"If you’re a huge fan of cheesy ‘Nature vs. Man’ flicks, this one is for you. For anyone looking for something not featuring tons of slimy reptiles and amphibians, look elsewhere." - Scott Weinberg, Apollo Movie Guide
Rugged outdoorsy photographer Pickett Smith is cruising in his (non-gas powered) canoe taking snapshots of swamp animals and leaky pipes for an unnamed ecology magazine. (Ya think maybe this is our hero?) Before Pickett knows what is going on, he is capsized by a (obnoxiously loud gas-powered) speedboat driven by two of the Crockett siblings whose family just happens to own the waters the photographer has been exploring. Pickett is fished out and taken to the Crockett island estate where the über-dysfunctional family is gathering for their annual 4th of July (oh, the dripping irony) celebration. As Pickett is something of an ecology expert, he is almost immediately grilled by the Crockett's about the increasing number of abnormally large frogs on the island. Pickett suggests that nature might be in revolt due to all of the pollutants and pesticides mankind is dumping on it. (Wow, right on the first guess. He really is an expert.) Jason, the Crockett patriarch, calls shenanigans however because he knows from Sunday School that man has dominion over the animals. The argument becomes moot when the phones go dead and various groups of wildlife begin systematically picking off family members and guests, all under the watchful guidance of the frogs. The dwindling group of survivors only hope is to escape the island and make it back to the mainland. Or is it?
And lo, as the moon entered the seventh house, mankind took a moment of rest and looked at all which it had created and beheld that it was... dirty. Oh sure, conservationists may have been around since the 19th century, but it was in the mid-60s with books like Silent Spring and The Population Bomb that the environmental movement proper really kicked into high gear. But if you had to pick a banner year for environmentalism, at least in regards to pop culture currency, it would have to be 1971. In that single year we saw the founding of both Greenpeace and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, the very first Earth Day, and most important of all, that famous Keep America Beautiful commercial showing a Native American shedding a single tear over a ravaged polluted landscape. (I dare you to find a child from the seventies who didn't see that thing hundreds of times. We may not have known about any of that other stuff, but we darn well knew our country had become a garbage dump.) With environmental concerns at the forefront of the public consciousness it was only (dare I say it) natural that Hollywood would cash in. So in 1972 we got Frogs.
Boy did we get frogs. Over 600 of the slimy non-CGI things if the trivia is to be trusted. Not to mention the hordes of snakes, spiders, lizards, turtles, and various other critters which descend on the Crockett household. (The only thing missing are the worms, the tormenting w... see, I knew that would stick in my head.) And they're all shot beautifully. That's undeniably one of the first things you notice about this movie. It's like someone forgot to tell cinematographer Mario Tosi (Carrie, Sybil) this was just some cheesy drive-in flick. Frogs was released as a double feature with Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster for crying out loud and yet this guy takes the time to churn out National Geographic quality images. (I suppose the director was impressed too as this movie contains more images of creatures sitting around doing nothing than a whole day's worth of Animal Planet programming.) In hind sight, this film didn't really deserve his efforts. Or that of the actors for that matter. Sam Elliot and the gang really seem to believe in the movie's "message" and put their heart into the proceedings. The standout actor is, no surprisee, B-movie great Ray Milland as the domineering bigoted sexist industrialist wild-game hunter who believes his fortune gives him carte blanche to do as he pleases with both people and the world they live in. Nicely underplayed by Milland, Jason Crockett is a living, breathing Pandora's Box of what was considered eeevil in the early 70s. (There's probably even something symbolic in his being crippled and confined to a wheelchair, but I just can't make myself think too hard about Frogs in order to figure it out.) Everybody seems to have come to this movie with the intention of making a truly good film.
It's a shame the premise is so ridiculous. Let's face it, unless they're 40 stories tall and smashing up Tokyo, things like frogs, turtles, and lizards just aren't that threatening. How are you supposed to get all that worked up over critters you see in the bushes outside your house every day? I'll grant that the filmmakers used unusually large versions of these animals, (don't get me started on the countless species shown which have no business being in Florida) but at the end of the day it's still just a bunch of garden pests. The script tries to get around this fact by having most of the cast accidentally disable themselves in some contrived manner, thereby allowing the slow moving animals to stage their assaults. (Really, what choice do you have when you're story calls for someone to be killed by turtles?) But about the fourth or fifth time some halfwit falls in a hole or gets stuck in the mud, the continuous rolling of your eyes starts to get uncomfortable. I mean, c'mon! There's actually a scene where some schlub falls to the ground and a bunch of spiders start dropping Spanish Moss on him (don't ask) AND he gets too tangled up to get away. This movie isn't so much about "when animals attack" as it is "when animals host the Darwin Awards".
The other irritating thing about the movie (well, if you're still bothering to take it even half seriously) is that it never properly explains the motivation behind the animals' actions, especially considering a lot of these creatures should be eating each other rather than planning joint attacks on humans. And why on Earth are the frogs in charge anyway? According to C. C. Abbott's article The Intelligence of Batrachians from Science Magazine, frogs are "exceedingly stupid", so is there some other guiding force behind it all, maybe some kind of Gaia thing? Who knows? Pickett offers up his theory that it's all somehow retribution for man's abuse of nature, which everyone immediately accepts with no questions, but nothing shown in the movie ever really verifies this. For all we viewers know, this whole thing could actually be Plan 10 from outer space. (Hey, just because Plan 9 failed miserably doesn't mean they won't try again. Keep watching the skies!)
Frogs was released 35 years ago and (from my layman's perspective anyway) arguments over, and explanations for, what's going on in the environment don't seem to have gotten any more clear than they were back then. From VP Al Gore and his camp we're told that global climate change "is a true planetary emergency. Two thousand scientists, in a hundred countries, working for more than twenty years in the most elaborate and well-organized scientific collaboration in the history of humankind, have forged an exceptionally strong consensus that all the nations on Earth must work together to solve the crisis of global warming." On the other side we get dissenters like MIT scientist Richard Lindzen who tell us that "alarmist predictions of more hurricanes, the catastrophic rise in sea levels, the melting of the global poles and even the plunge into another ice age are not scientifically supported." Somebody (besides just me, i mean) is confused. Perhaps author Thomas Storck is right when he reminds us that "Satan promotes error in pairs, so that there will always be two warring camps, both zealously championing positions that are flawed, and both keenly aware of what is wrong with their opponent's point of view, but blind to what is wrong with their own. And in the modern world, too often Satan has managed to divide Catholics between these two camps. The only remedy, the only means by which we can escape this bitter but sterile secular warfare, is by obtaining an understanding of what the Church really teaches."
Fine. We've already noted in our last short feature where the Catechism plainly states that as Christians we have some responsibility towards the environment. The International Theological Commission, writing in Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, puts it this way, "Christian theology speaks of man as the master of a household to whom God has confided care of all his goods (cf. Mt 24:45)." Which is just a nice way of saying we're in charge of taking good care of the place until the owner gets home. So if we were in the movie Frogs, we'd be on Pickett's side, right? But the Catechism also reminds us that "everyone has the right of economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all and to harvest the just fruits of his labor." But doesn't that mean we would be on the side of the Crocketts whose main concern was using our resources to expand economic development? Well, either we've run into an apparent contradiction (again) in Church teaching, or it looks like the Catechism expects us to work out how to accomplish both things simultaneously. Be not afraid, though. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, the "passion for synthesis is the spirit of Catholicism, always seeking both/and solutions."
It would be extremely helpful if we could whip out a nice WWJD moment here, but unfortunately it's not that simple. About the only time Jesus makes explicit mention of the environment is to compare the local garbage dump to Hell. Nowhere does he organize a protest to have Gehenna cleaned up or shut down, nor does he say it's necessary for the economy. The International Theological Commission sadly admits that "in the end, we must note that theology will not be able to provide us with a technical recipe for the resolution of the ecological crisis". In short, the Bible isn't going to tell us what the acceptable level of greenhouse gas emissions is or whether or not we should reuse our plastic grocery bags. "It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life." the Catechism reminds us, "This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens." We're meant to exercise our own intelligence in determining who's telling us the truth about environmental issues and whose policies will best address the issues at hand. That's just good citizenship.
But that doesn't mean we leave the policy debates entirely in the hands of the secular world. At a recent talk to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Pope Bendeict XVI stated that there were "three specific challenges facing our world, challenges which I believe can only be met through a firm commitment to that greater justice which is inspired by charity." One challenge involved ensuring that human beings be seen "as persons, male and female, created in God's image and endowed with an inviolable dignity." (Things like abortion would fall under this category.) The second involved ensuring that "those spiritual goods which are properly human expand and multiply when communicated." (He was specifically addressing increasing the opportunities for education.) But surprisingly the third challenge he mentioned was the environment.
"In meeting the challenges of environmental protection and sustainable development" the Pope said, "we are called to promote and 'safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic "human ecology"'. In other words, what we have specifically as Christians is a duty to preserve the ethical framework within the environmental debate. Translated into specifics, this means Catholics are expected to do their best (as voters, legislators, businesspeople, etc.) to ensure such things as never allowing environmental concerns to overshadow the value of the human person (no creepy population control experiments), never dismissing environmental concerns in the name of progress or the free market (no devastating the natural resources of third world countries for a better bottom line at home), and no placing our immediate lifestyles over the concerns of future generations (maybe we should reuse plastic grocery bags, they do make okay cat pan liners). Our religion asks of us what it should, that we apply its basic principles to the broader issues at hand.
The funny thing is, as noted by some of the above examples, once you start applying Christian ethics to the environmental debate, it doesn't take long to figure out that, at some point, we're going to be at odds with every politcal or secular philosophy out there. And this, I believe, is the deeper point and the reason why the Pope included the environment as one of the primary challenges of our time. Along with a handful of other issues, environmentalism is one of the key areas where the Christian religion has the opportunity to distinguish itself from all other philosophies as a consistent, well reasoned, ethical approach to finding solutions for today's problems. As hard as it is to believe, the debate that surfaced decades ago in convoluted crapfest "message" movies like Frogs actually has the potential to become one of the defining issues for this generation of Christians.
Of course, Benedict XVI wouldn't be much of a Pope if he didn't find some way to work a little evangelization into the whole thing. A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter speculates that "Benedict sees in the modern environmental movement the most promising route for recovery of the natural law tradition. What today's rising ecological awareness presumes is that there are limits inscribed in nature beyond which humanity trespasses at its own peril. Without any particular reference to religion, the secular world today is arriving at its own version of natural law theory. Building upon that momentum, and directing it beyond environmental matters to questions of individual and social morality, is what Benedict seems to mean by a "secular path" to formation of conscience." A lot of critics have suggested that the modern environmental movement is turning into a kind of "secular religion", and they're probably right. But what this article is proposing is that the Pope is reaching out to the environmentalists and saying, "Hey, what you're searching for, what you're trying to formulate, it's already here in the same old place it's always been." Ain't that always the case?