An ‘eco-thriller’ is exactly what it sounds like- a thriller whose plot deals around or is caused by changes to the Earth’s ecosystem. These can manifest themselves in several ways such as the atomic age of sci-fi classic Them!, about the dangers of radioactivity, or the violent monkey attacks caused by a severe draught In The Shadow Of Kilimanjaro. This is to say nothing of the camp classics of the genre like Frogs, or the serious-minded horror of The Bay. Of those five titles just mentioned, not a one is similar in tone, style, or atmosphere. What I am saying is that this subgenre applies to a wide swath of films and therefore, always a welcome presence.
What happens when another genre doesn’t bolster an eco-thriller? Strange Nature happens, in all its absolute dullness and awkwardness.
Written and directed by James Ojala, the tedium starts when Kim Sweet (Lisa Sheridan) and her son Brody (Jonah Beres) move to Kim’s childhood home. They moved back to look after Kim’s father, Chuck (Bruce Bohne), who recently learned he has an inoperable tumor. While still trying to adjust to life back in the small town, Kim discovers some deformed frogs near the lake surrounding her dad’s rural residence.
She enlists the help of middle school science teacher Trent (Faust Checho). After some basic scientific research, she presents their findings to the mayor (bright spot Stephen Tobolowsky). Claiming that a local, organic pesticide manufacturer is to blame but with no concrete proof of any correlation between their product and the deformed frogs, the mayor does not take her seriously. Now, she must uncover the truth before…
Usually, that sentence would conclude “…time runs out,” but there is no urgency presented for her not to take the time to test, research, and investigate as thoroughly as possible. Yes, there is a baby born with various defects, yet, getting people onto her side to stop this in a reasonable way still seems like the more obvious approach versus hysteria and half-hearted evidence.
“…Kim discovers some deformed frogs near the lake surrounding her dad’s rural residence.”
The biggest problem here seems to be that Strange Nature hasn’t the foggiest idea what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a serious-minded meditation on humankind’s disruption of the natural cycle of life? It might be aspiring to that, but it does not have the science nor characterizations to back it up. People around town are mean to Kim as she had a brief pop star career and once bad mouthed this little podunk place where nothing ever happens. That is her entire backstory. Brody is nice, and that is all. Trent is a bit nervous and is the science teacher. Congratulations, you now know as much as about these characters as I do.
To be fair, the mayor is an interesting character with hints of depth that the movie never properly explores. Unlike the mayor in Jaws, Tobolowsky’s character does not dismiss Kim nor her claims out of hand. He calmly listens to her and then explains that he needs more proof before deciding one way or the other. He does not say that she should stop or that she is crazy or anything like that. This idea that he is willing and closer to the end, even a bit engaged in all this is a much more interesting story than the one presented.
Going back, to the original idea- could Strange Nature be a rough and tumble action-horror film? Aside from an assault on the deformed man, no scenes can be remotely described as action oriented. Since that action scene doesn’t lead to anything from a story or character standpoint, it is wholly unnecessary. Considering that Ojala’s directing creates all the atmosphere of a fluorescent-lit cubicle, horror is out as well.
Is it meant to be an homage to the schlocky absurdity of the likes of It’s Alive or The Food Of The Gods? It certainly has those elements to it, as suggested by the very last shot of the movie- a newborn child with a third eye on its shoulder. This is as dumb as it is offensive. The serious tone of the drama and all the science it bases itself in rob Strange Nature of any semblance to the far more outlandish titles it’s inspired by. This doesn’t even reach the unintentional good time of The Happening, which, however stilted and funny, at least had a personality.
“…a serious-minded meditation on humankind’s disruption of the natural cycle of life?”
Maybe this all would have been easier to swallow if the acting were up to snuff. Excluding Tobolowsky, who brings energy to the role of the mayor, along with a refreshing dramatic turn from John Hennigan (though his character is underwritten and thankless), everybody else is uniformly bland. As Kim, Lisa Sheridan is an entirely blank slate. Sheridan says everything in the same tone of voice. It doesn’t matter if she’s awkwardly seducing Trent or getting in a local’s face about believing her, it all comes out with a soft voice, that belies the intention of any given line.
Beres’s issue might be his age. He equally fades into the background as Sheridan does, but is also young enough not to have a ton of acting experience, meaning that it is poor direction rather than miscasting to blame. Faust Checho’s performance as the science teacher is so remarkably bland and devoid of life that the romance does not fly; a total lack of chemistry does not help matters.
If Sheridan, Beres, and Checho are wooden, Bohne is so eager to inject a little life and levity into the picture that he goes the complete opposite direction. He never meshes with any scene because he delivers his line as if on a sitcom; overly broad and it feels like acting.
The directing style of Strange Nature fails to bring any atmosphere, the acting is so nondescript that it barely registers (with two notable exceptions), and a lack of cohesive vision leaves the movie uncertain of what it truly is. An absolute waste of time for all involved, especially the audience.
Strange Nature (2018) Directed by James Ojala. Written by James Ojala. Starring Lisa Sheridan, Stephen Tobolowsky, John Hennigan, Bruce Bohne, Jonah Beres.
2 Frog Legs (out of 10)