Humans and other animals. Films reviewed: We Are As Gods, Beast

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Africa, Animals, Climate Change, Conservation, documentary, drugs, Family, Hippies, psychedelia, South Africa, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 20, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week I’m talking about two new movies, about humans and other animals. There’s a man who wishes he’d never met a lion face to face, and another man who wishes woolly mammoths walked the earth again. 

We Are As Gods

Wri/ Dir: David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg

Stewart Brand is a man who was at the centre of many of the 20th century’s biggest changes, including psychedelic drugs, environmentalism, personal computers, hacking, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Born in a small city in the midwest he liked playing with wild animals as a child, making friends with squirrels, ‘possums and ducks. He studied biology at Stanford, but by the early 60s wound up in San Francisco, around the time of Ken Kesey’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs. He joined the Merry Pranksters, dropping acid, dancing around and generally having a wild hippie good time.

This was during the Space Race, when the US and USSR were competing at the exploration of outer space. But what Stewart wanted was a photograph of the earth from up there. He publicly and loudly demanded such a photo, and eventually someone took it. It became the cover of a technologically friendly, do-it-yourself guidebook called the Whole Earth Catalog, which embraced environmentalism and conservationism through DIY tools and simple technology. Filled with geodesic domes and quonset huts, it showed how to co-exist in a natural setting. A huge bestseller, it inspired many within the baby boomers’ burgeoning youth culture.

He was also around in the earliest stages of Apple computers, inspiring both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Fast forward to the present: Stewart Brand is back in the spotlight, attempting to change the world by “de-extincting” long-lost plants and animals. He points out how entire species that used to dominate North America — from the American chestnut tree to the passenger pigeon — which were wiped out over the course of a few decades about 100 years ago. But their DNA remains, and, he says, with some genetic tweaking, they could be restored. Why is this so important?  Because our system is made up of complex, intertwining and interdependent species and when even one disappears it causes a major natural reorganization.

But that’s not all. Building on the work of Pleistocene Park in Siberia (the subject of another doc), he promotes the reintroduction of large animals (like wooly mammoths) into our biosphere. Maybe new flocks of pre-historic elephants, camels, wild horses and buffalo now missing from these areas will help stop global warming by allowing the permafrost to survive. 

We Are As Gods is a documentary about Brand, his life and his ideas. The title comes from an epigraph from the Whole Earth Catalogue. Yes, some his ideas sounds ridiculous at first listen, but the film makes a believable argument for a real-life Jurassic Park (Pleistocene actually) — despite the dangers it could pose. He’s also a really interesting character, both smart and ridiculous — he admits to mistakes such as inhaling a tank of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) each week for a couple of years. The movie includes period footage, TV videos, still photos and new interviews with friends, his ex-wife, family members and various scientists. Lots of  interesting stuff, packed into one documentary.

Beast

Dir: Baltasar Kormákur

It’s summertime in South Africa. Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a well-off physician from New York, arrives in a remote game park with his two daughters, Mer and Norah. Mer (Iyana Halley) is angry at her father, but but is swept away by the beauty and grandeur of the African bush. Her little sister Norah (Leah Jeffries), is more innocent and naive. This visit is a homecoming of sorts. Their late mom (she died of cancer in New York) came from a nearby Tsonga village where she met their dad. They were introduced by Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), as the kids call him. He’s a game ranger who helps stop poachers from killing the animals, and he’s their host. He shows them giraffes and wildebeests and introduces them to a pride of lions one of whom he raised — they all run to him like playful pups. Lions are social animals, he explains. The lionesses hunt for food, while the lions protect the pride if threatened. Otherwise they don’t attack people.

Which is why all of them — including Martin — are shocked and frightened when, later, another lion violently attacks their jeep. It seems poachers had killed his entire pride except him, leaving only the rogue beast looking for vengeance — and they’re not his first target. But can a middle-aged doctor and his two teenaged girls fight off a lion three times their size? Or are they all doomed?

Beast is a dramatic thriller set amidst the spectacular beauty of South Africa. After a mundane start, it quickly turns into a heart-thumper, as one impossible situation follows another as the four of them try to escape this monster. Idris Elba portrays Nate as a neglectful dad but a caring doctor, devoted to saving patients not killing animals. But he also has to connect with his daughters who don’t completely trust him. (He was never around when their mother — his wife — was dying).

I assume the animals were all CGI, but they’re believable enough that you can’t tell. The music spans the continent with tunes from Nigeria to South Africa. I have to admit I saw the trailer and the movie looked pretty bad — a rich American going to Africa to shoot lions? But that’s not what it’s about at all. Though not deeply moving,  it’s actually a fun movie with a compact story and all-around good acting. It’s directed by the under-appreciated Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur; I’ve seen a few of his movies (like Contraband, 2 Guns, The Deep), and he’s always really good at manipulating sympathetic characters through enormous disasters. He’s not afraid of moving the viewer deep into swampy water, up trees, on top of small mountains or through disorienting tunnels, so you feel you’re a part of it all. So if you’re looking for some well-made thrills, check out Beast.

You can catch Beast this weekend across Canada, check your local listings; and We Are As Gods opens today in select US theatres, and on VOD in September. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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