Morgan Spurlock takes an unnerving (and sometimes grisly) globe-trotting journey to explore different cultures' methods of controlling, killing, or profiting off the common rat.

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Morgan Spurlock gives the horror treatment to his latest documentary on the seemingly indestructible rodents and the people fighting them.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: That human beings hate rats may be a matter of survival, according to Rats, Morgan Spurlock’s latest disaster-mongering documentary. Our repulsion derives from instinct: rats carry diseases, many of which kill us. There may be degrees to this hatred, and as far as I could tell, Rats is primarily interested in defining for the viewer the exact terms of her loathing. Do you hate rats enough to want to see their spines broken by hand? Their organs plucked from their bodies and parasites pulled from those organs? Would you relish seeing them drowned in bags? Watching them butchered? Torn apart by dogs?

If so, this may be the film for you. Based on Robert Sullivan’s 2004 book, 'Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants', Rats pulses with a horror-inflected score, making a kind of scare flick out of what is a fairly pedestrian survey of how various parts of the earth handle their rat populations. Spurlock begins in New York City, naturally, where rats were introduced from somewhere in Mongolia. They are, as one observer notes, in some ways one of the earth’s most successful species: clever, prolific, and adaptable, they appear to be developing immunity to our most powerful poisons.

Spurlock (who makes no appearance here) sustains a fevered pitch throughout Rats, a pace that wears very quickly, no matter how game the viewer. That we might be facing another rat-driven plague is implied but never explored to any persuasive degree. Rats have become part of the scenery in New York; in post-Katrina New Orleans, we learn, incidences of the rat-born bacterial disease leptospirosis are on the rise. The same is true in India. In Mumbai, Spurlock lingers for far too long over the toil of a group of men who hunt rats at night, making a small profit at great personal risk. What is presented as titillating quickly becomes banal, or simply gross. You know the film has gone wrong when you start feeling sorry for the rats.

"You know the film has gone wrong when you start feeling sorry for the rats."

Other techniques prove grating: Spurlock delivers expository information via fake reporters reading fake news reports in varying accents (Indian, British). He returns habitually to a veteran exterminator who tells war stories in a swivel chair between puffs on a cigar. He uses night vision insert footage of rats scrambling here and there, being snapped in traps, and so on. Much of rats feels uninspired, despite its director’s globe-traveling: Spurlock can’t seem to overcome an impulse toward the basic, resorting always to the graphic where metaphor, reflection, or more considered scientific insight might have broadened the film’s perspective.

Cambodia, where a rat economy has taken shape, is the setting of one of the more interesting segments. There rice farmers trap rats live, and sell them by a kilogram to a man who drives to the Vietnam border, where he resells them to market vendors. In Cambodia, they wish for more rats; the Vietnamese, who like them barbequed, can’t get enough of them. The same is true in Rajasthan, where Indians crowd into Karni Mata temple, a Hindi site devoted to the worship of rats. Some of that footage I’ll never forget, which is not at all to say I’m glad I saw it.

Rats has little of interest to say about its subject, little to provoke thought or argument, beyond which mode of death one finds more vile, or more unjustifiable as viewing material. Those who dedicate their lives to the study of rats, their canny and their blight, may be dismayed to see what Spurlock makes of their work. Even the exterminator has a healthy respect for his opponent, something this film fails to muster. The broad, less thoughtful approach was that much easier. Spurlock’s was a perfectly human calculation – quite foreign, it would appear, to the common rat. You might say it’s why they’re winning.

Watch trailer:

 

Watch German thriller 'Rats' at SBS On Demand

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Germany, 2002
Genre: Thriller, Horror, Science Fiction
Language: English
Director: Jörg Lühdorff
Starring: Ralph Herforth, Christian Kahrmann
What's it about?
After performing an unauthorised rescue in his helicopter, Dabrock has been grounded and as punishment assigned to take care of the Frankfurt's growing rat problem. For a while, an unusual number of rats have been spotted in the city but when it is discovered that the rats are carrying and spreading a virus fatal to humans for which no vaccine exists Dabrock quickly realises that Frankfurt is facing a crisis which could wipe out most of its population.