"The croc will learn your routine...they're pretty much living dinosaurs who have been perfecting their hunting skills for over 200 million years."
In the post-Jaws landscape, we've been treated to a variety of water-based creature features. But most of them usually go for a chuckle along with the scream: From early tributes like Piranha and Alligator to more recent entries like Anaconda and Lake Placid (all of which I enjoyed), there's been a healthy dose of satire infused with the action, knowing winks that seem to suggest it's perhaps too challenging to play this kind of film straight. That's one of many reasons why I absolutely adore Rogue, the 2007 croc shocker from Australian director Greg McLean.
The film got an extremely limited theatrical run in April of 2007, probably in part because of the dismal box office of an apparently similar feature that January: Primeval, a movie that isn't nearly as rancid as many would have you believe--but one that is, in reality, only about 20 percent crocodile. Sadly, many filmgoers will bypass Rogue thinking it's a direct-to-video cheapie, when in fact it comes from an extremely talented genre director on the rise (McLean gave us the brutal, polarizing Wolf Creek in 2005) and features a top-notch cast led by two underappreciated talents: Michael Vartan and Radha Mitchell.
Vartan plays Pete McKell, an easily annoyed Chicago-based travel writer who heads to Australia's Northern Territory. He's one of nine passengers who hop aboard a river boat cruise steered by Kate Ryan (Mitchell), who takes them into a remote area in a breathtakingly beautiful gorge--one that is a known home to saltwater crocodiles, the most dangerous member of the croc family. But everything is under control, right?
The group includes an annoying Aussie joke maker, a silent loner (Wolf Creek's killer, the unrecognizable John Jarratt), an American couple (including Robert Taylor, seen in another Aussie chiller: Jamie Blanks' Storm Warning), and a local family of three with a wife/mother of deteriorating health. Along the trip, Kate also runs into former flame Neil (the charismatic Sam Worthington, soon to headline James Cameron's epic Avatar), a combative asshole who jokes around with his equally annoying buddy. When a mysterious flare gets the boat's attention, Kate decides to head deeper down the river to investigate. That's when the film kicks into gear, and our band of strangers finds itself stranded on a very small island in a rising tidal river--with a territorial 23-foot crocodile ready to feast.
McLean is clearly a fan of Jaws, but his winks are minor (listen for a great exchange between Mitchell and Taylor) and don't detract from his own vision. Like Spielberg's masterpiece, Rogue knows the importance of not showing too much too soon. McLean and his crew do a fabulous job of building the tension, with fleeting glimpses slowly pumping up our heartbeat. There are two major set pieces that account for the bulk of the scares, and both of them are fantastic. But a warning to gore lovers: Rogue is not an excessively bloody ride. There's carnage, but fans who want guts galore are best advised to look elsewhere. And that's one of the many refreshing things about the film: it creates a believable fear of the unknown (and unseen), relying on mood and tone to scare you.
One of the film's strengths is its attention to character development: even with limited screen time and dialogue, all of the actors do an amazing job of fleshing out lifelike human beings you care about, not stereotypes you want to see get slaughtered. Vartan is perfect as a reluctant hero, and McLean thankfully refrains from clichés in handling the relationships between the hopeful survivors. The second half of the film goes somewhere you might not expect--the story slows down briefly at one point where I thought it would go faster--and there's one development I wasn't completely sold on.
But those are minor quibbles, especially when you consider the immense talent on display behind the camera. McLean and director of photographer Will Gibson (whose energy is seen a lot in the bonus features, and who tragically has since died) give us shots of the Northern Territory that will take your breath away. Those alone make Rogue worth seeing, planting you right in the middle of the tranquil yet dangerous paradise, some stunning aerial shots giving you a sense of isolation.
And while I am not close to being an effects expert, I have to admit I was highly impressed by the croc work. Their beast looks far more realistic than most creatures from my movie memory, and it also sounds and behaves accordingly. Combined with smart shots, tight editing and moody music, McLean and company frequently got my pulse pounding--and they don't always go for the shocks you're expecting, keeping you uneasy for as long as possible.
Rogue doesn't rewrite the genre. It's simply a top-notch movie made by people who love what they're doing, and I have to applaud a high-quality horror film that takes itself--and us--seriously. McLean knows how to throw us a wink (love the song in the closing credits!) without letting it mar his overall intent: to scare us by staying as grounded in reality as possible. Alexandre Aja has (rightfully) been getting a lot of attention from horror hounds as leading the charge of fresh new directors, but McLean is right there beside him--I can't wait to see what he does next.
This "unrated" edition has a total running time of 99 minutes, seven longer than the theatrical version. In the audio commentary, McLean points out many of the additions, and most of them were character development scenes. If there's extra gore that wasn't included before, that isn't made clear.
The anamorphic 1:85:1 widescreen transfer is a beauty to behold, led by some incredible shots of the Northern Territory and other picturesque Aussie backdrops. McLean notes in his commentary how some of the shots where Radha Mitchell steers the boat look so amazing, you'll swear they were fake. Not the case. The colors are rich and vibrant, although the film gets darker quickly and opts for lots of brown/green tints. The bonus features note how the filmmakers used various filters to finish the film's coloring, showing before and after shots that show why alterations were made.
Leading the way is a solid 5.1 surround track which does a first-rate job of placing you in the picture. You can almost feel the heat in the opening scene, and the rear channels get a few chances to shine throughout. This isn't sonic overload--like the monster, the sound is meant to creep up on you, and there aren't a lot of loud, harsh distractions. It's a subtle effort that works perfectly. Also included are English and Spanish subtitles.
Watching the fantastic collection of bonus features assembled here will give you an even greater appreciation for the film and the true talent that went into putting it all together. These people knew what they were doing, and went to great lengths to keep the quality high. Leading the charge is the outstanding documentary The Making of Rogue (45:44), which covers everything from the film's initial inspiration to the final coloring process. Writer/director Greg McLean talks about Sweetheart, a croc that attacked fishing boats in the late '70s (some news report footage is shown). Many other crew members are on board, including director of photography Will Gibson and visual effects supervisors Dave Marley and Andrew Hellen. The documentary also looks at the stunts, animation and anamatronic effects that went into creating the visuals, as well as the real crocodile studying the team did to get a realistic feel. The piece also explores the effective score.
The cast is also on hand, including the calm yet frequently funny Michael Vartan, who expresses his admiration for McLean ("When I first saw Wolf Creek, I was petrified, terrified...and I thought, I must do absolutely everything in my power to be lucky enough to work with this director one day") and talks about the grueling shoots and his fear of the lifelike fake crocs ("The first time its jaws snapped in front of me, I might have urinated a bit...a little tinkle"). Radha Mitchell notes that she had to re-learn her own accent with a dialogue coach to get rid of her American inflections, while one cast member talks about the joy of getting devoured: "As actors, we kind of all wanted to get eaten by the crocodile...we all had our own way of doing it, and that was kind of fun."
Up next is Welcome to the Territory: A Gallery of Mini-Documentaries divided into three topics: the effects, the music and the Northern Territory (there's some extremely minor repetition of some footage/quotes from the main documentary). "The Effects" (16:21) is mostly raw footage that provides a more in-depth look of the team at work. It's divided into five sequences: one death scene is explored, followed by "Fighting the Croc", "The Stick Fight" (that poor stunt double!), "Special Makeup Effects and Prosthetics" and "Animatronics and Puppets". "The Music" (14:24) takes a deeper look at the score composed by Francois Tetaz and his team, which really tried to portray the physicality of the animal: "It kind of makes it interesting to create a theme for something that doesn't actually do anything." Finally, "Northern Territory" (13:46) explores the majestic landscapes where some of the film was shot. "I sort of blended a horror film, a hero story and my love of Australia into one kind of big, very old-fashioned horror film," McLean says. Gibson talks about the mythology behind the land: "We did want to infuse the movie with this sense of beauty, of timelessness and also of terror. That somehow all exists in the landscape itself."
There's also a brief clip called The Real Rogue (2:22), an apparent podcast that doesn't provide much new information. Also included is an entertaining audio commentary from McLean, whose laid-back charm, sense of humor and engaging personality are perfectly suited to the track. He talks about the challenges of various shots, notes some influences (like Jaws and Hitchcock), shares some technical decisions, rightly brags about his cast, shares what he thinks is important in setting up a strong thriller ("Playing with audience expectations in this genre is extremely entertaining...you want to see films that completely surprise you, and the main way to do that is to kind of reverse known structures") and provides an all-around fun listen. "This is obviously my biggest film. I've made one film before, Wolf Creek, which was a very small film, cost $1.3 million dollars Australia, which I think is about $6 U.S. So this was phenomenal." (He also points out how one long shot near the 34-minute mark is an extreme in-joke: it includes a shot of the Wolf Creek crater.)
Also included is the theatrical trailer, and trailers for other releases.
It's a shame that this creature feature wasn't given a chance at theaters. Rogue doesn't reinvent the genre, but it's a rare find: a high-quality horror that takes itself--and the audience--seriously. Grounded in reality, it doesn't resort to cheap tactics to build suspense. The shots of Australia's Northern Territory are gorgeous, and the entire film is beautifully shot. Throw in impressive effects, an amazing cast that builds upon solid writing, and a great batch of extras, and this thriller proves that writer/director Greg McLean is one of horror's most talented rising stars. Highly Recommended.