Quick Synopsis: Idris Elba fights a lion whilst mourning for his dead wife in this intense survival thriller by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur
“Man Vs. Animal” movies are tricky, for two reasons: 1) Man has a gun, so he already has a distinct advantage, you can’t shoot anybody with bear arms. 2) It’s going to be compared to Jaws. Especially when the best way to get rid of most giant animals is to blow them up. Jaws did everything so perfectly that being compared to it automatically knocks you down a few points.
Of course, I haven’t seen Jaws (yet, watching it next month), but I’ve read the book, and I’ve seen it referenced enough times in popular media that I can pick up references to it. Maybe that works in my favour as it means I’m not that familiar with the tropes and conventions, because it’s a genre I haven’t explored much I’m not watching this film thinking of the cliches. I’m guessing that’s why the reviews have been mixed, because a lot of people see it and all they can see is the cliches. I liked it though. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen but it’s a snappy and entertaining piece of cinema. It’s not going to change your life, but you can sit there, forget your troubles, and be entertained for 90 minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the dialogue could be better. A lot of the dialogue actually, there’s far too much clunky exposition. And there are times when the film veers into a slightly dreamlike territory which doesn’t really suit it. It’s at its best when it’s just Idris Elba panicking but hiding his panic for the sake of his family. It’s a simple story that’s easy to understand, easy to relate to, and already provides an emotional baseline for the film to work with. Most of the film is him, Leah Jeffries, and Iyana Halley. Iyana and Leah are relatively new, but do pretty well. Not “I’m going to watch their next film” good, but “I expect they’re going to do something REALLY good in the next few years” good. It’s a difficult film for them, as they have to act alongside Idris Elba, who (in my mind), is one of the greatest actors around at the moment. If their performance drops, it will be made much more noticeable by who they’re alongside. Thankfully, they work. Even when they deliver lines which could make them seem horrible, they deliver them in such a way that it works and you still sympathise with them.
Now onto the best thing about this film. The thing that means you can ignore the clunky dialogue, the somewhat predictable story, and some of the characters weird decisions: the directing. The only film by Kormákur that I’ve seen before is Adrift. This far surpasses that in technical brilliance. CGI lions are hard to do convincingly (as anybody who watched the live-action version of The Lion King can attest), you need to have them have expressive enough body language, while also looking real. You could, you know, just use real animals, but only if you don’t like your actors that much. I was watching this wondering how they did it, I assumed they had some incredibly tame animals, but nope, was CGI. That’s simply incredible, you never feel you’re watching fake animals here, everything looks real. They all have a physical presence on screen so if someone did tell you they were really there on set, you wouldn’t be that surprised.
Kormákur could have made it easier for himself by having them in darkness, and cutting away to reaction shots a lot, or having quite quick shots so your eyes don’t focus properly which would make it easier to hide CGI flaws. Whilst a lot of film is in darkness, that feels more like a storytelling method than a technical workaround, in terms of darkness it’s more Alien than Cheap Student Horror. A fair amount of the film takes place in the light, so you can see all the animals clearly, if there were any imperfections, you’d notice. And then there are the shots, they are long. When Kormákur has a choice between cutting away, and following the characters/action, he always goes with the second (and the most difficult) option. There are long action sequences, and I can only imagine how difficult that was for the effects team to work with, but the fact it all looks as good as it does is a testament to the skill of everybody involved.
So in summary, yeah you should watch this. Some films make you laugh, some make you cry, and some scare you, but this is one of the best examples of something that is both popcorn cinema and technical brilliance. I didn’t see Jurassic Park at the cinema (I watched it the way Spielberg intended, on a dodgy video from a market stall), but if I had watched it on the big screen, I imagine my feelings coming out of it would have been similar to this (albeit, that had better music), a feeling of amazement and wonder at what I had just seen.