The filmmakers behind Jungle, a based-on-a-true-story account of survival in extremis, take their time gathering together their main players and getting them into the titular habitat. Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe), an eager and charming Israeli, is roughing it in Bolivia, searching for adventure. He ingests native psychotropics with an anonymous, pretty young woman (Lily Sullivan) who reads aloud to him from Camus’s Happy Death while they loll in hammocks. Soon he joins up with two similarly minded young men: Marcus (Joel Jackson), a Swiss schoolteacher on sabbatical, and Kevin (Alex Russell), a photographer. Together, they decide to follow Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), a mysterious man Yossi meets on the streets of La Paz, into the Amazon, with promises of guided access to remote areas, secret tribes, and not-for-tourist experiences.
The film’s first third is chockablock with platitudes about wanderlust, the wisdom of tribal peoples, and society’s misguided relationship to nature. It adheres to a structure that director Greg McLean used in 2005’s Wolf Creek: slowly familiarizing us with its characters, so that even if they’re not exactly likable, they’re sympathetic in their recognizable humanity. That way, when the bad stuff eventually happens, viewers will really root for them. After all, you don’t come to a film like Jungle for its dorm-room wisdom, but for the terror you hope a horror filmmaker as proven as McLean will muster in the dark and feral depths of uncharted rainforest: Earth’s final frontier.
McLean and screenwriter Justin Monjo faithfully hit the key plot points of Yossi Ghinsberg’s 1993 book Back from Tuichi but fail to sell the severity of the threats Yossi confronts. The foursome split up, and Yossi and Kevin continue down the Beni River in a jungle-rigged raft, but then an accident separates them, and Yossi is stranded alone in the hostile wilderness, with limited supplies and no food. He faces obstacles but each just once—inexplicably so, as though chasing off one jaguar once would scare them all off forever. While the scares don’t quite work, McLean revels in a different aspect of horror-thrillers: the gross-out. Yossi eats raw bird embryos straight from eggs as Na’vi-blue as his eyes; he cuts open a head wound and squeezes out a worm; he pulls off his socks to reveal hideously ulcerated, fungus-infected feet. The sound department emphasizes every bone-cracking chomp and tongue-sloshing squish of monkey meat eaten straight off its fire-roasted corpse.
McLean and Monjo keep Radcliffe talking throughout, presumably to keep the audience engaged in Yossi’s survival trials, though the actor dominates the screen just through the intensity of his body language and the emotions roiling in his eyes. Yossi deals with his own jungle-version of space madness, battling delirium, despair, and various hallucinations, meaning we frequently accompany him to an American-style diner, or a high-end casino, where he wears a tuxedo and the most beautiful woman present throws herself at him. Women appear in the film almost only as fantasies: the non-native women he meets or dreams about are sex objects, while the racially caricatured and possibly imagined indigenous woman (Yasmin Kassim) he meets in the forest gives his male ego something to protect and chastely spoon at night.
Jungle doesn’t benefit from comparisons to other recent works about Central and South American exploration. It has none of the gravitas of James Gray’s (or David Grann’s) The Lost City of Z, and it conjures just a fraction of the effortless terror inherent to the rainforest in Douglas Preston’s book about unpeopled regions of Honduras, The Lost City of the Monkey God, whose pages crawl with infinite cockroaches, supersized killer snakes, and angry monkeys that seemed never before to have seen humans. As if to compensate for such deficiencies, McLean drenches his film in Johnny Klimek’s intrusive score for full orchestra, using it to try to evoke the fear, resiliency, and triumph that he should have expressed through the story and visuals.