Survival stories are tricky ones to tell on film, and not just because they often require filming under extreme conditions. While a battle against the elements has inherent drama that’s universally relatable, conveying the physical demands of the chosen scenario is never easy. Dealing with an inhospitable environment is all about stamina after all, and so the real challenges come from developing characters an audience can root for, as they sweat and bleed for their lives, and our entertainment. Heatstroke, despite adding of few shades of novelty to the man vs. nature genre, strands the viewer in the company of generic-brand characters, plodding its way through a plot that does little to elevate the film above a nightmarish travelogue.
If nothing else, there’s an effective inverse-economy to Heatstroke’s brief runtime that will leave you appropriately exhausted and worn-out after only 90 minutes. An episodic structure gives the film an awkward pacing after opening in hurry, with the camera following a ragged woman darting across the barren African plain, an aircraft seemingly in pursuit. We then flashback to what constitutes Heatstroke’s first act, one spent almost entirely in service of setting up the central character dynamics, as opposed to just rushing things into the life-or-death premise.
Stephen Dorff plays Paul, a divorced wildlife researcher about to embark on an expedition to South Africa with his Russian girlfriend, Tally (Svetlana Metkina). More committed to packs of hyenas than his family, Paul’s absentee fathering has led to his daughter, Jo (Maisie Williams), getting a head start on being a rabblerousing teen, so Paul brings her along on safari for a little father-daughter, and daughter-potential-step-mother bonding.
There are good intentions behind director Evelyn Purcell’s choice to keep focus on the improvised family for the opening half hour, but where the gambit bites back is in hammering home the uninspired flatness of their dynamic, over and over. Though the dysfunction of each relationship is apparent from each scene in which it is introduced, they represent a final destination, not a jumping off point for further development. Jo eye-rolls and plays with her iPad, Tally tries and fails to play nice with the despondent child, and Paul attempts to resolve all the familial tension by dropping hyena factoids. For a good thirty minutes, Heatstroke makes you the uncomfortable guest/hostage of every family vacation gone wrong.
Eventually, through a writerly cocktail of coincidence, contrivance, and just plain bad luck, events conspire that see Jo and Tally on the run in bush country, with a gang of loathsome poachers and gunrunners (led by Peter Stormare) looking to track them down. The shift is sudden, but does help Heatstroke briefly escape the gulch of bickering it starts out in. Once the action removes the characters from the comfort of base camp, Purcell is free to shoot the expansive landscapes of South Africa in all their glory, creating the film’s only interesting character in the process.
The pairing of Jo and Tally is initially potential-riddled, as the latter’s waifish appearance belies a surprising hyper-competence for keeping one step ahead of danger. This is countered by Jo’s own brain-dead incompetence, as she literally strolls right into the camp of the pair’s pursuers in order to transition the film’s midsection into a protracted game of cat and mouse. This also sets up a couple deeply discomforting scenes involving a pederast among the poachers, which is a kind of non-specific cheap grab at added tension that any film can do, regardless of setting.
With the rest of the film devoted to the combative duo trekking from one map marker to the next on their way back to civilization, one might expect their fraught relationship to get a little exposure. Sadly, paper-thin personalities can’t inspire dialogue that complicates their partnership beyond the most basic elements, and the performances suffer for it. When circumstances let Metkina slip into her native tongue even for a moment, she makes more of an impression than her purely functional dialogue allows for in English. And Williams, while a proven talent on Game of Thrones, makes for an unconvincing American brat, even one written like every other American brat you’ve seen on film.
Perhaps in response, Heatstroke spends its back half largely in silence as its heroines traverse the unforgiving veld, with random weather and wildlife providing stumbling blocks along the way. There’s really no point to the film, beyond a basic interest in not seeing grating, but not terrible, people die, a thematic point that doesn’t carry the film far once you’ve tired of all the sun-beaten vistas and shots of people dehydrating into jerky beneath the African heat.
A bafflingly contrived climax jolts the film to life in its final moments, one that’s dependent on a character turn that hasn’t been earned, but nonetheless makes the finale a fraction more interesting for trying. It’s a memorable moment in a film desperately lacking in them. Heatstroke is an all-together uninspired survival tale that has to lean on the natural beauty of its setting more than most, while otherwise squandering its one or two unique elements that might have separated it from the pack.
Making the most of its shooting location, but little else, Heatstroke generates middling thrills with its underwritten, overfamiliar tale of survival.