Brimming with well-earned tension, Rogue is a taut and thrilling ride into man-eating crocodile territory.
As he did with Wolf Creek, writer/director Greg Mclean sets things up superbly by luring characters far away from normal, comfortable civilization before springing a horror-filled trap. We know from the get-go that Rogue is one of those "when animals attack" movies, we know the basic plot points that will be covered, we can even anticipate most of the surprises -- and none of that detracts from the nerve-jangling atmosphere that Mclean has created.
Mclean avoids some of the problems that plagued Wolf Creek, whose implausibilities multiplied to the point of supreme annoyance by its finish. Rogue doesn't show us anything new, yet each time the tension is ratcheted tighter, it makes perfect sense.
Mclean's cast of characters is again filled with imperfect people who sometimes do stupid things, but their actions are more understandable. They may be acting foolishly out of fear or stress at times, but it's not their standard modus operandi. With an ensemble, even the role of hero is passed around, depending on the situation. All of that helps keep things off-balance. We know that not everybody will survive, but we really don't want anyone in particular to get eaten alive.
Well, maybe one or two people. But even then, the victims have redeeming virtues, which adds to the palpable tension that is constantly percolating.
The tale takes place in the Northern Territory of Australia. Pete (Michael Vartan) is a Chicago travel writer; the film starts with him in a tiny restaurant, examining a wall of yellowed newspaper clippings about crocodile attacks. (That's what I mean about never being in suspense about what the movie is about, even if you never saw a trailer or a poster.) He has a ticket for a river cruise, and the boat fills up with a motley group of tourists -- notably John Jarratt from Wolf Creek as a somber traveler. The group includes a married couple, another couple with a teenage daughter, an amateur photographer, and another single woman.
Kate (Radha Mitchell), the boat's captain, is a native who's never traveled anywhere else. As the boat journeys down river, we can see why. The scenery is stunning, primal, awe-inspiring. Why would you want to leave that? The only incident to mar their cruise is a brief, unpleasant encounter with a couple of local jerks, but that's soon forgotten in the beauty of the natural world.
As they start their return trip, someone sees a flare and Kate heads upriver to check things out. Soon enough, the group is being hunted by a crocodile with an exagerrated sense of teritorial possessiveness.
Comparisons to Jaws are perhaps inevitable, and while Rogue falls short of that level of classic horror, it does wisely keep the crocodile off-screen as much as possible for as long as possible. Even the blood and guts is kept to an absolute minimum until it's needed to prove the mindless viciousness of wild animals.
Admittedly, I haven't seen very many "giant alligator / crocodile" movies, but I have seen Lewis Teague's Alligator, scripted by John Sayles, which set a solid standard, combining respect for its genre forebears with a modern sensibility. Sayles peppered Alligator with plenty of wisecracks and funny bits of business. Rogue doesn't have many laughs, but what it does have in abundance is genuine respect for nature. When the crocodile attacks, it's not for any reason but instinct; man is invading his territory, and the croc doesn't like invaders of any species: it makes him uncomfortable.
Rogue also made me uncomfortable: it kept me on the edge of my seat for its entire running time.
Sadly, Rogue is only receiving an extremely limited U.S. release (Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tampa). Limited means, for example, that's it's only playing at one theater in all of Dallas. See it if you can.