The other family-imperiled-by-rampaging-beasts movie this weekend, “Endangered Species” is different from “A Quiet Place Part II” in many ways, particularly in that its characters cannot stop yakking — with corresponding diminished viewer concern for their survival under extreme duress. MJ Bassett’s South African-produced thriller has a vacationing American clan doing all the wrong things in a Kenyan wildlife preserve. Needless to say, the local fauna quickly notice there are some fresh snacks on the savanna, to our protagonists’ grief.
The squabbling human dynamics make this outdoor suspense exercise one in which too soon we start rooting for the four-legged cast members. Slick and scenic but increasingly silly, by the end it has become perhaps the most preachily wrong-headed wildlife conservation adventure since the notorious “Roar” 40 years ago. Lionsgate is releasing to digital, VOD and limited theaters, with Blu-ray and DVD following on June 1.
Exxon executive Jack Halsey (Philip Winchester) is a Type A personality who’s already unhappy with his family vacation before it’s even begun. He’d have preferred a beach resort to the expensive safari holiday wife Lauren (Rebecca Romijn) insisted on. They’re introduced hurtling toward it on a rickety small plane he likewise gripes about, while the kids duly note that dad is sneaking booze to cope, as mom turns a blind eye.
Those young-adult children also have their own issues with him: Son Noah (Michael Johnston) is close to his father but at the same time feels his homosexuality isn’t fully accepted. Daughter Zoe (Isabel Bassett) never misses an opportunity to indict Jack’s white male privilege, or point out he’s not her “real” parent (Lauren’s first husband died when she was a baby), while she clings to the annoying hippie-ish older boyfriend (Chris Fisher as Billy) she’s invited along. Noah’s own boyfriend is pointedly absent.
Dad complains about the less-than-luxury rental van they pick up at the airport, but then he’s secretly cut travel-budget corners all around. (It’s not that he’s merely cheap: Though he’s neglected to tell her, Lauren accidentally discovers he may have just lost his job due to an oil-pipeline spill scandal.) Indeed, Jack did not book the pricey “safari” part of their safari trip. Ergo the next day they leave the resort for a “self-guided” tour of the nearby national park, something that is hardly recommended. They also evade sign-in at the entrance gate, so park rangers are unaware of their identities, medical issues or itinerary.
That is just one terrible mistake among many which fast leave the family stranded in the middle of a blazing-hot nowhere without guide, water or cell service, two of them wounded and their car flipped over by an angry rhinoceros. Diabetic Lauren’s insulin supply is another casualty. Thus the only two fully able-bodied passengers, Noah and Billy, set out on foot for help. This too turns out to be a very bad idea, with one party sidelined by an animal attack that provides the sole hair-raising interlude here. The luckier party scrams back to the van, which has meanwhile attracted unwelcome interest from a pack of hyenas.
“Endangered Species” is at once formulaic and a tad bizarre. It’s a family adventure with bloody R-rated content, as well as a plug for deluxe eco-tourism that at the same time constantly chides the values and lifestyles of people who can afford such. An ungodly amount of screentime is spent on characters yelling at each other, then apologizing, with special emphasis on criticizing dad’s parenting and leadership skills. The capable Winchester (also a producer here) gets stuck with a dreadful late monologue of paternal love and self-chastisement. If a wild animal won’t disembowel Jack, the screenplay is determined to get the job done itself.
That script by both Bassetts is heavy on soapboxing in general, also encompassing labored discussion of First World consumerism, exploitation, responsibility, hypocrisy, et al. The intentions are good, but the results rather laughable — turning “Species” into a gory yet woke family therapy session relating every tearful personal gripe to instruction on global issues. The conservation element is underlined by deployment of a shady fellow traveler (played rather hammily by Romijn’s spouse Jerry O’Connell) who may be connected to the park’s serious poaching problem, and thus is perhaps not the ideal stranger to encounter in a crisis.
Bassett, who made some enterprising indie genre films before 2012’s ill-received “Silent Hill: Revelation” prompted a shift toward episodic TV work, serves up plenty of handsome location-shot imagery in a polished escapist package. But as in last year’s likewise South African “Rogue” (which had Megan Fox as an improbable mercenary soldier battling lions), decent action and pacing can only do so much to gloss over the clunkiness of a screenplay co-written with the director’s daughter.
It’s a mystery why she’d write such a bratty, irksome character for herself. But then the film in general seems to misjudge the extent to which we’ll root for the reconciliatory survival of what one figure too-aptly pegs as an “arrogant American family.” Consequently, some of the later sentimental bathos amid violent melodrama may strike viewers as inadvertently hilarious, lending this wilderness tale a degree of extra entertainment value it did not intend.