Watching Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast is an exercise in expectation management. Its goals are as simple as its title.
This is a film wherein Idris Elba punches a lion in the face.
If that’s not what you’re in the mood for, look elsewhere.
That said, a lovely cast, some decent plot turns and well-constructed moments of suspense uplift what could have been a far inferior slog.
Beast stars Elba as Dr. Nate Samuels, an American vacationing in South Africa with his two teenage daughters to visit the birth village of their recently deceased mother.
There to greet them and serve as their guide is Martin Battles, played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley.
Battles, a South African native, is an old friend of Samuels and his departed wife from their university days, and responsible for introducing the two. He lives now on the outskirts of her village working as biologist and manager to the nearby Mopani Reserve, a large swath of South African wilderness boasting a variety of wildlife.
Battles works primarily with lions, and takes the family on a tour of the park, showcasing to them a pride from the territory. They soon discover a nearby village has been mysteriously massacred, and are waylaid in their hasty retreat by a dying villager who warns of the beastly culprit.
Battles is quick to remind Samuels and his daughters that a lion should not be capable of this; lions kill only for nourishment or territory, never for sport. The giant creature crashing down the hill and into their Jeep quickly dispels the notion.
Following some tense hijinks, Samuels and his daughters are left stranded in the wild with an inoperable Jeep, searching for a missing and injured Battles with an enraged predator on the loose.
Clocking in at a lean 93 minutes, the personal stakes of the characters are nevertheless made clear by the time the action starts.
The girls resent Samuels for separating from their mother in the months before her unanticipated sickness, and Samuels himself is wracked with guilt over his inability to save his wife. What was intended as an honorary trip in her name becomes an opportunity for Samuels to redeem himself in his daughters’ eyes. While the interpersonal dynamics don’t abound with nuance, they work admirably in the time allotted, and give us just enough reason to care. The occasional ham-handed remark can be overlooked given the time restraints.
Idris Elba, unsurprisingly, makes effortless work of what’s given him. His care for his daughters, and his terror when they come into jeopardy are palpable. He is a rare star in today’s milieu to make something like this shine.
Sharlto Copley too has a remarkable ease; I wish we saw more of him, both in this film and in general. His rapport with Elba and his daughters is instantly believable and endearing. The daughters themselves, played by Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries, are both serviceable, and each evince a few seemingly candid moments of fun and terror.
The lion itself is of CG rendering, and while it makes one pine for the days of animatronics, it’s never an eyesore. Its sequences are tense, and hit every mark that they’re supposed to. The Jeep on a cliff’s edge even plays as a miniature rendition of the old Lost World dangling trailer/T-Rex set-piece, and is a fun anchor for a number of thrills. Liberal use is made of a Steadicam and the environment, also to good results, circling around a terrified Elba as we dash into the brush.
The film spends most of its screen time making lemonade of lemons.
A few father/daughter scenes feel forced, the girls are constantly disobeying Samuels’ orders at their own predictable peril, and Beast is scattered with some totally incongruous and poorly rendered dream sequences which are unmistakably its low point.
In general, it plays more survival flick than monster movie. Though the titular terror looms large, in its pacing Beast feels more 127 Hours than Anaconda. Background info on the South African setting is scattered throughout without feeling shoehorned, and some nice messages on anti-poaching serve as the heart of this little thriller.
While Beast is no masterpiece, there’s enough fun here to warrant some late-night viewing. Enjoyment is predicated on what you expect.
* * * * *
Produced by Baltasar Kormákur,
James Lopez Will Packer
Screenplay by Ryan Engle
Story by Jaime Primak Sullivan
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley,
Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries