Eli Roth wants me to hate his new movie. Not me specifically, mind you — but people like me, and probably you, if you’re a longtime reader of this site, where we will occasionally raise a voice and make a point about representation or exclusion, feminism or racism. Such concerns will get you branded a “Social Justice Warrior” in certain unsavory corners of the Internet, and Eli Roth, as much a huckster as Roger Corman or William Castle before him, is directing his sales pitch for The Green Inferno directly into those corners.
“I wanted to write a movie that was about modern activism,” he announced in an LA Times interview, conducted at ComicCon in July. “[T]he SJW culture has gotten so out of control. That you feel that everyone, are they doing it because they believe in it? Or do they just want to look like good people? Are people retweeting things because they think it’s important or because they want everyone to think that they’re a caring person? And I’m not making a judgment on these people either way. I’m just making a comment on it.” Of course, his comment involves having his SJWs devoured by cannibals, but hey, no judgment.
At any rate, the tease worked — within two weeks of that LA Times interview, gurgling Internet cesspool Breitbart.com had run not one, but two items applauding Roth’s crusade against “pearl-clutching” “social justice hipsters.” Seemingly emboldened by the free publicity — both the director (who hasn’t directed a hit movie in a decade) and the film (its original release, slated for a full year ago, was canceled at the eleventh hour) could use it — Roth started marketing his picture straight to Gamergaters, tweeting out a poster of a severed hand clutching an iPhone with such hashtags as #SocialJusticeNow and (sigh) #IndigenousLivesMatter.
Look, no one’s trying to say such movements are beyond reproach, in the form of criticism or even satire — after all, one of art’s key roles is to engage, to challenge, to be provocative. But doing so requires both greater wit and greater intelligence than exhibited by Roth’s decidedly mediocre movie, which seldom rises above the level of characters stating such bon mots as — hang on, I wrote this down — “Activism is so freaking gay.” (This comes shortly after an activist recruiter mouths the equally unsubtle, “Don’t think — act!”)
Our protagonist is Justine (the charismatic and likable Lorenza Izzo), a freshman at an unnamed New York university drawn into the circle of campus activism via her attraction to smoldering leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy). He recruits her and a group of fellow students to travel to Peru and stop a gas company — and the militia with them — from bulldozing a village and the tribe within it. It’s a Twitter-savvy campaign, streaming and hastagging, and it seems a success — until their plane crashes on the way back to civilization, and they’re captured, consumed one by one by the very tribe they came to protect.
The gore that accompanies the tribe’s attack on the students, and the subsequent “meal” of one of them (the brother, of course), comes pretty late in what’s ostensibly a horror picture — a good 45 minutes in. (For the record, the effects are convincingly disgusting, and boy is the presentation thorough, with Roth paying tribute to “video nasties” like Cannibal Holocaust, whose working title he takes as his own.) So with that delayed payoff, the entire first act is devoted to the group’s activism, where Roth’s scathing takedown of “SJWs” turns out to be surprisingly toothless.
As our own Sarah Seltzer noted, regarding last week’s anti-PC episode of South Park, “OK, sure, chuckle chuckle. There’s groupthink on the Internet. Bigotry and thoughtlessness alike create equally enraged pile-ons, and now people do sometimes have to think twice before they say casually obnoxious things… And yes, there is a handful very annoying white people on Twitter who use social justice as an ego booster.” But if Parker and Stone couldn’t push their satiric take past the point of white frat bros as PC police, Roth can’t even make that much of a leap; his activist ringleader is a sadly overcooked and transparently obvious villain, a skeezy sellout who is, at one point, literally reduced to jerking off next to a corpse.
Sure, there are offensive elements to The Green Inferno: the way female genital mutilation is used as a ticking-clock plot device, the skeeeerrrry Otherness conferred upon anyone who isn’t white — and I’m not just talking about the cannibal tribe, though they are (of course) jungle savages out of a Hope and Crosby movie, their skin painted blood red, screaming and pawing at our white heroines. (Like clockwork, Survival International objected to the portrayal, giving Roth exactly what he wanted: a chance to garner more free publicity.) And there are things that work: the aforementioned Izza performance, the undeniable tension of the cage scenes, a handful of legitimately shocking death scenes.
But it’s mostly just sad — not because Roth takes such a sharp scalpel to the social justice movement, but because he swings a baseball bat, and misses by a mile. His movie’s not against the kind of race and gender activists he’s knocking in his promotional campaign; it’s just against poseurs who are merely “acting like they care,” which is something everyone, on either side of these provocative issues, can get behind.
So you tell me what’s more depressing: making a movie that legitimately targets women, people of color, and other activists who use social media to spread messages of inclusion, equality, and justice — or pretending like you did, so you can attract an audience that wants to see such activists literally eaten alive?
The Green Inferno is out Friday.