In times of stress and unrest, there’s a lot to be said for the simple pleasures of a thriller where the world’s anxieties are reduced to a simple struggle to survive only one threat: in this case, an enraged cat on the prowl. This effort, from Everest director Baltasar Kormákur, doesn’t exploit its premise to the max, but with the help of a solid cast it manages enough tension to distract us from, well, all our other tension.
Idris Elba is Nate, a doctor who has taken his bereaved daughters Mer (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) to South Africa on safari, to visit their late mother's home and see her old friend, gamekeeper Martin (Sharlto Copley). Alas, this little gang arrive in the wilderness to find a rogue lion on the loose. The menaced posse must find a way back to safety as it stalks them through the bush.
In keeping with the modern tendency to give every villain a sympathetic backstory, this king of the jungle is merely acting out after its pride are slaughtered by poachers. As with any modern man versus nature tale, there’s a distinct temptation to side with the baddie here – despite the cast’s considerable efforts to make their thinly written characters likeable. Still, it poses an almost supernatural threat to every human it encounters, capable of taking down an entire village without an effective shot being fired, apparently.
As with most man vs nature tales, the temptation is to side with the baddie
Kormákur creates some effective jump scares and considerable suspense as the lion stalks its prey with blood-chilling growls one minute and deadly silence the next. The CGI budget can’t always quite match his ambition, however, and perhaps as a result, his timing sometimes seems off. The opening scene, where the lion first goes on the attack, is oddly truncated, and several scenes of genuine menace fail to pay off. These moments feel less like effective toying with our expectations and more like slight bungling of the premise.
Still, Elba has presence and his onscreen daughters are spiky and largely avoid making obviously terrible decisions, in contrast to many similar adventures stories. In the battle between Big Dris and Big Cat, we might sympathise with all the lion has been through, but our money is just about on the human.
In US theaters now. In UK cinemas Aug 26.