Cocaine Bear: Why?

Of course you want to watch a movie about a bear on drugs.

A film still of Cocaine Bear standing on one side of a tree, and a woman hiding on the other
Pat Redmond / Universal Pictures

Two questions immediately occur to anyone watching the trailer for Cocaine Bear: Is this real? and Why? The first is easy enough to answer. The film, about a black bear that gobbles bricks of cocaine and then butchers a series of humans in rapid succession, is loosely based on a real-life black bear that, in 1985, gobbled at least part of a single brick of cocaine and then died.

The true story had no murderous rampage. When investigators finally found the corpse of the 175-pound male, nicknamed Pablo Eskobear, all that was left were “bones and a big hide” and three to four grams of cocaine in his bloodstream—an unseemly end for an otherwise honorable creature that was merely trawling his neighborhood for a snack (as bears do!). Long immortalized in memes as a descendant of Tony Montana, and a popular “TIL” on Reddit, the announcement, in March 2021, that Universal Pictures was backing a movie about him made sense. Kind of.

But when the trailer finally dropped last week ahead of its release in February, the internet was not ready. It elicited inside me a primal hell yeah. The flurry of memes the trailer has generated—at the expense of do-gooders like Paddington and the other Coke bear—suggests that I am not alone in my enthusiasm. But most people I shared it with thought it was a joke at first, and many couldn’t believe it is a real movie—and still don’t. Other memes shared in their incredulity. I couldn’t understand their resistance until I realized that I couldn’t explain why I loved it.

What is it about this objectively dumb premise that is so appealing? A voice-over, emerging in the trailer after the bear sneezes a fine mist of postnasal drip on some children and before he snorts a line off a severed leg, suggests a straightforward explanation to the Why? question: “Apex predator … high on cocaine … out of its mind.” That is, the strung-out bear—the animal equivalent of the late Ray Liotta’s coked-out gangster in Goodfellas, starring Ray Liotta as a cocaine smuggler!—is the latest star in a long line of Hollywood animal-monster movies. Cocaine Bear inhabits the same ecosystem as the Jaws shark, The Grey’s wolves, and the anaconda in Anaconda: animals that get their own films because they’re scary, and that’s fun to watch. Apparently, infinitely more so if they’re stoned. (Recall that the snakes on the plane in Snakes on a Plane were high on a mysterious pheromone.)

Animal attacks are as thrilling as they are terrifying—more likely, they’re thrilling because they’re terrifying. That’s largely because they awaken the ancient fear of predators that can devour us, Wesley Larson, a wildlife biologist and co-host of the animal-attack podcast Tooth and Claw, told me. Humans have been Earth’s apex predator for much of recent history, but that wasn’t—still isn’t—always the case; a recent episode of the podcast discussed a two-versus-one matchup between high-school wrestlers and a grizzly (the students survived, but not without injuries), and a woman attacked by a python (her corpse was discovered intact—in its stomach).

Well, what of monsters on drugs? Most people, I would hope, don’t lose sleep over sharks on speed and pythons on Percocet. The Cocaine Bear’s drug response is funny but not exactly believable, not least because the dreamy expression he occasionally wears in the trailer suggests marijuana or magic mushrooms, not cocaine, Larson said. Besides, he added, “I don’t think consuming any amount of cocaine would cause a bear to go totally psychotic and want to just go on a murderous rampage.” Grizzly bears can get upset and charge at vehicles as they awaken from sedation, but that’s less an effect of the drugs and more of it “being a weird day for the bear,” he explained. According to a 1977 report on cocaine published by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, cocaine doesn’t reliably cause aggression in any animal. Squirrel monkeys provoked to fight became testy after midsize doses but less so after higher ones, while coked-up pigeons and mice can mellow out.

Is that all there is to Cocaine Bear’s appeal—the embodiment of a primal fear, jacked up on stimulants? Well, maybe; less intellectual animal-monster movies have been made. But perhaps there is more to it. As I discovered, when you watch the trailer 20 or more times—it is essentially a succession of bumbling medics and drug smugglers trying to kill his vibe—you may find yourself … rooting for him. Look at the human buffoons surrounding the bear: There is a lackey who thinks his pistol could persuade a bear to drop a brick of cocaine. There is a man who escapes up a tree, knowing that a bear could climb it. Listen as the camera pans to smug tourists observing an intimate moment between the bear and a tree trunk. Hear that? It’s your lizard brain whispering, Get ’em!

Sheer theatrics aside, perhaps part of the reason animal horror has been popular for so long is that it holds up a mirror reflecting the animalness in all of us. One of the more interesting aspects of the genre is that it draws out, often by anthropomorphizing, the traits we share with animals: the instinct to defend, for example, or to draw away in fear. This uneasy dynamic underlies films such as Frogs, Claws (a widely panned bear-themed take on Jaws, released in 1977), and the Planet of the Apes series, which bluntly collapses the borders distinguishing humans and animals. The editors of the 2016 anthology Animal Horror Cinema wrote that the genre is “made possible by the spatial and conceptual separation of the human and the non-human animal,” and horror ensues when these “come face to face, or even cross the theoretical borders that separate them.” Like bears defying park rangers, or snorting our drugs.

When I asked Nicklas Hållén, a co-editor of the anthology and a senior lecturer at Karlstad University, in Sweden, to watch the trailer for Cocaine Bear, his first thought was that it was a “tongue-in-cheek film about excess and destructive nihilism,” he wrote in an email. It is appealing because of its promise of chaos and destruction, which some people enjoy as a spectacle, especially when it doesn’t affect things they care about, he said. “I therefore bet my hat that in this film, there will be a long series of unpleasant, unlikeable side characters who get in the bear’s way.” A caveat, he added, is that such films often have no philosophical subtext. This is likely why so many animal horror films—say, Piranha 3D, or Eight Legged Freaks—are also classified as comedies.

As it turns out, you’re supposed to feel for the bear. The film’s director, Elizabeth Banks, has said that the film was “almost the opportunity to make a revenge movie for the [real-life] bear,” which she described as “collateral damage in this fucked-up war on drugs.” To return to the Why? question: Because he’s a martyr. Because he’s all of us. Because, in the time it took to honor him with a movie, he was stuffed, sold, and displayed at a mall in northern Kentucky, complete with (admittedly excellent) merch and his own sideways trucker hat. One hopes, for the sake of all animals—human and otherwise—that the film grants the noble beast a more triumphant arc.