude bro characters that allow audiences to lack sympathy for the characters when they meet their fates. The same goes for his torture porn heavy actions of Roth’s two Hostel films, though he clearly added a classicism bent of the wealth gap to give the film a slight political context for the slaughter. Now, the long delayed The Green Inferno has been released to theaters and shows off a similar thrill for shock & satiric punch. It’s more overtly political than any of his other films and that unfortunately is part of what cripples the film from achieving its true potential as a modern take on the cannibal jungle film.
The subjects of The Green Inferno, much like Eli Roth’s previous films, are a group of college students wandering through territory they have yet to trot. In this case, the kids are a group of students who consider themselves activists for noble causes, with their most recent goal being to stop bulldozers from knocking down uncharted rainforest territory in Peru. Several people from said group decide to protest, including a well to do freshman newcomer to the organization Justine (Lorenza Izzo), the dedicated activist leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy) and terrified stoner dude Lars (Daryl Sabara) amongst others. While celebrating a protest demonstration, their plane crashes in the middle of the Amazon, killing many and stranding the survivors in the middle of thick Peruvian jungle. The group of survivors is captured by a tribe of cannibals, leaving them to try to escape as each is mauled to death one by one.
As one can tell from that synopsis, The Green Inferno has something to say about activism, specifically the type of “slacktivism” where uninformed social media users get behind causes that become very popular. An example of this would be the ‘Kony 2012’ trend that caused a false buzz not too long after Eli Roth initially finished the film in 2013, but it’s a trend that still exists to this day thanks to Facebook memes and Twitter hashtags. It’s a trend worth satirizing and even the context of a cannibal film is a palpable setting to comment on white man’s sensationalization, given that earlier efforts in the genre like Cannibal Holocaust took a clear vocal stance against white colonialist attitudes. Unfortunately, Roth’s interest in satire with slacktivism is mostly rooted in shallow schadenfreude, which is especially annoying when the first half of The Green Inferno is spent following these kids. Most of these characters may not be completely aware of the extent of these untouched tribes, but they really couldn’t do much research about a tribe that in-universe is undiscovered territory. Plus, they actually had the motivation to leave their comfortable college surroundings to risk their lives against deforestation & the lives of fellow humans instead of sitting at home putting hashtags on Twitter in blind support.
Even with that well meaning motivation, most of these characters aren’t engaging enough to feel concern as they face death, a recurring problem throughout Eli Roth’s filmography that limits the impact of the gore and twists to cheap shock rather than anything memorable. That cheaper shock would be fine in a film with less lofty motives, but Roth isn’t committed to developing whatever point or characters he’s crafting as much as he is to vaguely dismissing these kids and putting gore all over their faces. That lack of commitment only serves to muddle Roth’s point, which isn’t helped by a mid film reveal of a certain member’s motives that results in one of the more disappointing aspects of the end of The Green Inferno that I won’t spoil here. The inability to commit even extends to Roth’s display of the blood and guts, which sometimes shows off the horror in an unrelenting fashion, but other times pulls back to be surprisingly tame or radically shift the tone with a sophomoric attempt at humor. Mind you, I’m not necessarily interested in seeing some of the acts Roth cuts around here, but I’d at least have more respect for his supposed daring if he committed to the unflinching mutilation. At the very least, he could avoid following a horrific kill with humor as moronic and mean spirited as a woman having explosive diarrhea while being laughed at by her captors, complete with stock comedy fart sound effects.
Probably the biggest compliment I can give to The Green Inferno is its limited but occasionally intriguing use of the fictional tribe. The sets have this lived in aesthetic that gives the ridiculous portrayals a more grounded aesthetic. The tribe even shows a sense of hierarchy, from the intimidatingly manic bald headhunter (played with kinetic energy by RamÃ³n Llao) to the head elder (played with a certain regality by Antonieta Pari). Their major use of authoritative body language and intimidating veracity in hacking limbs gives more authentic horror to the impressive gore effects than the distracting hand held cinematography ultimately does. Some may interpret Roth’s use of the tribe as an offensive bit of xenophobia, but the fictionalized portrayal and exaggerated nature of them allows a solid enough distance from reality to forgive the potentially tasteless depictions. Plus, they’re honestly the most developed characters in the film, showing more of an authentic human connection with each other and even the college kids in their own raw disturbing way than any of the supposedly more civilized characters.
I’m not angry with Eli Roth as a filmmaker as much as I am disappointed in him. Much like the concept of Hostel, there’s an intriguing premise for gore and commentary to display in The Green Inferno, but it gets lost in Roth’s desire to horrify in a shallow fashion where it isn’t earned. The real irony of Eli Roth’s commentary on slacktivism is that his own cannibal film lacks much steadfast commitment to its message or even its bloodshed. A film Roth is trying to emulate like Cannibal Holocaust may have lacked any ounce of subtlety with its violence or commentary, but it at the very least committed to a point. Eli Roth’s idea of satire doesn’t say anything about the issues of slacktivism as much as it merely brings them up for the flimsy excuse of putting these well meaning kids in the harms way of cannibals. In that way, Roth may have just succeeded at eliciting feeble shock value. But that shock value succeeds in the same way an internet troll meme making fun of a legitimate cause does; serves as a brief mean spirited laugh, then evaporates instantaneously without leaving any kind of a distinctive mark.
The Green Inferno (1.5 / 5)