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06 Mar

The Ecocritical Subtexts of 3 Recent Ozzie Horror Movies

Written by Michael Fuchs
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‘They are a fact of life out here’:
The Ecocritical Subtexts of 3 Early-21st-Century Aussie Animal Horror Movies

In his book Animal Nation (2006), Adrian Franklin highlights the ways in which Australia's wildlife has played an important role in the negotiation of Australian national identity. Since Australia's wildlife includes species native to the country, species which migrated to Australia before white settlers arrived, and species which were consciously brought to Australia by human beings, Australia's animal kingdom 'do[es] not represent homogeneity but a rather puzzling and unstable heterogeneity within which there are clear indications of boundaries, border disputes and even policies and practices of species-cleansing' (2006, p. 14). In the semantic chaos surrounding Australia's wildlife, native animals, such as the kangaroo and the koala, have been embraced as national symbols, for, as animals 'that existed outside European taxonomic conventions' (2006, p. 26), they have always represented 'the strangeness and upsidedownness' (2006, p. 26) and, thus, the uniqueness of Australia. No wonder that the Australian coat of arms features an emu and a red kangaroo, two native animals which were already charged with symbolic meaning in Aboriginal cultures before Europeans arrived Down Under.

Whereas the kangaroo and emu are known as relatively peaceful animals (although they have been known to attack humans on occasion), Australia is also populated by fierce snakes, blue-ringed octopi, funnel-web spiders, sea wasps, great white sharks, and saltwater crocodiles, all of which can easily kill a human. Especially the latter two predators have inspired awe and terror in mankind for centuries because they may not only attack but, in fact, feed on human beings when given the chance.1

While there is an increasing awareness of sharks' and crocodiles' roles in their ecosystems, the rare fatal attacks on humans still draw enormous media attention. Admittedly, the encounters between humans and these predators have become more frequent in recent years due to these animals' and mankind's growing populations, among other factors, but the number of people killed by sharks and crocodiles in Australia has remained relatively stable for the past few decades—combined, they only kill about five people in Australia per year (West, 2011; Caldicott et al., 2005). And when such a fatal attack is reported, the media still frequently employ descriptors such as 'monster' (BBC, 2014) to describe the animals in question. Considering both the rabid sensationalism surrounding shark and crocodile attacks2 and how representations of these apex predators tap into primal fears of not simply dying but rather being eaten, it seems surprising that Australian horror cinema has only recently discovered sharks and crocodiles as monstrous vehicles onto which various fears can be projected.

In the following exploration of the three early-twenty-first-century Ozzie animal horror movies Rogue (2007), Black Water (2007), and The Reef (2010), I will, however, interpret these recent movies as attempts at evading such projections and (over)interpretations by depicting these dangerous animals as what they are—predators that may feed on human beings. Nevertheless, the films' depictions of the animals from a human perspective inevitably give rise to certain paradoxes, of which the filmmakers themselves seem to be largely unaware. The following exploration of the ways in which these paradoxes operate on the narrative and stylistic levels reveals how the 'realistic' depictions of these animals (i.e., both aesthetically realist and as sharks and crocs and nothing more) in these three films dethrones humanity from its self-ascribed spot atop the food chain and questions mankind's self-proclaimed dominance over the rest of the planet.

Australian Horror, Monstrous Animals, and Animals as Animals

While it might seem startling that Australian horror cinema only began to tap into the dangers represented by the country's natural inhabitants relatively recently, this fact might be somewhat less surprising when one remembers that Ozzie horror only emerged in the 1970s. As Robert Hood notes in a survey of Australian horror, 'Nowhere can I detect signs […] of early generic work represented by Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, nor the Universal monster cycles of the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood’ (1994, par. 7). Indeed, as Hood continues, it was only in 1971 that the first Australian movie that 'sit[s] […] comfortably with the label "horror"' (1994, par. 8) was released—Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright.

Because of the relatively brief history of Australian horror cinema, scholars have tended to establish links to the literary mode of the Australian gothic. Thus, Jonathan Rayner has adopted the descriptor 'Australian gothic' to denote a film genre that employs 'horrific and fantastic materials comparable to those of gothic literature' (2000, p. 25). As he specifies elsewhere, the Australian gothic is 'hybridized and self-conscious' in its style and 'encapsulates a specific deployment of horror, in application and interpretation, attuned to post-colonial experience' (2005, p. 112). However, as Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka have pointed out, while the Australian gothic is strongly indebted to European and American traditions and 'invites a wry, knowing, surreal self-mockery which generally steers it away from conservatism,' the Australian horror film is a truly national cinematic tradition, for it 'tends to be a conservative form' (1988, p. 52). Martin D. Ryan supports this stance when he claims that 'Aussie horror films are distinctively Australian' (2008, p. 86). After all, these movies 'contain uniquely Australian cultural and social themes, Australian film tropes and Australian characters' (2008, p. 86). In addition, they are set 'in typically Australian landscapes, featur[e] Australian monsters/animals, and in many cases distinct and stereotypical representation of Australianness' (2008, p. 98). The great white sharks and saltwater crocodiles featured in Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef, which most definitely fit the bill as characteristically Australian animals, embody primal fears. As apex predators who have dominated their respective ecosystems for nearly five million years,3 these animals are generally not simply considered animals; they are 'monsters'. Indeed, as Rod Giblett writes, the reason for the 'construction of the crocodile [and shark] as […] monster not only was its size but also its use of its jaws and teeth as a potentially lethal weapon and the fearful possibility of being eaten' (2006, p. 299). This fear of being eaten, Val Plumwood writes in her reflections on being attacked by a crocodile, revolves around the 'creature['s] breaking [of] the rules,' for it 'reduce[s]' humans 'to food' ([1996] 2012, p. 12). Human beings are thus emptied of their self-proclaimed specialness. The reduction of human beings to their material dimension, in addition, implies a questioning of mankind's self-aggrandizing notion as the center of the universe. As a result, animal 'predation on humans […] has a unique ability to […] teach a lesson from the past we forget at our peril about the unconquerability of the world we think we master' (Shannon, 2012, p. ix). In other words, these predators are remnants of a past state in humanity's relatively brief existence in which human beings were pitted against nature's forces on a daily basis. Humanity—or at the very least First-Worlders—tries to forget and suppress this past, which transforms animals such as crocodiles and sharks into uncanny manifestations of 'the return of [the] repressed,' to quote Sigmund Freud ([1919] 2001, p. 249).

When considering Freud's influence, it also seems interesting that '[i]n nearly every essay he wrote, Freud mentions animals: animal examples, animal anecdotes, animal metaphors, animal idioms, and, of course, animal phobias' (Oliver, 2009, ch. 11). However, not surprisingly, the threatening animal is often too easily interpreted as a projection of the powerful father: 'It was the same in every case: where the children concerned were boys, their fear related at the bottom to their father and had merely been displaced on to the animal' (Freud, [1913] 2001, p. 127–128). It is no wonder that the fear of being eaten by an animal is also reduced to the fundamental castration anxiety: 'The idea of being devoured by the father is typical age-old childhood material. It has familiar parallels […] in the animal kingdom' and 'gives expression […] to a passive, tender impulse to be loved by [the father] in a genital-erotic sense' (Freud, [1926] 2001, p. 105).

Considering Freud's reasoning, it should come as no surprise that psychoanalytical readings of sharks have repeatedly highlighted their sexual connotations. This tendency is evidenced by discussions of Jaws (1975). Peter Biskind, for example, observes that '[t]he shark, all too obviously, can only be the young man's sexual passion, a greatly enlarged, marauding penis' (1975, p. 1). Similarly, Dan Rubey writes that 'the shark reflects a disguised hatred of women and the preoccupation of our society with sadistic sexuality' (1976, p. 20). Jane Caputi, in contrast, reads the movie 'as a full-blown male nightmare,' in which the great white shark becomes an emblem 'not only of castration, but also of abortion' and 'represents the untamed female, the Mother, the vagina dentata, the Lesbian, the White Goddess, […] the wild, the unconscious' ([1978] 2004, p. 35–36; italics in original). Warren Buckland simply connects the untamed character of the shark to the 'struggle between man and nature' (2006, p. 108), whereas Robert Torry suggests that the shark stands for the Vietcong, turning the movie into an 'obvious wish fulfillment narrative of the annihilation of a murderous, devious and implacable enemy' (1993, p. 27) in the process.

While all of these interpretations, arguably, tell us more about the scholars interpreting Jaws than the shark as an object of analysis, Fredric Jameson has claimed that the multiplicity of possible interpretations 'suggests that the vocation of the symbol—the killer shark—lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together' (1979, p. 142). Nigel Morris has continued this idea, claiming that through its enigmatic meaning, '[t]he shark […] ceases to be a metaphor' (2007, ch. 4). Since the great white thus symbolizes 'nothing other than its terrifying concrete presence,' the symbol (that is none) 'displaces political concerns' (Morris, 2007, ch. 4). Admittedly, Jaws emphatically invites interpretations from various perspectives. Its more than suggestive poster design and the iconography of the first kill seem to be asking for feminist readings, Quint's story about the U.S.S. Independent connects the shark tale to World War II and thus—by extension—also the Vietnam War, turning it into an ideal case study for scholars with a historicist bent, and Amity's unwillingness to close down the beaches in view of the—ignored—shark presence in order not to lose money seems to be tailor-made for Marxist interpretations. The three movies discussed here, however, contain far less explicit semantic overtones.

Indeed, Black Water underscores its anti-(over)interpretive impulse when the three main characters read a brochure in the movie's opening minutes. When Lee (Maeve Dermody) reads aloud that 'in some parts of South-East Asia, the men believe eating the penis will improve their sex drive and that you'll take on the spirit and the aggression of the crocodile,' her sister Grace (Diana Glenn) quips, 'The power of the penis,' which causes a burst of laughter in the car. This brief scene functions as a meta-commentary on (especially psychoanalytic) interpretations of the movie's monster and shows the desire to strip away the movie's semantic layers, a desire which, as Jameson already noted with reference to Jaws, is typically accompanied by a focus on the animal as animal. However, despite this focus on the animal as animal, the animal can never fully escape its position embedded in in anthropocentric discourses. As a result, the predators depicted in Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef 'bear […] human knowledge,' and thus 'ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place' (Cohen, 1996, p. 20; italics in original). While Cohen was discussing general features of monstrosity, in the context of the present argument, his words emphasize that the non-human form is inevitably enmeshed in anthropocentric discursive fields, despite any attempt to liberate it from these fields. This fact implies that the non-human figure, which is always primarily a function of the human, is afforded no autonomous role other than as a means for conceptualizing, understanding, and knowing the human.

Documentary Aesthetics, Visual Spectacle, and the ‘Objective’ Representation of Nature

Fredric Jameson concludes the argument introduced in the previous section by stating that the polysemous character of the white shark 'allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently "natural" ones' (1979, p. 142). Leaving aside the fact that this 'naturalness' presents a socio-historical issue (a dimension Jameson fears has been lost in the various interpretations of the shark), as the concept is always embedded in socio-historical contexts, Jaws' 'naturalness' is founded on its realism. In the film's making-of, production designer Joe Alves, for example, stresses that Jaws' production team concluded that a 'reasonable [shark] size would be twenty-five feet.'4 He explains, 'There have been sharks that have been sighted that have been that size and they've actually caught some that were twenty-one feet. So, it was a credible animal we were making.' Producer Richard D. Zanuck adds another dimension when he relates, 'We thought that [in order] to legitimatize the movie, there should be some real shark footage in the picture,' which is why the producers hired Ron and Valerie Taylor—a couple pioneering the world of shark documentaries—to film live sharks in Australia.

Tellingly, the filmmakers of Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef utilize a style and production ethos similar to Jaws'. Andrew Traucki, one of Black Water's directors, for example, recounts, 'People really wanted this film to be shot in a studio with a fake tree, with a fake crocodile,' but '[co-director] Dave [Nerlich] and I said, […] "We want as much realism as possible."' His co-director adds, '[F]rom an early stage we knew we wanted to use real crocodiles 'cause you need a great villain and, frankly, CGI and animatronics wouldn't cut it.' Rogue's DP Will Gibson, similarly, highlights how '[director] Greg [McLean] and [he] talked a lot about whether [they] were trying […] to incorporate the same kind of realism that worked so successfully on Wolf Creek.' Finally, in his discussion of The Reef's production, Traucki emphasizes,

It's important to me, as a director, that you feel the threat that […] the cast are under is real and truthful. So, with that in mind, we wanted to use real sharks. We didn't want to just use animatronics. […] At the end of the day, this is a film that's all about reality and all about what you would do in this sort of situation.5

This realist style is particularly emphasized in Rogue's opening moments: The sun is rising. An Aboriginal song accompanies the visuals (calling to mind the opening of The Lion King [1994], in which 'The Circle of Life' opens with verses in Zulu against the backdrop of a rising sun). The camera then moves through the beautiful and majestic Australian landscape, depicting grasslands, mountain ranges, and waterfalls, before discovering a herd of water buffalo. The music stops as one of the animals moves toward a pond. The shots employed in the following moments suggest that the buffalo is not alone; something is lurking out there, waiting to pounce on it. Suddenly, a crocodile strikes and takes down the probably eight-hundred to one-thousand-pound bovid in a couple of seconds.

While this pre-title sequence contains a postcolonial subtext (highlighted by the suggestive use of Aboriginal music and the native animal's uprising against the feral buffalo) that arguably runs throughout the entire movie, the point of emphasis here is the film's realist impulse, reflected in its documentary-like iconography, which clearly connects Rogue to both Black Water and The Reef. Black Water's opening credits are overlaid on images that could have been taken out of a family photo album (indeed, the film text suggests that the photos were shot during a recent holiday get-together). By featuring photos, the movie draws on the indexical quality of photography, which 'enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of […] transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction' (Bazin, 1960, p. 8). This illusion of indexicality endows the movie with an aura of authenticity.6 And about twenty minutes into The Reef, the four main characters go snorkeling. As the narrative practically grinds to a halt, the underwater footage of the coral reefs, with turtles and various fish species swimming around, can only be likened to an underwater documentary. That the idyllic feeling—accompanied by an upbeat score—is interrupted by a black tip shark, whose appearance beneath the divers suddenly stops the music, indicates the direction the narrative is going to take.

Scholarship on documentary films has accepted the interrelations between documentary and narrative filmmaking, for as early as 1993, Brian McIlroy concluded that 'documentary and narrative fiction film "proper" are indistinguishable as constructed realities' (1993, p. 288). In an insightful essay on shark documentaries, Kathryn Ferguson thus argues that 'in recent years the linkage of documentary and fiction space within single texts has led to a questioning of the reality of documentary footage' (2008, p. 119). However, Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef all turn the tables, for these fiction films utilize documentary footage in order to achieve their realist aspirations.7 Indeed, these movies arguably go a step further by striving for not only a realist, but a naturalist representation. Naturalism, of course, considers human beings passive 'victims' of their 'natural' environment, and in all three movies the main characters face overpowering foes: In Rogue, a tourist group is stranded on a small island in the middle of a dominant male saltwater crocodile's territory; in Black Water, a croc capsizes a small fishing boat, leaving its passengers lost in the crocodile's feeding grounds in a mangrove forest; finally, in The Reef, a yacht keels over somewhere in the Great Barrier Reef, supposedly ten to twelve miles south of Turtle Island, leaving its passengers exposed to the dangers of the deep, dark ocean, manifested in the form of great white sharks.8

Naturalism, however, also seeks to represent physical reality as-is, without adhering to artificially imposed artistic conventions or succumbing to idealization. Although the three movies follow some horror conventions, they also break with some of these. In Rogue, eight people survive, including the heroic American, who, by all genre standards, should be killed, while in Black Water, the woman depicted as the Final Girl for much of the movie dies. While this aspect is, in a way, typical of the 'game' that horror cinema tends to play with its audience, for 'it knows that you know it knows you know' the genre's conventions all too well (Brophy, 1986, p. 5), the simultaneous subversion of and compliance with genre conventions also creates an atmosphere in which all bets are off, and any character could die at any moment. This quality emphasizes the characters' subjection to the laws of nature.

Although the movies' ambiguous relation to their roots in the horror tradition may thus be seen as supporting their naturalism, their visualization of various Australian locations proves more problematic. After all, Greg McLean highlights in Rogue's making-of that he 'wanted to […] continue that tradition of making a romantic view of the Australian outback; that it is an epic, vast, untamed, beautiful place.' While it would, of course, be erroneous to simply accept McLean's intended message as constituting the movie's meaning, all three movies, in fact, idealize the Australian landscape. This idealization is made most explicit in Rogue, in which the landscape is both repeatedly turned into visual spectacle and idealized on the verbal level, such as when the Australian guide Kate (Radha Mitchell) notes, 'Why would I leave this?,' as the tourist boat is making its way through a magnificent canyon. This verbal highlighting of the beautiful surroundings, in combination with the way in which the landscape images are shot and the accompanying (at times somber, at times joyous) music, truly romanticize the Australian landscape. The Reef and Black Water employ similar tactics to idealize their settings (a coral reef and a mangrove forest, respectively).

At first glance, these idealizations of the Australian landscape seem to counter the movies' naturalist impulses, for they require the subjection of nature to clearly human notions of beauty and purity rather than simply re-presenting nature in its essence. However, idealizing Australian nature also turns the landscape into visual spectacle. This spectacularization counters narrative impulses and, as Kristin Thompson writes, invites 'the spectator to linger over devices longer than their structured fiction would warrant' ([1981] 2004, p. 516). As a result, 'the work becomes a perceptual field of structures that the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond the strictly functional aspects' (Thompson, [1981] 2004, p. 523). Thus, rather than receding into the background (as is typically the case in narrative film), the Australian landscape time and again emerges as 'one of the big stars of the film[s],' as actor Michael Vartan remarks in Rogue's making-of. The spectacularization of the Australian landscape invites viewers to meditate not only on the landscape as such but also on the discourses and technologies through which it is represented. Effectively, viewers are thus asked to understand 'that the nonhuman is mediated through human technology' (Narraway, 2013, p. 218). At the end of the day, the nonhuman can never escape discursive networks which were constructed by human beings (among other reasons to highlight the differences between the human and the nonhuman).9

Digital Cinema and the Dissociation from Anthropocentrism

Siegfried Kracauer already highlighted the anthropocentric engine driving filmmaking when he noted that while 'cinema […] is not exclusively human,' human beings are still 'the absolute measure of this universe, which hinges on [them]' (1960, p. 96–97). Indeed, even though non-human entities were already featured in cinema's predecessors (and have been represented in films ever since), such non-human elements are always represented from an anthropocentric perspective, which transforms them 'into objects and renders them passive, inert, manageable, and controllable' (Ivakhiv, 2013, ch. 1).

Digital cinema, however, as William Brown has suggested in his recent book Supercinema, 'enables us to challenge the separation of figure from ground, such that we recognize the enworlded nature of characters in films – and ourselves in our world' (2013, p. 78).10 This challenging of spatial boundaries results from digital cinema's 'logic that pushes beyond the human understanding of space' (2013, p. 51). On the surface, the filmmakers' stated realist aspirations seem to align Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef more with what Stephen Prince has referred to as 'perceptual realism'—a realism that departs from indexicality and instead moves toward 'a reality-effect which is merely discursive' (1996, p. 31), thus subjugating their spatial configurations to human understanding rather than moving beyond it. However, I would argue that the three films under discussion do, indeed, fulfill the de-anthropocentering function recently ascribed to digital cinema, for the meanings of these three films capitalize on the fissures that emerge from their momentary discord with principles of realism, the moments when digital compositing or digital visual effects fail to produce perceptual realism.

In Black Water, such a moment occurs during the final encounter between Lee and the saltwater crocodile. After guide Jim (Ben Oxenbould) and Grace's husband Adam (Andy Rodoredo) have met their maker, and Grace has been severely injured (which leads to her eventual demise), Lee finally manages to get back into the boat the crocodile turned over about a day earlier. As she is cautiously trying to find clues as to the croc's whereabouts, expecting the animal to be somewhere close by, he suddenly jumps onto the boat. She hops into the water and tries to escape, but to no avail. The salty gets a hold of Lee and takes her to the place where he stores his food. However, he does not kill Lee, who wakes up right next to the remains of Jim’s corpse some time later. Luckily, Jim still has his gun on him. Lee loads it, tries to shoot it (it works), and attempts to lure the croc with Jim's detached arm. The crocodile suddenly and soundlessly appears behind Lee.

At this very moment, the image's construction reveals its composite character: While the predator is logically behind Lee, the image lacks depth, creating an unnatural (and, arguably uncanny) spatial configuration in which Lee and the crocodile are adjacent to one another on both the x and z axes (i.e., the animal is simultaneously behind and next to Lee). The conflation of these two axes implies a combining of the human and the animal in this moment, thus signaling the overcoming of the spatial divide between the crocodile and the human. In this way, this brief scene highlights how Lee has, indeed, experienced the process of 'becoming-animal' (Deleuze & Guattari [1980] 1987) ever since entering the mangroves, a process that culminates in the moment she confronts the croc.

The Reef, similarly, features a scene in which digital compositing highlights the artificiality of the images displayed on the screen rather than authenticating them. At the 48-minute mark,11 the first shark can be seen circling the group of people in the water. After some suspenseful seconds, Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) concludes that the shark 'is gone,' only for the dorsal fin to reappear some thirty feet away. This game of 'the shark is gone—no, it's not' is repeated a couple of times until the fish breaks the surface right next to Kate (Zoe Naylor).

As it breaks the surface, the animal's grey-white body seems both unreal and unrealistic. On the one hand, this reaction is triggered by the awareness that the viewer, as Andy Grundberg already diagnosed in 1990, 'can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated' (par. 5) and, on the other hand, by the latent knowledge that the shark could have never been this close to the actors in the pro-filmic reality. However, even knowing that these are composite images of real shark footage and shots of the actors, one cannot ignore the fact that the differences in lighting on the shark and the group of humans right next to it produce a plasticity that undermines the perceptual realism the movie otherwise strives for. In this way, these few split-seconds in which digital compositing, in fact, counteracts the movie's reality effect 'foregrounds structures of cinematic discourse,' which thus become 'the primary focus of textual attention' (Sconce, 1995, p. 386). By highlighting the digital visual effects tricks employed, this momentary resumption of disbelief not only serves to celebrate the movie's magic, but, on a more profound level, it 'expose[s] the aporias' in analog film's 'construction of the visual world' and 'deconstruct[s] the very ideas of photographic objectivity' (Mitchell, 1994, p. 8).

Finally, in Rogue, it is not digital compositing that works against the movie's perceptual realism, but rather the computer-generated crocodile—at least momentarily. Until the last couple of minutes, the CGI croc is only sparingly used, and when it is used, the scenery is dark, which allows the animal to blend (more or less) smoothly into the environment. However, when the American travel journalist Pete (Michael Vartan) attempts to rescue the Australian tour guide Kate, the digital crocodile is not only (relatively) well-lit, but the camera repeatedly lingers on the creature, inviting the audience to not simply gaze at the monster, but, moreover, reflect on it.

If viewers use the time afforded to them to scrutinize the crocodile, they will come to understand that it primarily serves two functions in Rogue's final minutes: On the one hand, its (simulated) bodily presence in the diegetic reality highlights its deadliness. As Kirsten Whissel has recently suggested in a book on digital visual effects and contemporary cinema, digital creatures often 'exist[] in a dialectical relationship with death' (2014, p. 99), which, in fact, animates these creatures. Indeed, the crocodile's presence in his lair is supported by both his (digitally created) physical command of the scene and the deadly threat he poses to the two human beings, who are located in the lair as well. On the other hand, the apparent constructedness of the crocodile also highlights that both 'the animal' and 'nature' are, at the end of the day, human constructs. The digital reptile consequently also problematizes 'the assumption that there is a pure nature,' which 'can [be] objectively accessed,' for the 'very idea that nature is "out there" [i.e., in physical reality] and not "in here" [i.e., in the filmic reality]' (Ivakhiv, 2013, ch. 5) cannot be maintained in light of poststructuralist teachings. This thematization not only (again) serves to question anthropocentrism, but also suggests that despite scientific progress, mankind will never be able to truly comprehend 'the animal' (and 'nature'), as any (illusion of) understanding these species requires human discourses which can never capture their essence.

Transgressing Boundaries and Understanding the Laws of Nature

This failure to understand nature takes on an entirely different meaning within the context of the movies' narratives, for the human characters step into worlds whose rules they simply cannot grasp. All three movies employ the rather simplistic spatial aesthetics characteristic of the horror genre for this purpose: urbanites venturing into the unknown wilderness. Although all three movies feature local guides who are more accustomed to moving in wild nature, they are, at the end of the day, just as helpless as the urbanites when confronted with nature's overwhelming force.

When Valerie Plumwood was attacked by a large saltwater crocodile in Kakadu National Park in 1985, she faced this prodigious power and felt helpless. This powerlessness, she notes, was connected to a feeling of having entered a world she might have been subconsciously aware of, but which she neither knew nor understood. As she notes in her reflections on the attack, she felt as if she 'was in a place that was not [her] own and which was very different from [her] own place' ([1996] 2012, p. 20). Since this journey into an alien environment is a crucial aspect of Black Water, Rogue, and The Reef, the films emphasize the process of entering a place in which human beings are not at home. Black Water highlights this crossing into an unknown place on the visual level. After the main characters have decided to go on a fishing tour, they are seen driving on a tarmac road and then turn onto an overgrown dirt road, indicating that they are in a liminal space between civilization and the wilderness. Backwater Barry's (the tour operator) tin hut thus becomes the final outpost of civilized life, and when their tour guide Jim equips himself with a gun, his gesture further intensifies the feeling of transitioning into an unknown and unsafe place and the attendant feeling of impending doom. In The Reef, Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith), the stereotypical Ozzie fisherman, remarks, 'I've fished these waters—you might not know what's out there,' which is why he most definitely won't be 'gettin' in that water' when confronted with Luke's plan to swim ten or more miles in the open ocean. Warren's function as a prophet of doom is further underscored a few minutes later when Suzie puts on a wetsuit and he points out that she 'look[s] like a seal in it. Sharks love seal.'

Rogue makes the crossing into a different world most explicit: When the tourists board the boat, Kate notes that 'the heat and the flies […] are a fact of life out here' and upon leaving the dock adds that they will be 'on bush time' from here on. However, leaving the safety of the human settlement is just the first transgressive act the group commits. Upon spotting two flares not too far from their position, Kate decides to investigate their source, which is in Arnhem Land. When the boat passes a canyon and some of the tourists discover rock paintings, Kate stresses, 'Not really supposed to go through here. This is sacred land.' But it is only after their third transgression, when they, as Kate notes, 'stumble[] into [a crocodile's] territory,' that they are punished. Obviously, Kate (and the Australian hunter Neil [Sam Worthington], who first mocks the tourist group, but then tries to help when they need it) knows about the laws of nature. However, she cannot properly 'read the signs' and 'pay attention to them,' which results in her leading the entire group into danger and some humans even into 'eventual death, "out there" in the land' (Simpson, 2010, p. 47). The implicit equation of crossing into Aboriginal land and entering the crocodile's territory seems obvious, which is why one may be tempted to argue, as Catherine Simpson has done, that 'in their attitudes to foreigners, tourists and/or trespassers as "prey", these films extend postcolonial anxieties over settler Australian notions of belonging' (2010, p. 45). However, it is important to note that Aboriginal land is not automatically crocodile territory. After all, the croc does not attack the tourists when they cross into the 'sacred land', but only once they have entered his territory.12 In this way, the movie suggests that even though there may be different rules in place in white Australia and Aboriginal culture, these two human groups have something in common—their humanity.13 Yet upon crossing into the crocodile's territory, the tourists enter, as Plumwood notes, 'a world in which we are all food' (2012, p. 36). As Plumwood adds in a different essay, she first thought that this world was 'a grim, relentless and deplorable' place 'that would make no exceptions' for human lives ([1996] 2012, p. 14). However, she later came to realize that there was no reason why human beings should be exempt from these laws of nature.

Through their depiction of human beings as not enthroned atop the food chain, Black Water, Rogue, and The Reef suggest that the human race is just another species in the biosphere of planet Earth. In this way, 'the superior status of humans [is] being critically examined' (Aaltola, 2002, par. 4). The challenge to humanity's assumed position of superiority is most explicit in The Reef, as its man-eating sharks survive their encounter with the creature that supposedly dominates the planet. Similarly, although the anthropophageous crocodiles seen in Black Water and Rogue die at the end of the movies, there is a strong implication that there are thousands more of them 'out there' that may feed on the species known as homo sapiens sapiens. Following Plumwood, one may thus argue that these three movies 'provide[] us with a perspective that can help us to see ourselves in ecological terms; […] disrupting our view of ourselves as set apart and special' ([1996] 2012, p. 16–17). In other words, even though Western civilization has spent more than 2,000 years establishing and maintaining the human/animal (and, thus, human/nature) divide, Black Water, Rogue, and The Reef emphasize that humanity is a part of nature, too, and it must accept its role in the biosphere.

Australian Animal Horror in the Early Twenty-First Century

By highlighting the ecocritical subtexts in Black Water, Rogue, and The Reef, I do not mean to suggest that these films cannot be read in different ways as well, for human–animal relations in film are characterized by contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherencies. As Adrien J. Ivakhiv tellingly concludes in his book on the ecologies of cinema:

Films […] rarely take up a single coherent position on the continuum of the human–animal relations. Rather, filmic representations of human–animal relations construct certain forms of similarity and difference, which viewers then take up in their own responses by moving along or projecting themselves within the space between the human and the animal, affectively or cognitively taking up positions, shifting positions, and approaching the boundary by identifying with a character […] or by retracting when faced with the prospect of its crossing. (2013, ch. 5)

Thus, from a more anthropocentric vantage point, The Reef may, as director Andrew Traucki stresses in the movie's making-of, be considered a love story centering on Luke and Kate. From this perspective, the tale about their confrontation with the sharks turns into an inquiry into how much a person is willing to sacrifice for someone else. That Luke sacrifices his life in order to rescue Kate at the end of the movie, of course, has implications for the movie's gender dynamics: Kate is clearly not the idealized Final Girl Carol Clover had envisioned more than twenty years ago (1992), but rather the damsel in distress in dire need of a knight in shiny armor to help her. Although this knight dies, through his Christ-like self-sacrifice, he 'becomes almost divine' (King, 2012, p. 41). Turning to Rogue, the killer croc, albeit being clearly male, can easily be considered a visual manifestation of the vagina dentata—not simply because, as Barbara Creed claimed, 'all images of menacing, toothed mouths […] suggest the vagina dentata' (1993, p. 107; italics in original), but because these man-eating jaws are exactly that in the movie: man-eating. However, the rather obvious selection of male victims can, of course, also be easily ignored. Thus, one may conclude that the monstrous animals in these three films 'kill and maim extensively and indiscriminately, American and UK tourists alike as well as Australian locals' (Simpson, 2010, p. 47). Indeed, none of the characters who die in these movies necessarily 'deserves' to die more than other characters (Rogue is most explicit in this regard, as the whiniest and most annoying characters survive—with, arguably, one exception). This lack of any apparent reasons why certain characters die while others survive reveals the movies' ecological implications: death, in nature, is often random, too. By including human beings in the food chain as possible sources of protein, Black Water, Rogue, and The Reef turn 'the boundary between human and animal […] into a movable set of emotionally activated lines' (Ivakhiv, 2013, ch. 5). Yet these films do not necessarily ask us to abandon this boundary; rather, they stimulate reflection on this boundary and thus on humanity's role on this planet we call Earth.

Notes

1 The by-now-accepted scientific position maintains that even the largest shark species (when healthy) do not attack humans in order to feed on them. As the late R. Aiden Martin (the former director of the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research), for example, pointed out, of the 70 to 100 shark attacks per year around the globe, 96% involve no actual biting, but merely 'a bump with the snout or a raking with the upper jaw teeth' (2003, par. 4). | return to main text |
2 In a recent article, Beryl Francis notes that after a brief wave of shark sensationalism in the wake of the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks, sensationalist reporting about shark attacks did not actually take off until the cinematic release of Jaws in 1975. She concludes that although Jaws 'undoubtedly did damage to shark populations, it also produced significant public and scientific interest in the animals,' which 'enabled scientists and conservationists to develop a much greater understanding of the vital role that sharks play in the marine ecology' (2011, p. 64). | return to main text |
3 Since the late 1990s, it has been known that orcas hunt great whites (and other shark species). However, since orca behavior is often specific to certain regions, it should be highlighted that sightings of orcas killing white sharks have so far been primarily reported along the Pacific Coast of North America (e.g. Pyle et al., 1999) and the Atlantic Coast of South America (e.g. Reyes & García-Borboroglu, 2004). As you may well be aware, more than twenty years before these sightings were reported, the Orca hunted a great white shark in Jaws (1975). | return to main text |
4 All quotations by cast and crew members are taken from commentary tracks and bonus features included on the respective discs. | return to main text |
5 One could, however, argue that, especially in Black Water and The Reef, the inclusion of real shark and crocodile footage counters the movies' realist aspirations, for, if you look (not too) closely, you will notice that the croc in Black Water is around nine feet in some scenes and fifteen in others, while The Reef's great white even switches its sex in some scenes. | return to main text |
6 This drawing on the indexical quality of photography also occurs in Rogue when Pete enters the run-down Australian bar in the movie's opening minutes and sees a wall plastered with newspaper clippings about crocodile attacks. That these are, in fact, newspaper reports about real crocodile attacks only further emphasizes the movie's realist character. | return to main text |
7 Rogue and Black Water even repeatedly drop various pieces of information about crocodiles into their respective narratives. In Rogue, for example, Kate explains, 'The Northern Territory is home to the biggest population of saltwater crocodiles in the world, spread throughout seven large tidal river systems. […] [Saltwater crocodiles] are pretty much living dinosaurs who have been perfecting their hunting skills over 200 million years. So they can swim underwater at up to 20 miles an hour without making a ripple on the surface. And they can burst out to attack with incredible speed. […] They can grow from 20 to 25 feet long, weigh up to two tons.' This provision of information, of course, adds not only to the documentary-like feel, but also underscores the threat these animals pose to human beings, eliciting feelings of both awe and horror from audiences before they've even seen the monstrous crocodile. | return to main text |
8 In The Reef's making-of, various crew members mention 'a shark'; however, visual evidence suggests that there are at least three different sharks. | return to main text |
9 In addition, the films' employment of documentary aesthetics also serves as a meta-commentary on wildlife documentaries. Peter Steinhart has argued that, since the late 1970s, wildlife documentaries have embraced the spectacle of death. While he has connected 'the kill shot' in documentary film to adult film's money shot and has thus decided to refer to contemporary nature films as 'ecoporn' (1983) and 'outdoor porn' (1980), the fiction films under discussion here suggest a closer structural affinity between wildlife documentaries and horror films, for spectators are always waiting for the next kill. | return to main text |
10 'Digital cinema' is meant to denote the use of digital technologies in the production (and post-production, which, in the digital age, has, however, become largely inseparable from production) of movies. | return to main text |
11 48 minutes into the movie on the German Blu-Ray, that is. For some reason, the video stream on the German disc is in 1080i/50, not 1080p/24. | return to main text |
12 As Maja Milatović notes in her contribution to this collection, '[a]lthough this comment ["This is sacred land."] references Indigenous Australians, the film does not reveal more about the land, its histories and culture, but simply uses this implication to reinforce the idea of white transgression.' In other words, the 'simplified portrayal of Indigenous Australian culture [is] used as a plot device and elides making direct reference to the ongoing realities of colonisation and appropriations of the land.' | return to main text |
13 See Milatović's contribution for a different interpretation, for she argues that 'Indigenous Australians are presented as a homogeneous group conflated with the natural world,' which, thus, provide a stark contrast to the white tourists. | return to main text |

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