No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
It makes perfect sense that Eli Roth would be a fan of the Cannibal Cycle of films that were imported from Italy to the grindhouses of 42nd Street in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This affinity for extreme gore and offensive violence can be found in all of his films, but it wasn’t until THE GREEN INFERNO (co-scripted with Guillermo Amoedo) that he attempted to craft an entry of his own. A group of privileged college students with a taste for social justice takes to the Amazon to protest the destruction of the rain forest and the uprooting of an indigenous tribe. Things take a turn for the worse (as they are prone to do), and they become captives—and then foodstuffs—for the very people they sought to protect.
The thing about the cannibal films that THE GREEN INFERNO is taking its inspiration from is that they are a grueling experience. They are more of a horror rite of passage than they are entertainment. Genuine violence against animals is shown in excruciating close-up so that by the time the violence is turned on the humans, our brains are conditioned to accept it as real, too. The most distasteful—and frankly inexcusable—aspect of these films is the exact thing that gives them such power. It’s the bolt of lightning that brings the monster to life.
THE GREEN INFERNO obviously does not harm animals for the sake of art. The violence is directed solely at humanity, and yet without the scenes of turtle butchery or mole torture, we do not instinctually believe that said violence is real. It’s an experiment without lightning, a monster without life; and a monster without life is little more than a corpse. Even without this necromantic power behind it, the grueling tone might have been mimicked with unrelenting tension and terror; but Eli Roth could not resist putting his own stamp onto the subgenre—meaning the tension and terror are dissipated with instances of sophomoric frat boy humor.
Fifteen years ago, I likely would have laughed at the masturbation, diarrhea, and marijuana scenes. That is to say, I may have been amused by them if they appeared in Roth’s debut film CABIN FEVER. The problem, though, is that I’ve grown up a bit, whereas it seems that Eli Roth has not. If anything, he appears to have regressed to faux-juvenilia, catering to an audience who is too young to see his films, anyway.
None of this is intended to say that I dislike the film. In fact, I actually rather like it despite the problematic nature of the Evil Native trope and the issues outlined above. It’s a noble attempt to bring a nearly-forgotten genre of exploitation into the modern day. The jungle scenes are lush, there are some great costume designs, and the gore is glorious. There is a top-notch plane crash scene, too. But all of this is too often interrupted by eye-rolling toilet humor that goes against what Roth has seemingly set out to make: a modern CANNIBAL FEROX or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (admittedly with a bit of confused commentary on #activism).
Had Roth gotten out of his own way and edited out ten minutes or so of the extraneous footage, the tone of the film would have been drastically altered, and he may have actually achieved it.