Since his emergence with Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has taken a more entertainment rather than educational approach to documentary filmmaking. It’s not that his films are devoid of public value, or are sloppily researched. Indeed, many credit Super Size Me with McDonald’s declining sales and willingness to introduce healthier options than Big Macs and triple quarter pounders. It’s just that Spurlock takes a rather manipulative approach to filmmaking. His latest work, Rats, is his attempt to reconfigure the documentary within the confines of a horror movie. While this exercise works in theory, Rats has some severe flaws that hamper the experience.
Based on Robert Sullivan’s best selling book of the same name, Rats explores the challenge the exploding rodent population serves to communities, especially densely populated urban areas. Spurlock travels the globe in order to capture how New York, New Orleans, India, Vietnam and a quiet Cornish farming community attempt to control the rat population. It’s a clash of cultures that serves up a variety of profiles. New York examines how the growing population could take over the city streets, and how improper sanitation poses the biggest obstacle to controlling the rodent population. A laboratory New Orleans concerns itself with the myriad of disease and pestilence rats carry and the public health risk they pose. In India, Cambodia and Vietnam, rats offer economic opportunity to the population. This comes in many forms, as rat catchers patrol the streets of Dubai, killing any rodent they come across by hand or with primitive tools. Vietnam serves up rat as a cheap but popular dish in many restaurants.
Rats finds Spurlock employing standard horror movie tropes in order to manipulate the audience. The film begins with a jump scare tight out of the horror movie playbook, as a rodent comes leaping out of the dark, straight at the camera. Rats is teeming with gory material. Scientists dissect rats on screen, pulling out parasites and bulging larvae that the camera zooms in on until they fill up the screen. The rat patrols of India are filmed in the shadows, and as they corner their prey, they snap the rats’ necks like villains out of a slasher film. The rats themselves threaten to overrun the screen time and time again, while the bass heavy, thrumming score permeates every second of the film.
Pierre Takal’s music is the largest problem with the film. It’s a generic horror movie score that never lets up for a second. Takal’s score invades every inch of the film, and it manipulates the emotions of the audience rather than allowing for the viewer to make their own judgement as to the problems the rodents may or may not pose. Spurlock has his agenda: rats are bad and they could kill us all. He uses music as a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, as he hopes to smash his agenda into the viewers heads. The best example of this takes place on a Cornish farmer where the local exterminator deploys his team of two dozen terrier hunting dogs to seek out and eliminate the farm’s rats. While the onlookers seem to believe this is great sporting fun, hyper slow motion shots and the funeral dirge is meant to sicken and terrify the viewer.
Rats is also guilty of larger sin of cultural insensitivity. Spurlock seems to shame the Indian cultures that use primitive means to hunt rats and the Vietnam cooks that serve them to ravenous patrons. There’s zero mention of the economic circumstances that define and shape these cultures. They serve as forms of mock and ridicule when compared to the more urbane, economically sound New York agencies and Louisiana scientific labs.
While Rats works as a genre film, and should be viewed through that prism, it is too one sided and manipulative to be considered an informative documentary. As has been the case throughout his career, Spurlock looks to entertain first. The film is more of an experiment his part to see if he could create the world’s scariest documentary. If that is the goal, he may have succeeded. It’s still a question mark as to whether he made a movie worth watching.