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The Emerald Forest

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Emerald Forest

Starring: Powers Boothe, Meg Foster
Director: John Boorman
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: July 1985
Genres: Action, Drama


*Also starring: Charley Boorman, Estee Chandler, Tetchie Agbayani



Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Many predict that the biggest political issues of next century would be in the domain of ecology. Some of those trends can be observed even today, with the environmentalist movements gaining strength all over the globe, and even coming to power in countries like Germany. However, in 1980s, care for the environment and long term interests of humanity didn't look that attractive or important during the reign of neo-conservative ideology, new Cold War and extreme materialism. In the beginning of 1990s things changed - environmentalism became fashionable in the era of emerging "political correctness" so Hollywood tried to cash in. The results were mixed, somewhere between disasters (WATERWORLD), solid but overhyped epics (DANCES WITH WOLVES) and interesting failures (THE MEDICINE MAN). Unfortunately, that trend came too late for a movie that could have put all of them to shame - THE EMERALD FOREST, ecological adventure by John Boorman, made in 1985.

The plot of the movie is allegedly inspired by a true story. Bill Markham (Powers Boothe) is an American engineer working on the great dam project in the middle of Amazon jungle. One day he brings his family to the building site, but that little trip ends with his little son Tommy wandering in the forest. There he gets abducted by Indian tribe known as "Invisible People". For the next ten years, Bill spends every spare moment to search for his son in the Amazon. Unfortunately, the "Invisible People" are one of those tribes that haven't got any contact with the outside world. But that doesn't bother Tommy (Charly Boorman), who was adopted by tribal chief Wanadi (Rui Polonah) and became member of the tribe himself. When Bill finally meets him, Tommy had already forgotten his parents and "civilised" way of life. He seems happy with his life so he decides not to listen to father's pleas for the return to civilisation. Father and son part again, but not for the last time. Village of the "Invisible People" gets attacked by the rival tribe of "Fierce People" who take away all the women, including Tommy's wife Kachiri (Dira Paes) and sell them to the sleazy brothel owners at the outskirts of jungle. Unable to fight guns with bows and spears, Tommy must seek his father's help, which brings him to dangerous journey to the heart of civilisation.

Unlike most ecological movies, that either try to shove the environmentalist agenda to the viewers' throats or, even worse, use ecology as cheap excuse for lame action/thriller plots, THE EMERALD FOREST was very subtle. That shouldn't surprise anyone, because the movie author, John Boorman, liked nature, its beauty and dangers, long before the environmental trends became fashionable. So, the tone of the movie isn't preachy - the script by Rosco Pallemberg was set in a virgin Amazon jungle threatened by an encroaching civilisation, but Boorman was less interested in conflict between nature and progress than in splendid opportunity to make very personal film - classical adventure that is almost impossible to imagine in Hollywood these days. Boorman obviously liked what he was doing, because he chose his teenage son Charley to play Tommy; that choice was good, because that boy was perfect as lead character who symbolises the innocence of the Amazon and the natural state of man. His green eyes and innocent beauty corresponds with the the innocent beauty of the rain forests. The nominal lead, Powers Boothe, is shadowed by him, same as Meg Foster as his mother, cast more because of her green eyes than acting ability. Perhaps because of Boothe, the conflict between the father and son wasn't as powerful and interesting as it should have been.

The opportunity to have some father/son drama with cultural clash themes, wasn't used in the first part, but some of the script problems are more visible in the second. Boorman was forced to admit that the Amazon jungle isn't that all-friendly and blissful place, although Tommy and "Invisible People" might see it that way. So, someone had to represent the bad side of the Amazon, and that role was filled by the tribe of "Fierce People" - whose villainy might remind people of the native characters seen in the classic Tarzan films (they are even painted black only to illustrate their allignment). The "two tribe" concept wasn't that simplistic, though; it is implied that the civilisation stripped away the forest that used to be the hunting ground for the "Fierce People", thus forcing them to go to war with other people. However, the evil of the "Fierce People" is underlined with the way they accept civilisation - unlike noble and purist "Invisible People" who see white men as "Termite People" (who eat away their world) and whose vision of "Termite People" world is frightening (as witnessed by Tommy in his short trip to Bill's city), they are ready to accept the civilisation - first guns, than liquor - corrupting and degrading themselves in the process.

Boorman brings film to the climax with the showdown in the brothel, thus providing the audience with the standard action scenes. But, instead of ending film immediately after that, with the bitter-sweet note (Bill warns that the civilisation would win in the end), Boorman provides the audience with implausible fairy tale finale - Indian prayers bring the flood that would take away the dam as the symbol of the civilisation. But that scene is made even more implausible with the addition of Bill who tries to blow up his life's work in the process. The ending - Tommy, Kachiri and his friends living happily ever after in a natural paradise - is bad contrast with the end credits, that warn the audience about sad reality of the Amazon - destruction of the rain forests and silent genocide of the Indians.

However, despite all those flaws, THE EMERALD FOREST is not beautiful and entertaining, but also a thought-provoking film - one of those who were right on the spot with many burning issues of today's world.

Copyright 1998 Dragan Antulov

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