Savage Harvest is a 1981 movie starring Tom Skerritt as the patriarch of a family under siege by a pride of lions in Africa. It is awesome. Heatstroke gives the impression early on that it’s aiming for a similar feel — albeit with the lions replaced by hyenas — but what follows is nothing of the sort.
There is only one hyena. And it’s less of a carnivorous threat than it is the reassuring reincarnation of Stephen Dorff (probably).
Paul (Dorff) is a hyena expert teaching classes on hyenas. The divorced father of one is planning a trip to South Africa with his girlfriend Tally (Svetlana Metkina), but a call from his distraught ex-wife worried that their daughter Jo (Maisie Williams) is using drugs leads to the ornery teenager joining the research safari. Tally has little interest in taking care of a child, but she tries her best in the face of Jo’s constant attitude and ungratefulness. Their relationship is made even more tenuous when Paul runs afoul of a pair of poachers and the two ladies are left to fend for themselves against the deadly forces of nature and of man.
There’s a fine tradition of survival films set across the African veldt from The Naked Prey to Blood Diamond (to The Gods Must Be Crazy), and the key to their success is found in two main areas. The world presented needs to be convincingly threatening and all-encompassing, and the person/people lost in the wild need to be engaging in their journey. They don’t have to be likable, but they need to be interesting.
Heatstroke does a solid job with the former, but the characters are more frustrating than they are captivating.
Director Evelyn Purcell and cinematographer Ben Nott deliver a film and a world that alternates between the beautiful and the menacing. The landscape is both inviting and terrifying — a sandstorm sequence in particular is wonderfully crafted with its visuals and music cue — and the benefit of filming in South Africa is evident in just about every frame. The desert stretches to the horizon, only stopping at the base of equally gorgeous but off-putting mountains, with small pockets of brush, trees and cracked earth.
Unfortunately though the script simply can’t match the awe and power of the visuals on display. It starts fine with time spent establishing the three characters, but their generic characteristics keep them from ever becoming more than two-dimensional cliches. Paul comes closest, and Dorff finds a spark within him filled with love for both hyenas and his family, but the other two are little more than a bitchy teenager and a reluctant step-mom. Jo in particular knows only two speeds — obnoxious and frustrating — and while Williams is competent here she’s not able to elevate the role beyond its position as “conflict machine.”
The script fails to enliven the story as well. After a strong setup on the intelligence and ability of hyenas we’re left with a promise that’s never fulfilled. Instead a single hyena pops up periodically, laughing and licking its chops, but it never really does much of anything else. Is it Paul’s guardian angel form? Is it a metaphor of some sort for the wild spirit of Africa? Is it Tally’s furry familiar? Or is it just a lost hyena? It’s all left by the wayside in favor of a very basic arc on motherhood and the importance of family that packs a fairly limp dramatic punch.
Hyenas aside, the pair’s trek through an unforgiving landscape would ideally lead to more character development, but that’s not the case here. The two continue in their roles — with Jo in particular testing even the most forgiving viewer’s patience — instead of growing beyond them. At least until an oddly abrupt ending brings their trek to an unexpectedly direct conclusion. Flat as they may be, the pair do get into a handful of dangerous encounters that succeed in ramping up the tension and excitement however briefly.
Heatstroke looks good and creates a world where the heat and dryness feel palpable, but it’s a barely populated one. Lead characters are hardly developed, supporting roles are one-note and the wildlife consists of a snake, a scorpion and a single damn hyena. Fans of the survival sub-genre will find some visual splendor and minor thrills, but there’s little else here to attract and hold attention.
The Upside: Hyena is cool; great cinematography; Stephen Dorff; sandstorm sequence
The Downside: Script; some performance issues; daughter character; paucity of hyenas
On the Side: Evelyn Purcell was second unit director on 1984’s Swing Shift.
Heatstroke is currently available on VOD and iTunes and in limited theatrical release.