Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Prophecy (1979) dir. John Frankenheimer

Logline: Dr. Robert Vane and his wife (Robert Foxworth and Talia Shire) are given an assignment by the Environmental Protection Agency to write a report about any potential hazards of a long-running logging operation on a river in Maine, and so end a land dispute between the logging company and a local Native American tribe. It turns out that the logging company has been less than careful with their chemicals, resulting in a certain mutated terror running amok.

Animal of Choice: Kathadin, a giant mutant bear of Native American legend (looking quite a bit like Smokey if Smokey was anti-forest fires because he was a horrifically scarred burn victim).

Thinking Ecologically: The primary ecological transgression in Prophecy is that a logging company's riverside paper mill has, for about twenty years, been dumping mercury into the water, turning the surrounding land from what the local Native Americans affectionately labeled a Garden of Eden into a Garden of Mutants. The mutagenic properties of the mercury pollution on those creatures who drink the water or eat the fish that swim in it cause some effects that are slightly exaggerated (tadpoles as big as cats, superpowered mutant bears), but the general scientific claim that the ingestion of mercury can cause mutations over generations through affecting developing animal fetuses is true. In this one aspect, the film isn't aiming for any notion more complicated than "Corporations are bad," as we're presented with a group of heartless capitalists who pollute simply because it's cheaper to do so. The logging company boss's argument (or bribe? threat?) to Dr. Vane, in which he requests for him to toss out his findings concerning the pollution because of the fact that his report would ultimately be written on paper (hence, proving the necessity of paper and financial shortcuts), is a moment of shockingly inane villainy. Typically, these lumberjacks are given comeuppance by the film, which certainly sees itself as eco-conscious.

One other ecological aspect of note would be the film's representation of its Native American characters being bound to the land but oblivious of the fact that the land has already been irrevocably damaged by technological progress. One of the Native American characters vows, "the end of the forest is the end of my people." Yet, their beautiful land-- the land they are fighting to protect-- has been polluted and altered over twenty years. Over this time, the mercury-laden water supply (which has even been affecting them, though much more subtly than it has the animals) has altered their conception of the forest's "nature." The tribe's elder, upon seeing a cat-sized tadpole, laughs that "things grow big here," citing this affect of the mercury mutations as one of the land's natural signifiers of beauty and uniqueness. Later on, we discover that they have unknowingly applied the Native American legend of Kathadin to a freak of pollution in the mutant bear, not a spirit of the land. Their connection to, understanding of, and appreciation for the land is founded upon conditions wrought by technological malpractice, which certainly complicates their relationship to nature.

Thinking About Animals: Kathadin is like "bigfoot but uglier." She's a mutated mama bear, and so sympathetic in that respect as her mutation is certainly not her own doing. But the film also presents her as much too garishly goofy, villainous, and monstrous to garner our full sympathy. True, the extra aggression she appears to possess is caused by the mutation too (as seen in the rabid-esque raccoon who attacks Dr. Vane and his wife earlier in the film), but when she's decapitating people late in the film she seems to hold enough cognizance for gory vengeance. But the she-bear also shows a motherly instinct to protect her cubs, and that makes her easier to understand as this  is a quality we generally associate most with human behavior, despite the fact that many animals have this same instinct (contrast this to the grizzly in Grizzly (1976), who eats a cub instead of protecting it).

Additionally, the subplot of Talia Shire's possibly mercury-infected pregnancy is a nice reminder that animals and humans are equally affected by pollutants. Her tender but disgusted eyes on the grotesque mutant baby bear cub helps illuminate that the convenience of having an abortion to avoid the monstrous deformity (something that Shire's character has been forced to consider, especially when faced with an image of what her child might look like) is not an option for the animals in the polluted wild. It's a shame that this subplot is dropped by the conclusion with no resolution as to the fate of the possibly mutant human baby, though the sidestepping of the issue would appear to be an affirmation that (once again) humans prove exceptional when faced with those conditions that affect (and destroy) animals.

Evaluation in Brief: Veteran director John Frankenheimer's Prophecy plays the curious game of employing a totally serious ecological message while strapping it to over-the-top exploitation filmmaking. Despite the (however exaggerated) relevance of pointing out the effects of mercury dumping on local wildlife, the sentiment is never going to pass for legitimate when juxtaposed with a man in a giant mutated rubber bear suit causing an exploding sleeping bag kill. It is, in essence, Night of the Demon (1980) with a lot more money and star power, and while there is a lot of lurid appeal in that concept, it's far from great (or ecologically responsible) filmmaking.

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