Monday, January 21, 2013

Dark Age (1987) dir. Arch Nicholson

LoglineAfter a rash of crocodile attacks in the Australian outback, a ranger and croc conservationist, Steve Harris (John Jarratt), is compelled to kill or capture the gigantic beast responsible in order to prevent the frightened and angry citizens from calling open season on all crocs.

Animal of Choice: A 30-foot-long ancient croc, who may also be the physical manifestation of the spirit of Australia's aboriginal population.

Thinking Ecologically: Though a much stronger film on the animal front, Dark Age isn't unconcerned with matters of ecology. Primarily, it questions the readiness with which the white men of Australia poach and slaughter the protected local crocodile population, which is valued by the indigenous people and, you know, the ecosystem. The oafish croc-killers (never glimpsed jumping into a boat without a beer can in one hand and a rifle in the other) are the real monsters, as we see them in one montage splattering the outback with croc innards to no end at all, nearly wiping out all of the creatures. Ranger Harris's superior at the preserve is more concerned that the Japanese contractors who wish to build condominiums in the area aren't spooked off than with perserving the crocs, blurting truly thick-headed lines like "I don't care if they go extinct" and "the only place for a thing like that is in a museum, stuffed." This nonsense is contrasted nicely with the aborigines and their harmonious co-existence with the giant croc, who they view as not a nuisance but an essential part of their environment and cultural heritage, worthy of respect and reverence. For them, killing the croc would be as devastating (symbolically and ecologically) as us killing all the bison of the American plains. Oh, wait...

Thinking About Animals: The about-face that Dark Age completes with regard to its looming crocodile menace is rather extraordinary. This is, after all, an animal that we watch, in lingering detail, slither through the water up to a crying human child in order to crunch his head between its jaws. How could this same beast become sympathetic and inspire us to fear for its safety? Harris offers a perfectly logical answer when he tells his lady friend that we "shouldn't judge [crocodiles] like humans. They don't know kids are taboo." A small child looks like a tasty snack to a 30-foot croc and there's really nothing unnatural about that, so why does this or any other human's death (especially when said humans were decidedly invading the croc's territory) necessitate the elimination of the crocodile? Again, the implicit superiority of humankind to all other animals is what's being expressed by all the characters rallying for the creature's demise: how dare a lowly crocodile presume to threaten humankind's lofty status. But the wonderful thing about this particular case is that Dark Age is in fact critiquing the presumption of anthropocentrism by making its adherents the obvious villains and arguing that a human-eating crocodile has as much of a right to life as any croc-blasting Australian drunkard (maybe even more so: the drunkard should know better).

The last half of the film pivots to a protracted and quite tense capture and rescue sequence, wherein Harris, his girlfriend, and a handful of aborigines attempt to transport the drugged croc to an isolated lake where the croc can live peacefully under aborigine supervision. What is most fascinating about this part of the film is how skillfully it demystifies the animal menace, transforming what we previously saw as a toothy monster into a vulnerable and sympathetic creature. As it lies on its belly in one of Harris's croc pens, groggily writhing around every once in a while under sedation, we realize it is both an animal to be feared but also one susceptible to harm and cruelty, if humans so choose. If humankind wishes to continue in its belief in our species being exceptional, Dark Age argues for us to be exceptional in our compassion for creatures both big and small.

Evaluation in Brief: Curiously, crocodiles were left out of the initial late '70s burst of Animal Terror flicks. Alligators had their go in 1980 with the hit NYC-set Alligator (1980), but crocs wouldn't get their fair share of the cinematic spotlight until late in the '80s with Dark Age and the two Italian-made Killer Crocodile films (1989-1990). One reason for this might be that filmmakers simply had to wait until special effects were advanced enough so as to make and film a convincing giant croc. (While much of Dark Age's croc action is rather incredible, some stray shots still find the croc resembling a stationary canoe). Some evidence for this might be the glut of monster crocodile films that bubbled to the surface around the new millennium and the advent of competent computer-generated imagery: Lake Placid (1999), Crocodile (2000), and the quintuplet that hit in 2007 (Lake Placid 2, Croc, Primeval, Rogue, and Black Water, the latter two of which I heartily recommend). Despite the obvious visual improvements made in those films of the more recent wave, Dark Age remains one of the most distinguished and responsible films of not only those featuring scaled quadrupeds, but of nearly all Animal Terror flicks. Imagine: a film in which the animal "monster" is not the villain, despite its man-munching, but an animal worth saving. Dark Age offers a perspective that is alien to the subgenre, and that makes it a refreshing viewing experience. That is also happens to be a decent film certainly doesn't hurt either. But it's a shame that Dark Age is an anomaly, rather than the norm.

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