Varanus Priscus (2021) Review

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Varanus Priscus (巨蜥) was a giant monitor lizard that lived in Australia during the Pleistocene era. They grew to about 24 feet in length, weighed about 4,300 pounds and were hunted to extinction about 50,000 years ago. According to the movie Varanus Priscus however, not only aren’t they extinct, they’re a lot bigger than scientists thought as a couple of downed WWII airmen find out in the prologue.

Seventy years later the island has some new visitors, a film crew has arrived to shoot a monster movie. When their explosives wake up the sleeping giant their film gets a new star in the form of The Lizard King, and we’re not talking about a resurrected Jim Morrison either.

Rather than the rather obscure title, the creature’s scientific name, Varanus Priscus should have been called Tropic Thunder Lizard, because they’ve taken that film’s basic setup and replaced the drug cartels with an assortment of kaiju and other deadly critters.

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While the prologue is played straight, it’s clear from the start that Varanus Priscus’s film within a film footage is meant to be anything but serious. It’s an outrageously over the top action sequence that looks like something from one of the later films in the Resident Evil franchise turned up a few notches. That is until a prop malfunction panics the supposedly badass warriors. That tone continues as the special effects crew literally blows up a mountain trying to give director Huang Dao (Ma Sai, Ancient Detective) what he wants.

At that point, about fifteen minutes into the film, Varanus Priscus makes its appearance. and the film becomes a more standard Chinese creature feature. Director Li Yi Fan (The Legend Hunters) gives us the usual set of characters for a film like this, Cao Yue (Yuan Fufu, The Rescue, Sniper 2) the prop man who has skills nobody realises,  leading lady turned real heroine Su Qiao Qiao (Shi Nan, Bravest Escort Group), cowardly producer Song Ze (Yang Jin Ci, Detective Chinatown 2). It’s the same assortment you see in Snakes or Snow Monster only with members of a film crew standing in for their corporate equivalents.

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There’s also many of the same situations we’ve seen in films like this. A cave full of flesh eating insects, the human villain tossing people to the creatures to save himself, the idiot who just has to take one of the giant eggs they find, etc. But they’re carried off with enough enthusiasm to keep them from being dull.

What is new, and annoying, are traces of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the entertainment industry. The two leads have a long, dull conversation about the virtues of living a simple life. And Su Qiao Qiao goes off about internet news sites and how awful people in the film industry are. As I said in my review of Immanence, I watch films like these for fun, not to get lectured to, be it about God or living a life the CCP approves of.

That’s not Varanus Priscus’ only problem. Like most Chinese creature features, the CGI is shockingly behind the times. It’s not as bad as something like Cockroach Tide, although the scenes with the bugs come close, but it still looks like something that would have been on The Sci Fi Channel twenty years ago. That’s really true of the giant snake that seems to levitate a few inches off the ground.

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Varanus Priscus ends with a pair of fights, one between Cao Yue and the film’s wilderness survival consultant Jason (Jia Zi Chen, Conspiracy) that is surprisingly low on martial arts moves. Although the distances they send each with a plain strike gives a whole new meaning to the term “Superman Punch”. And then the lizard and snake go at it in the film’s final minutes.

As long as you know what you’re getting effects wise and fast forward through the propaganda Varanus Priscus is an enjoyable monster mash. And, it’s currently free to watch on Youku’s YouTube Channel so all you’re risking is some of your time. The film has English subtitles, unfortunately the trailer doesn’t, not that you need them to figure out what’s happening.

Our Score