Endangered Species is a lean, mostly successful little thriller that proves director Bassett’s legitimate genre chops.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the last decades of the 20th century were a golden age of animal adventure tales, whether geared towards kids (The Bear, Homeward Bound, Babe) or adults (The Edge, The Ghost and the Darkness). Hollywood doesn’t really bother with medium-budget movies anymore, leaving this kind of action genre-adjacent stuff to the provenance of the SyFy Channel — with their interminable series of sharks and snakes and crocodiles vs various cephalopods and humans — and the world of DTV. Writer/director M.J. Bassett is steadily carving herself out a nice little spot in this world of low-budget thrills, unleashing Rogue last year, in which Megan Fox fights off both human traffickers and giant lions, and now Endangered Species, in which an unassuming family must survive an African safari gone horribly awry.
Arriving in Kenya for an exotic getaway, the Halsey family is in disarray. Dad Jack (Philip Winchester) is having problems at work and keeping it a secret from wife Lauren (Rebecca Romijn). Son Noah (Michael Johnston) worships his dad, but also knows that he quietly disapproves of his being gay. Daughter Zoe (Isabel Bassett, also the film’s co-writer) has brought her older hippie boyfriend Billy (Chris Fisher) along for the trip and is avoiding college against Jack’s wishes. It’s a volatile dynamic, which lends an air of authenticity to an otherwise outlandish premise. M.J. and Isabel’s screenplay sets up a series of red flags, all of which collapse in on the family at the same time. Jack can’t afford an official tour guide, so decides to take the family into the safari grounds without one. In a fit of macho hubris, Jack also neglects to check in at the entry gates, meaning there’s no official record of their group having entered the park. Throwing caution to the wind, the family turns their crummy rental van down a closed-off path, ignoring literal warning signs, hoping to get closer to the wildlife. It’s a series of bad decisions that push against the suspension of disbelief, but it mostly works, and almost immediately a rhino attacks the vehicle, knocking it over and crushing their glass water bottles and Lauren’s insulin in the process.
And so, it’s a race against time, as they need more medicine before Mom dies, while avoiding the sun, a pack of hyenas that have begun circling the wreckage, and other assorted wild threats. Naturally, the preexisting familial dysfunction also rears its ugly head, leading to snippy confrontations and angry recriminations. Bassett keeps things lively, leaving ample negative space around her actors and forcing the viewer to constantly scan the background for lurking threats. And once the family splits up to search for a cell signal, the shit really hits the fan. Endangered Species is mostly a lot of fun, fully embracing its fractured Swiss Family Robinson vibe, although not everyone here will survive. As is par for the course with this kind of low-budget affair, the special effects vary from passable to awful, and not all of the cast is up for the task — Winchester, in particular, overplays the douchebag dad angle while never really selling any paternal warmth underneath all the posturing. Still, there are some standout sequences here that rival movies with ten times the budget. It’s a lean, sometimes thrilling, and occasionally mean 90 minutes — someone get Bassett a franchise picture and let her really cut loose.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | May 2021.