Let me start this review by saying that I’m a big fan of the original Cannibal Holocaust; and that, perhaps if that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be quite so critical of The Green Inferno. But then, this isn’t entirely my fault: Eli Roth has been hyping the film since before it even went into production as a tribute of sorts to Cannibal Holocaust, and any fan knows that The Green Inferno was the working title for Cannibal Holocaust, before shock value won out. Some fans might even know that The Green Inferno was also the title of Cannibal Holocaust II, if you saw it in a country that wasn’t quite so shameless in exploiting the Cannibal Holocaust title. So Roth’s neat little reference there isn’t even an original joke.
There isn’t really anything original in the movie. I suppose that’s fair enough since it isn’t trying to be the Scream of the cannibal genre, a smart send-up; rather, its relationship to the cannibal movies of the 70s and 80s is closer to the relationship Indiana Jones has to pulp adventure. Mind you, whereas Indiana Jones added to its pastiche with wit, verve, memorable characters, and quotable dialogue, the best The Green Inferno can come up with is “What, you think the government didn’t know about 9/11?”.
The other thing The Green Inferno shares with Indiana Jones is a rather uncomfortable exoticism when it comes to shrieking, whooping “savages”. The cannibal genre in general has a touch of neo-colonialist attitude about it, a rather dated and somewhat embarrassing narrative of sophisticated, civilised whites against primitive black jungle-dwellers. And in much the same way as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness offered a satire on European attitudes dressed up as colonial adventure story, Cannibal Holocaust, the best and the smartest film the genre has to offer, neatly sidestepped the racist implications with a morally ambiguous tale in which the white Westerners, disappointed with the lack of savagery they find in the jungle, provoke the natives with acts of rape and torture, until they suffer brutal and deadly retribution themselves. As crude and nasty as Cannibal Holocaust is, it remains defensible on the grounds that it satirises the viewpoints that most of its contemporaries in the cannibal genre unconsciously express. In The Green Inferno, our Western heroes suffer a plane crash and are downed in Peru, whereupon the natives attack them with blow-darts instantly and without provocation. Every native in the movie wears paint over their whole body; the higher-up in the tribe, the more frightening is their face design. We get rapid shots of black feet stalking through the jungle. It’s uncomfortable viewing, and not in the good, horror-movie way.
The film does try to temper the rather dated attitudes of the genre it pays tribute to with some satire on white-guilt student activism – it’s the plot device that gets our clueless lefties into the jungle to begin with – but then, if we’re supposed to laugh at the student activists for not realising that native tribes-people are inherently hostile, then what are we really satirising here? By the end, as the surviving activists are saved by the very logging company they were here to protest, as it slaughters the cannibals en masse, it all feels a bit like that South Park episode about how the rainforest is stupid and we should cut it down.
It isn’t just the satire in The Green Inferno that feels uneven; tonally, the film is all over the place. There are moments which are clearly supposed to be horrifying – rather topically, there is an attempted female genital mutilation – many of which, for me, fail because of the film’s surprising conservatism when it comes to violence and nudity. Quite apart from being no better than the cannibal movies it’s indebted to, The Green Inferno is actually worse – not as violent, not as scary, and impossible to defend with even the weak excuse of “Well, it was the 70s…”
Then there are just the silliest weed, dick and diarrhoea jokes. A character starts masturbating “because the body needs a release in times of stress”. Then another character fights him to get him to stop wanking. He continues. Shortly before that, a character, unable to cope with the horror of the situation, smashes the ceramic plate the natives have given her to eat from and slashes her own neck with the shard. This is in full view of the other characters, who all have ceramic plates of their own, but none of them ever think to smash their plates to use as weapons. Perhaps they’re worried it would be poor etiquette.
The film is full of plot-holes like that one, its characterisations are unclear, and the tone and even the message are very muddled. It very much feels like a first draft. One thing I’ll give it, though, is it’s great to look at. Roth compared the cinematography to Herzog and Terrence Malick, and he’s not exaggerating there. But then, there’s no way Herzog or Malick would have started shooting while the script was still this bad.