Rats is a film for particularly unobservant children.
That may sound overly dismissive if we were talking about a movie made by someone besides Morgan Spurlock, a filmmaker with the intellectual curiosity and unearned confidence of a six-year-old, but here we are, and here he is. Just like Super Size Me, Rats takes a complex issue and boils it down to talking points so numbingly simplistic that you would be forgiven thinking it was a sub-par History Channel special that somehow didn’t mention Hitler, almost fanatically devoted to ignoring any and all context or complexity. If, like me, you don’t find rats particularly scary (I know more than a few rat owners and I find them mostly just adorable), the film will be absolutely laughable, an infant-minded look at pest control from the perspective of someone who thinks we still live in the 1500s. Even if you do find rats frightening, I’d recommend the Wikipedia page about rats instead; it’d be more informative, more interesting, and shorter (and, probably, more frightening).
No matter how you feel, the fact is that Spurlock has said his aim was to make a “horror documentary,” and he failed. If he thinks this is horror, I have some particularly spooky episodes of Scooby-Doo to show him. It’s an insult to people like Rodney Ascher, who actually make horrifying docs (an even passing reference to The Nightmare would make this doc fold in on itself), and it’s, honestly, an insult to rats themselves, every one of which would be a more interesting filmmaker than Spurlock, who is so on-rails that his lack of personality is basically his only discernible style at this point. This might as well be made by the most primitive documentary-making artificial intelligence possible, like if you fed an AI nothing but what you saw in school that made you fall asleep, the sex ed or safety education VHS tape of primitive rat hysteria. It has no style, no restraint, no adventurous spirit, just the most obnoxious “information” feeding possible, as loud as can be imagined, given no understanding of the broader implications of data. It’s an irresponsible fluff-piece by a man so faded in relevancy that he couldn’t even sustain a show on FX. When I say History Channel hour-long specials do a better job of expression, I mean it–give me a new episode of the hilarious Ancient Aliens any day over this (expensive, surely) misfire of pseudo-terrifying rat footage.
Even with his stated goal of horror, Spurlock can’t stop himself from goofy sound effects, from ridiculous talking heads, from an exterminator chomping on a cigar telling tall tales about vermin in the city that defy any and all traditional logic, or even the most simple of biological investigation (or, hell, basic common sense). This exterminator tells stories so obviously untrue that Spurlock’s clear belief in him is probably the scariest thing in the film, giving more proof (as if recent politics haven’t given us enough) of how fear will turn even the most preposterous statements into nightmare-fulfilling, irrefutable facts. It attempts to horrify through rat gore, but anyone who has cleaned a fish would find this positively stupefying in its presumptuous edginess. It makes jukes at fear by overemphasizing the ferociousness of rats, to the point that, if Spurlock were to be believed, rats are basically vampires actively out for your precious, precious blood. And God, let’s not even mention the music, which could’ve been made by a bored 15-year-old with a pirated copy of Fruity Loops.
Did you know that in some foreign countries, people actually eat rats? If that disturbed you, congratulations Morgan Spurlock, I’m glad to have you reading this. For anyone else though, it shows as the most inert kind of xenophobia, lazy even in its racism, like Spurlock hasn’t even had the cultural adventurousness to watch Survivor, where rats are staple diet numbers one through twenty-six (number twenty-seven is rice shipped in by the producers). In high school, you knew that one girl with a weird haircut who would collect rat skulls from the forest preserve (that was me, for the record)? Well, Spurlock has less to say than her, which is to say: this film has a negative value in the world. It decrease knowledge simply by existing. To a more specific point, his invocation of hurricane Katrina is unconscionable, insulting, and so non-specific as to be politically meaningless yet somehow still disrespectful. He has no broader cultural context. He refuses to talk about other disease vectors. He refuses to talk about the circumstances which have led to rats continuing to be a major disease vector. He has no comments on the poor, the actually rat-infested, because as a rich white vegan, why would he give a shit? It otherizes its fear of rats until its stops meaning anything; its liberal xenophobia comes out like noxious puke of the white savior, condescendingly proud of these foreigners for killing rats. Spurlock can’t even sustain an edit for more than ten seconds; why would I trust him with anything bordering on profundity, contemplation, or empathy? He has all the long term solutions of your friend who wants to legalize 420 now but who can’t admit (or simply doesn’t know) that structural racism has vastly influenced how United States drug policy is enacted. There’s no nuance, there’s no complexity.
This movie is only shocking for those so unfamiliar with the nature of parasites, disease, and death as to have never taken a grade school class. It would only serve to shock a newborn. If you’ve had the flu, even once, this will play as a particularly uninspired episode of Blue’s Clues, but with the animal death quotient of Cannibal Holocaust. But for a Whole Foods devotee like Spurlock, maybe this clash between the human world and the rat world plays as exhilarating, the same way someone who’s never seen a skateboard might see the most pitiful ollie as a revolution in thought. I’m a bumbling idiot when it comes to biology, and even I could see the extreme simplicity he applies to every problem, like a math major too pathetic to admit that he can’t do calculus (and, like this imaginary math major, it’s continually bewildering he’s gotten as far as he has with an obvious dearth of ability). In short, Spurlock is too privileged, too inexperienced, too lacking in curiosity to actually have anything interesting to say about a phenomenon that mainly affects the poor, the urban, those whose landlords refuse even the simplest of pest control measures. The final five minutes (which are, comparatively, pro-rat) do not release the rest of the film from oversimplification. If your whole life has been lived in a $3000-a-month apartment in New York City, maybe this film reads as significant; for everyone else, this plays as business as usual portrayed to us by a hack of epic proportions. An intro text crawl reads: “This film contains images that may be disturbing to some viewers. We dare you not to look away.” Well, Morgan, you try-hard edgelord, I never once flinched, and all I saw was shit. You made the worst film of 2016. My notes for the future: fuck off.
Directed by Morgan Spurlock; written by Jeremy Chilnick and Morgan Spurlock, based on the book by Robert Sullivan; 84 minutes.