Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review: Prophecy

I'm going to break my habit of curling up into a little ball and waiting for the Presidential election season to be over to review a book I read recently, David Seltzer's 'Prophecy'. It's an adaptation of the screenplay he wrote that was turned into a 1979 movie directed by John Frankenheimer, and it says a lot about both movie and book that the term "prophecy" doesn't refer to anything within the story--Seltzer is saying that the story, itself, is a prophecy of what will happen if we don't stop polluting.

Which is odd, because the primary consequence appears to be "angry deformed 15-foot tall bears will come and kill us all", and I'm reasonably certain he's kind of winging that one.

To be honest, if he'd simply skipped the "deformed bear" angle and come at it as a straight-up ecodrama, it probably would have been a lot more effective. It's about a doctor who works in the inner-city and is frustrated by his inability to make a difference due to the entrenched power structures keeping black people in poverty, and his wife who's dealing with a pregnancy that she knows he won't want but that she also knows she can't get rid of. The husband gets an offer to do an environmental study for the EPA, and decides that maybe he can do something for the environment that he couldn't do for the inhabitants of Washington's slums, and his wife goes along hoping to find a good time to tell him about the baby.

But what he walks into is a powder-keg, as the results of the environmental study will determine whether the local paper mill gets to keep operating in the face of entrenched (and increasingly militant) opposition from the local Native American population. The paper company is doing everything short of bribing him to give a good result, while the Native Americans are distrustful of yet another well-meaning white man who says he's there to help. Meanwhile, people and animals are sickening, dying, and being born horribly deformed due to contamination of the watershed with mercury. (Nothing involving mutant bears is quite as horrifying as seeing the pregnant woman tuck into some freshly-caught fish.)

This is all a bit preachy, and it's all filtered through an oh-so-70s level of racial and environmental consciousness (the Native Americans are referred to as "Indians" and given an overlay of noble savage mentality, the questions about abortion are treated with a lot of patriarchal condescension even though the wife's right to choose is ultimately upheld) but then there's this giant bear lumbering through things. It feels like Seltzer is dangling the bear like a bright shiny object whenever the story gets too boringly didactic, as if to say, "Hey, I know you don't have the attention span for all this boring political stuff, so here's a big deformed bear mauling some people for you!"

And that's fine as far as it goes--certainly, a lot of sci-fi stories use allegories to sharpen and intensify the emotions surrounding their central concepts. But the problem is that Seltzer uses "deformed bear attacks everyone" as his plot resolution, and you'd be amazed at how many problems a giant mutant bear doesn't solve in this world. The third act is really just a bunch of people running around getting attacked by a bear, and in the end I guess enough people are killed that things are better now but not really but maybe a little? It's all sort of dumped in the lap of the gods (and you'll be so totally surprised that one of the Native American characters thinks the bear is an "Indian legend" come to life to protect the wilderness), and I think that the ending becomes far less effective as a result.

It's weird to say that a monster story would have been more effective without the monster, but it's kind of true here. 'Prophecy' is, at heart, about people willing to leave the planet uninhabitable if it helps them make a few extra dollars. Next to that, even a very big bear isn't that scary.

1 comment:

frasersherman said...

This reminds me of a number of 1980s movies where the romantic plot or the corporate power struggle was resolved by a fight, a terrorist attack or something of the sort, after which everything just ... wraps up.