"Primeval" has had a rather unorthodox trip to the big screen. It is customary for films in the horror genre to see their release dates pushed back by a studiothe clueless Dimension Films is notorious for thisbut it is quite another for a studio picture to abruptly move up its release by three months, thereby placing it only two weeks away from its target arrival. Did distributor Hollywood Pictures have honest faith in it, and couldn't wait to unleash its glory unto the world? Were they moving it forward to cut their losses before bad word leaked? Or were they simply determined to beat the similarly-plotted "Rogue" to theaters? Considering how deceptive its theatrical trailer isadvertised as a serial killer thriller, it is really about a hungry crocodilemy best guess would be the middle option.
"Primeval" is inspired by a true story insomuch that there is a 20-foot long crocodile in Africa, named Gustave by the natives, who has claimed more than three hundred victims. The fictional part comes into effect when three Manhattan journalistsleader Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell), jokey cameraman Steven Johnson (Orlando Jones), and animal reporter Aviva Masters (Brooke Langton)are sent together on assignment to the Central African Republic of Burundi to capture the bloodthirsty reptile. This is easier said than done, and before long they are running for the lives from not only Gustave, but also a gang of savage rebels.
Audiences expecting a movie about "the most prolific serial killer in history" will be bewildered by this part-monster movie, part-history lesson on African genocide. If Hollywood Pictures was ashamed of what they were making, then why did they greenlight it? Moreover, perhaps the studio should get their facts straightwild animals cannot be classified as serial killers because it is in their nature to attack. This marketing angle is shamefully dishonest and even petty. Still, the ad campaign is just the ad campaign, and has nothing to do with the finished product as a whole.
So how is "Primeval?" Better than expected, if not quite good enough to recommend outside of maybe a late-night cable airing or a spin on DVD. As a creature featuresort of a cross between 1975's "Jaws" and 1997's "Anaconda"the action is competent, the villain(s) are threatening, and the characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. Television director Michael Katleman, making his feature debut, keeps things moving at a tight rate, even if some of his set-pieces lack a satisfying payoff and his crocodile attacks are filmed too frenetically to see much of the grisly goods outside of blood splatter (there is one crunching head that is the sole exception to this).
"Primeval" should have been treated as the dumb popcorn flick it really isthink 1999's tongue-in-cheek croc-centric "Lake Placid
"but spends just as much time focusing on self-important scenes depicting the strife and violence in civil war-addled Burundi. While this may add an extra layer to the plot, it detracts from the main event and is hokey rather than informative or provocative. Next time, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (2004's "Catwoman
") should check their shallow politicizing at the door and leave it to the makers of 2004's "Hotel Rwanda
" and 2006's "Blood Diamond
" to shed light on the genocide conflicts of Africa.
The performances are generally but a means to an end. Dominic Purcell (2004's "Blade: Trinity
") is a curious choice as heroic male lead Tim Manfrey. He has the sort of scowling facial features that would be perfect for a bad guy going up against James Bond, but is awkward playing a likable protagonist. Brooke Langton (2006's "The Benchwarmers
") is a bit more credible as the resourceful Aviva Masters, but perhaps her most notable contribution is her striking revolving-door resemblances to Liv Tyler, Ellen Pompeo and Evangeline Lilly at any given moment. As Steven Johnson, Orlando Jones (2002's "Drumline
") is repellent early on, given a stream of bad one-liners and around to be the token black comic-relief, but then does a surprising about-face to become the best character of the bunch. Jones is charismatic when he overcomes the scripting inadequacies, and even manages a few acerbic zingers in the second half. There is a great slow-motion overhead shot of Steven being chased through a field by the giant crocodile that might be the movie's creative high point.
As for Gustave, the mixture of puppets and CGI that combine to bring him to life is on the rickety side, but the blemished effects work for this sort of low-rent monster mash. In many scenes, he looks and acts less like a croc and more like a dinosaur straight out of 1993's "Jurassic Park." Interesting to note, too, that Gustave has no problem munching on whomever crosses his path, but draws the line when it comes to attempted rape. How else to explain the ridiculous sequence where a dangerous local sexually attacks Aviva in a tent, and the crocodile bypasses the rest of the men hanging around the water to venture on land and save her?
"Primeval" isn't at all frighteningthere is only one good jump momentbut there is an agreeable level of tension during the climax. What isn't so palatable is the political exploitation introduced into an otherwise silly horror-actioner, particularly in a terrible last scene that features a would-be elegant postscript about the end of the war in Burundi in 2005 before immediately segueing into a final "scare" moment that cheapens things. "Primeval" is diverting as an easily-forgotten 94-minute entertainment, but comes close to being a joke as a politically-charged morality tale.