Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Bridget Moynahan, Peter Weller, Carly Schroeder, Conner Dowds, Jamie Bartlett
Directed by Darrell Roodt
Distributed by Genius Products, LLC.
If anything, Prey should prove inspirational to any filmmaker who has ever made a truly awful movie. Hey, if the guy that wrote and directed Dracula 3000 can still get work, then so can you. One would think being responsible for making a film destined for infamy in the annals of bad movie history like the one where Casper Van Dien and Erika Eleniak run around a not-so-futuristic spaceship with pool sticks battling a Knights of Columbus Halloween haunted house quality Dracula and a vampiric, pot smoking Coolio would be enough to kill a career dead. Nope. Darrell Roodt's back with Prey, a thriller he co-wrote with Jeff Wadlow and Beau Bauman, the writing directing duo behind Cry Wolf. Now they're crying lion.
Prey is essentially Cujo with lions. You've got a woman and kids in need of rescue trapped in a vehicle under siege by hungry lions in a remote location. The lion attacks are pretty realistic; no comical Sci-Fi Channel claw swipe beheadings here. The movie opens with actual footage of a pride of lions chasing down and making a feast out of a zebra, and that's pretty much what they do to people in this film. The human maulings are pretty gruesome; what's left of the victims after they're finished even more so. The filmmakers have used real lions for the most part, along with some pretty realistic puppetry that's often difficult to spot. Unfortunately, there are one or two very brief shots where we see some pretty fake-looking CGI lions.
Engineer Tom Newman (Robocop's Peter Weller, a criminally underused actor who gets criminally underused here as well) heads to Africa with his new, much younger wife, Amy (I, Robot's Bridget Moynahan; despite the scenario, the producers still find a way to get her stripped down to her sports bra before it's over), and his two children from a previous marriage, Jessica and David. Tom's there on business, but he also thinks this is a primo occasion for the new family to bond. Fourteen-year-old Jessica isn't happy with her parents' divorce, and she's even less happy about her new stepmom. David, meanwhile, seems to just take the entire situation in stride. Perhaps because he too hopes that he'll one day be able to bag a babe like Bridget Moynahan when he's middle-aged with kids?
While Tom heads off to help oversee the building of a new dam, stepmom and the kids head off on a sightseeing safari by car. When Jessica whines that they've heard more about the animals from their young tour guide than they've actually seen first-hand, he decides to deviate from the trail - never a good move. David needs to pee and refuses to do so into a bottle, so the guide has to stop the jeep and accompanies the tyke to a nearby tree, rifle in hand. If I were in a location where urinating required an armed chaperone, I think I'd try holding it in a while, or at least use the bottle.
Sure enough, a trio of lions begin eyeballing David and the tour guide as if they were tasty gazelles. The guide aims his gun at one and tells the frightened lad to slowly back away towards to the jeep. Whether or not this would have gotten them all out of harm's way we'll never know because Amy decided she had to do something too, and by something I mean get out of the jeep, start jumping up and down, waving her arms, and screaming, "Over here!" at one of the other lions. I think she was trying to get the attention of the second lion so that it would be less inclined to attack David or the guide. Instead it only succeeded in getting all three lions to go on the attack simultaneously. David and Amy make it back to the jeep safely; the guide ends up dead meat - literally.
Making matters worse, the guide had taken the keys with him, they can't get a phone signal out in the middle of the African brush, and this jeep doesn't even have a CB radio in it. No CB radio in a jeep designed to take people on tours through the wilds of Africa? This jeep doesn't even have a horn, and a horn as it would turn out is something else they could have used at more than one point. What the hell kind of fly-by-night tour group did this family get hooked up with?
As the trio of hungry lions force them to remain holed up inside the jeep, Amy tries to calm the kids by telling them that their dad and the tour company will send a search party out after them when they don't return from their excursion, but what they don't know is that no one can go looking for them until the next morning, and even then finding them will be that much harder because they're off the given tour trail. Tom will eventually be forced to turn to a local tracker for help finding his family, the type of tracker that can pick up a handful of lion dung and deduce how long it's been since its last feeding and likes giving sarcastic speeches about foolish city slickers from wealthy countries coming to the wilds of Africa and treating it like a zoo. Any possible search and rescue will get even more complicated after Amy retrieves the car keys and speeds off in the jeep like such a madwoman that she actually manages to wreck the jeep even further out in the middle of nowhere. Those determined lions stalk them to the new location, and the cycle starts all over again.
In retrospect, given that it was her antics that seemingly set off the lions in the first place and her crashing the jeep that made their predicament even more dire, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Amy was an even bigger threat to these kids than the man-eating lions? Her previous moments of stupidity will make her sudden MacGyver-level resourcefulness towards the end that much harder to swallow.
Considering what an incompetent mess - and that's putting it mildly - Dracula 3000 proved to be, Darrell Roodt definitely deserves credit for getting back to competent filmmaking (the South African filmmaker has previously helmed the South African dramas Dangerous Ground and Cry, The Beloved Country), but he still makes some crucial mistakes, not the least of which is the film's overall lack of suspense. There's more genuine tension developed in the relationship between stepmom Amy and stepdaughter Jessica than in almost everything involving the lions stalking them. It doesn't help that much of the time the lions have little to do other than just lurk somewhere in the vicinity of the car, usually watching their potential prey from a distance with their "lion-vision." Roodt keeps falling back on giving us the lions' visually distorted point-of-view, an overused cliché of creature features and killer animal movies that is overused here at times to an almost satirical degree. It also appears that lion eyes possess a zoom lens.
I also couldn't help but wonder why these predatory lions were spending night and day watching this car in anticipation of when one of the people inside would finally step out of it into the open, and yet during those moments when someone did exit the vehicle for whatever reason, the lions sure took their sweet time before finally deciding to make a dash for their prey.
One of these emergences from the vehicle will lead to the introduction of a pair of poachers, and I must admit that something struck me as being almost a bit unsettling that the makers of this movie would initially try to make you think that the first black Africans this family would encounter upon arriving in Africa might have some malicious intent of their own in mind for these lily white outsiders. This is the whitest Africa I think I've ever seen in a movie.
Overall, there's really nothing wrong with the directing, the writing, or even the acting; the young actress playing daughter Jessica is the real star of the movie. The only knock against Prey is that it's a very conventional thriller that's perfectly watchable, yet never particularly engaging, a fairly run-of-the-mill movie that really could have used more bite.
2 1/2 out of 5
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