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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Don't Mess With Mother Nature, Part 2 (originally published 11/99)

Although we humans boast of being the dominant species on the planet, we must also concede the fact that we couldn't have done it alone. Without the assistance of our animal brethren we could hardly have survived, let alone achieved our current dominance. Over the centuries we've used them as beasts of burden, relieved them of their fur to keep ourselves warm, and even had them for dinner. Under the circumstances a certain amount of resentment toward humanity on the part of the animal kingdom would be entirely understandable, and yet for the most part we co-exist relatively amicably. Indeed, many human beings seem to get along better with animals than with other humans.

Still, there are occasional incidents involving animal attacks on people. Those dreadful television shows that specialize in real-life video clips seem to take particular delight in showing maulings and tramplings. Of course, filmmakers have picked up on this theme as well. Sometimes, as in the currently playing "Bats," such films portray a whole species seemingly on the rampage. In other films, it is just a single rogue animal who seems to have a grudge against humanity. We considered the first type of animal attack film last week. Here are a few examples of the second category to look for on home video.

"Moby Dick" (1956). The literary godfather of all such wrathful beasts is, of course, Herman Melville's white whale. Hounded by the mad, obsessed Captain Ahab, and the doomed crew of the Pequod, Moby Dick turns the full fury of his wrath on the hapless ship. This outstanding adaptation was written by Ray Bradbury and directed by John Huston. Gregory Peck is unforgettable as Ahab, thundering his rage at the white whale until a whole crew is seduced into falling in with his suicidal pursuit.

"Jaws" (1975). So much has been said over the years about the importance of this milestone picture - its role in establishing the phenomenon of the "summer blockbuster" and its role in launching the career of Steven Spielberg - that I feel compelled to point out that above all it's a rattling good story, effectively told. This is what action/adventure filmmaking should be: loaded with thrills but not dependent on them to the exclusion of character development. If you've only seen the sequels, you owe it to yourself to see the original.

"Orca" (1977). Despite their name, killer whales are not in the habit of attacking humans. In this film, however, a specific orca is given a very pointed motivation for exacting revenge. A whaler, played by Richard Harris, kills a pregnant female orca, thereby enraging her mate. The offended whale seems determined to avenge the killing, prompting a bizarre standoff between man and orca. This potboiler is by no means in the same class as "Jaws," but is still worth a look.

"Alligator" (1980). When I was a kid there was a persistent urban legend about baby alligators bought in pet shops, then flushed down the toilet when their owners tired of feeding them. These discarded creatures, according to the legend, grew up to be full sized gators roaming the sewer systems. "Alligator" tells the story of one such animal. Dispatched to the sewers some twelve years ago, a gator named Ramon has spent the intervening years living off the fat of the land. This includes the occasional unlucky sewer worker, but the main staple of Ramon's diet has been discarded animal carcasses. The source of these carcasses is a chemical company which had pumped the animals full of experimental growth hormones. As Ramon ingests these hormones, his size begins to increase to fearful proportions, as does his appetite. Eventually it becomes necessary for him to abandon the sewers and take to the streets in search of more substantial meals, especially the two-legged kind. It may sound thoroughly cheesy, but this dicey premise is actually played out with considerable tongue in cheek wit. That's because the script was written by John Sayles, who was and is one of the better screenwriters in the business.

I hope you'll think of these films the next time you're tempted to switch on the TV and watch "Real Video Blood and Guts Nauseating Animal Attacks, Volume 9." Just remember that there are plenty of animal attack movies at the corner video store, complete with a plot and characters, and no commercials to interrupt the mayhem.

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