Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Spoilers follow for the plot of “Cocaine Bear.”
As an animal lover and cinephile, I had seriously mixed feelings about “Cocaine Bear.”
On one hand, I’m so tired of the trope of abused or demonized animals in film and TV. On the other… that title!
What a plot twist, then, that this turned out to be a gory B-movie with a true soft spot for wildlife. If, for some reason, you’ve missed the “Cocaine Bear” back story, it’s based on the real-life tale of a drug smuggling plan gone wrong in the 1980s that resulted in a black bear hoovering up part of a duffel bag of abandoned cocaine, and dying shortly thereafter.
But director Elizabeth Banks was drawn to a screenplay that asks, to paraphrase “The Royal Tenenbaums”: What if it didn’t?
In this movie’s imagined version of events, the female bear not only survives the coke but thrives, turning into a rampaging addict with a terrible temper and an insatiable bloodlust for more of the white stuff. As the title’s simplicity attests, a bear on cocaine is clearly, absurdly, one of the most dangerous creatures imaginable. Yet Banks infuses the action – which is, let’s be clear, very heavy on cartoonish human casualties – with heart.
As she told Entertainment Weekly, “I felt a lot of sympathy for the bear. Like, wow, this bear – which, in real life, ended up dead after eating all this coke – ended up being sort of collateral damage in this War on Drugs. And I just thought, Well, then this movie can be a revenge story for the bear. And it just gave me a point of view and a purpose for making it. Like, there’s a real message here: We should not f**k with nature, nature will win.”
Banks even won an award from PETA, an animal rights organization not typically known for its sense of humor, for her use of CGI and a human performer rather than enlisting an actual bear. Said a PETA vice president, “‘Cocaine Bear’s hyper-realistic star proves that the future of film lies in technology, not dragging abused animals onto movie sets. PETA is happy to celebrate Elizabeth Banks for recognizing that forcing a real bear to perform in her dark comedy would have been anything but funny.”
Banks shrewdly makes the connection between the War on Drugs, which began in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon, and the string of violent deaths in her movie. As a metaphor for the way that ill-conceived government mission shredded untold numbers of lives, seeing a coked-up bear rip someone’s head off works pretty effectively.
The adage “don’t f**k with nature” guides most of the entries in the terrifying-wildlife genre, starting with the gold standard that is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws.” Unlike “Cocaine Bear,” “Jaws” is a legitimate movie masterpiece (that Quint monologue!), but it also did a massive amount of harm to the real-world shark population, between distorting the scope of the danger they pose to humans and inspiring countless subsequent shark horror movies.
Then there are the likes of “Anaconda,” “Piranha,” “Arachnophobia” and “Razorback” – the latter a Quentin Tarantino-approved Aussie horror movie about a killer wild boar. The film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Cujo,” of course, featured a killer St. Bernard with rabies.
The highly silly “Snakes on a Plane” gave some high-profile luster to anti-snake sentiment thanks to a memorable performance by Samuel L. Jackson. (A recent sitcom starring Craig Robinson takes this sub-genre and runs with it - it’s about snake hunting and it’s literally called “Killing It.”)
Last year, Idris Elba faced off against a lion in the action movie “Beast.” Just about any formidable animal you can think of has been turned into nightmare fodder onscreen, which demonstrably translates into people having creepier feelings about these creatures in real life.
When action movies aren’t demonizing wild or sick animals, they’re using the demise of domesticated ones as a shortcut to warn you trouble’s coming. How many times have you seen this in a horror movie or drama: Amid a vague sense of foreboding, somebody’s innocent pup turns up dead, whether by poison (“Midnight Mass”), acid-spitting aliens (“The Thing”), robot vengeance (“M3GAN”), zombie bite (“I Am Legend”), or, in the best-known recent example, the hit men who kill Keanu Reeves’ puppy in “John Wick.”
The dead dog trope is so common there’s an app and website dedicated to it. “Does the Dog Die” is a nearly decade-old searchable database where you can research whether the movie you’re about to see features a canine getting killed off. (You can also learn about a plethora of other upsetting tropes, such as amputation, domestic violence and… clowns.)
When did we get this callous about non-human lives? It wasn’t always like this in the art world: In a 19th-century genre known as sentimental literature, dogs were seen as a way for their owners to “create and channel positive emotions to other humans. By attaching dogs to themselves they were able to enhance their own affective capacities towards fellow humans, such as sympathy and affection,” scholar Keridiana W. Chez explains in her book “Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men: Affect and Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture.”
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So, it’s heartening to see Banks push back on the modern-day tendency to depict animals as easily expendable, and, often, to portray their violent deaths as a triumph for human characters. I’m not going to ruin “Cocaine Bear” by spilling a lot of what happens in its final act, except to say its ursine star is never gunned down the way I assumed she would be, nor does any harm come to her cubs, who’ve also discovered a liking for the nose candy. The movie’s final shot is a clear wink at the triumph of nature. Maybe it could also be the opening salvo in a new film genre I’d love to see: Sentimental Splatterfests.