It sometimes feels as if films based on the inspirational stories of real-life figures – y’know, the ones who fought their way through struggle and strife and overcame all obstacles to glory – are as easy to come by as certain venereal diseases. Though occasionally there is a bright spot, a film that transcends the trappings of this most over-wrought and over-exposed of genres, it feels as if the majority of these movies are satisfied with coasting along on the interest of the true story itself, rather than finding some sort of reason to justify telling this story at this time. They simply exist; limp, tepid, and without purpose. On the one hand, you have Jean-Marc Vallee’s ‘Wild’, or Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’. On the other, you have ‘Jungle’.
Unveiling as the opening night film of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, ‘Jungle’ is director Greg McLean’s recounting of young backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg’s hellish ordeal in the Bolivian rainforest in the early 1980s. Separated from his fellow adventurers, Ghinsberg (here portrayed by a more than game Daniel Radcliffe) was stranded alone in the Amazon for three weeks, battling the elements and barely surviving encounters with dangerous threats both natural and psychological. It’s an incredible story - it’s just a shame that it’s made for such a lacklustre film adaptation.
McLean, known primarily for more straightforward genre fare in the form of the ‘Wolf Creek’ films, gets things off to a rocky start. Early stretches detail the formation of this group of young men – filled out by American photographer Kevin Gale (Alex Russell) and Swiss teacher Marcus Stamm (Joel Jackson) – and how they came to be duped by would-be guide Karl Ruprechter (Thomas Kretschmann), who led them on a doomed journey to a non-existent tribe of natives. Here, only the barest attempts at characterisation are made, and are only made somewhat passable by the amiable chemistry shared between the three leads. But as the characters are conned by Ruprechter and follow him into the jungle, every decision and action they make feels preordained – and not from the truth of How Things Actually Happened, but by the laziness and impatience of the script. Entire scenes play out in the most clichéd way imaginable, as if whole conversations had been created from an amalgamation of lines from other, better screenplays – there’s no specificity, no sense of how people actually interact.
Every scene feels like the result of a checked box on a list of required moments. Here’s the part where they meet, they argue, they distrust each other, they walk, they fight – until the film finally gets to the point it’s actually interested in, which is Ghinsberg’s time alone in the jungle. And while there are some impressive set pieces, the problem is that by then the story has lost all weight. We don’t care about these people, because the work hasn’t been put in to make them fully fleshed out human beings – which is ironic, because they literally are. Worse still, this feeling of breezing over the greatest hits of this story doesn’t disappear. Each set piece of body horror or natural calamity comes at regular intervals and without any sense of accumulated impact. Which means that at no point do we forget that this is a tale of survival and feel any sort of legitimate fear for Yossi. The stakes simply aren’t there.
Every decision and action they make feels preordained – and not from the truth of How Things Actually Happened, but by the laziness and impatience of the script.
Even with this in mind, if the film were a technical achievement, this rather glaring flaw would at least be somewhat forgivable – heck, ‘The Revenant’ fooled people into thinking it was a good film based almost entirely on its cinematography – but alas, that is not the case here. Everything has an odd sheen to it, an overly-lit quality that removes any sense of verisimilitude from proceedings, leaving everything feeling strangely safe for a film about a man who came incredibly close to death in such a dangerous place. And where other similar, better films find a way to tie their stories of survival into grander themes – for instance, man’s relationship with nature, or the spiritual toll of such suffering, or how much Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to do to win an Oscar – only frustratingly brief attempts at developing actual thematic impact appear very late in the game. At which point they are immediately overshadowed by some of the worst dialogue this side of a Michael Bay movie, with one line in particular that I honestly could not believe someone would still think was a good idea in 2017. Seriously. How?
Though the cast is charismatic and eager, and the story it’s based on is indeed astonishing, the film is a disappointingly limp affair. While it tells Yossi Ghinsberg’s story with a clear reverence for the man himself, it forgets to actually be a film in the process.