Didn’t we stop attributing human characteristics like an insatiable desire for vengeance to animals back in the late-‘80s, when Jaws: The Revenge laughably informed us, “This time it’s personal?” Apparently not. In the survival thriller Beast, Idris Elba stars as an American doctor taking his daughters on a healing pilgrimage to the South African birthplace of their late mother, only to encounter an extremely pissed lion bent on wiping out every human on the savannah after poachers kill its entire pride. In the hands of accomplished experiential action director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), the thriller barrels along seasoned with a visceral fear factor, but not without some ludicrous plotting and dialogue.
Occasionally, real-life monster movies can still provide guilty pleasures, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl, about gigantic Florida gators angered by awful weather, being a case in point. That requires sufficient speed and agility to forgive the silliness, and a self-aware wink to accompany every gnarly genre trope.
The Bottom Line
Preposterous but suspenseful.
Beast wants to have it both ways. Ryan Engle’s script, from a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, loads up on gore and distressingly close calls amped up with effective jump scares. But it’s not content to give us dumb hair-raising fun; it also aims to move us with the tender feelings and frictions of a family ruptured by tragedy. What’s more, it asks us to accept a citified guy who appears never before to have handled a rifle instantly becoming Indiana Jones.
It’s a testament to the charisma and natural gravitas of Elba that we even halfway buy Dr. Nate Samuels as he dodges the massive rogue male lion, at one point simultaneously stopping a deadly boomslang snake mid-strike. When he’s wading around in crocodile-infested waters, I kept expecting him to punch one of those leathery mothers in the mouth, Lara Croft-style.
Sullivan reportedly pitched the movie as “Cujo with a lion,” and more horror, less sentiment might have allowed Beast to roar as the disposable late-summer entertainment it was born to be. But even if it takes itself a tad too seriously, it delivers enough nail-biting stress and terror to justify a trip to the multiplex for action-thriller fans. Especially after Jurassic World Dominion proved such a lumbering bore.
A tense prologue shows poachers under the cloak of night wrapping up a successful hunt, during which they have killed a pride of lions, whose teeth, claws and bones fetch big money on the black market. Only the patriarch of the pride eludes them, its paw prints indicating its mighty size. A handful of men stay behind to kill the creature before it comes after them. But its stealth in the tall grass proves too much for them.
Kormákur follows the old rule of holding off on showing the monster, seen only in the briefest flash as it leaps out of the darkness onto an unfortunate poacher.
Recently widowed Dr. Nate arrives with his 18-year-old daughter Mere (Iyana Halley) and her 13-year-old sister Norah (Leah Jeffries) at a remote location deep in the South African bushland, met there by family friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife expert who manages the nature reserve.
Nate first met his wife there through Martin, and the trip to some degree has been planned to bridge the distance that’s opened up between him and Mere since her mother’s death. The couple had mutually agreed to separate, and Mere blames her dad for not being there as her mother’s health declined. In routine fashion, Nate also beats himself up for not being a sharp enough doctor to spot the cancer and stop it in its tracks.
When Martin takes them on a VIP tour in his jeep through parts of the reserve off-limits to the public, the majestic beauty of the place — captured in widescreen panoramas by DP Philippe Rousselot — distracts Mere from her sullenness. She aspires to become a photographer, like her mother, and the enormity of the African landscape provides plenty of inspiration. She’s even more impressed once they get up close to a pride of lions hand-raised by Martin, with two males nuzzling up to him like kittens.
But when Martin spots what appears to be a bullet wound in the paw of one of the females, he insists they stop by a local village to investigate. The fresh carnage they find there is alarming evidence of a lion behaving abnormally, entering a populated settlement and indiscriminately killing without eating its prey. A mountain in their path blocks the jeep’s radio signal, leaving the group with minimal protection when the grieving lion charges at them.
Unlike, say, Disney’s unnecessary live-action remake of The Lion King, which just seemed like another form of animation, minus the heart, the CG lion here is a fearsome, photo-realistic creature. The relentlessness with which it pounds the jeep, crashing through windows and swiping at the trembling family inside, makes for some pulse-pounding sequences.
Halley and Jeffries are terrific as young women suddenly given something more legitimate to complain about than the lack of WiFi or cell reception. And the script gives them just enough courage and resourcefulness to have a hand in the family’s survival, without veering into ridiculousness. That’s not always the case with Nate, who is forced to take charge when Martin is immobilized by a severe mauling. Suspension of disbelief is required more than once, notably when the lion is only inches away from Nate but appears to have no sense of smell. Maybe its nose got damaged while pulverizing the jeep’s windscreen?
No matter, the action remains hairy and gripping, even if the climax requires Nate to take a mauling that it’s unlikely any man could endure while he leads the apex predator into another pride’s territory for an unsatisfying final clash that’s over almost as soon as it’s begun. The poor lion, enraged by loss, deserves a more dignified outcome, but the script is careful to stay on the side of nature, violated by humankind. And the inevitable reaffirmation of the family’s bonds, strengthened by the spirit of the girls’ mother, is touching without being too mawkish.
As man vs. beast stories go, this one is neither the best nor the worst. Steven Price’s score keeps the tension high, and Elba and Copley are good enough actors to deliver even the most pedestrian dialogue with conviction. It also helps that the movie runs a tight 90 minutes. Beast is no Jaws, but it’s no Jaws: The Revenge, either.