Beast is a sturdy, no-frills thriller that understands how to shred nerves and deliver gnarly creature-feature action.
The B-movie creature feature comes roaring back with the appropriately titled Beast, which finds Idris Elba doing battle with a bloodthirsty lion in the African savanna. Director Baltasar Kormakur’s tale of survival in the wild is as straightforward as its title, delivering a no-frills thrill ride that aims to have viewers clutching their armrests. The plot — what there is of one — concerns Nate Daniels (Elba), a successful big-city doctor who has traveled to South Africa in an effort to bond with his two estranged daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), both of whom are still reeling from the recent death of their mother. Nate had a tenuous relationship with his ex-wife, with his two children seeing his absence during her battle with cancer as a clear lack of care and empathy. Desperate to prove his worth as a father, Nate takes his children to the small African village where his deceased wife was born and raised, with best friend and local conservationist Martin (Sharlto Copley) playing tour guide. As the opening scene makes brutally clear, the wilds of South Africa have been corrupted by poachers, many of whom have set their sights on the local lion population. The attempted slaying of one pride, in particular, has left a lone survivor, a feisty male who has taken it upon himself to fight back against the individuals he sees as poisoning his way of life. It isn’t long before Nate and co. find themselves inadvertently crossing into the lion’s territory, setting up a battle that will not only test Nate’s mettle, but allow him to rid himself of the guilt that has slowly been eating him alive.
But such a description makes the proceedings sound far more depthful than they ultimately prove to be. Screenwriter Ryan Engle uses the boilerplate family theatrics as a shortcut to engendering emotional investment in his main quartet, but it’s honestly fairly extraneous to the film’s primary pleasures, and keeps getting in the way of all the gnarly lion attacks, which is why we’re here to begin with. You see, male lions protect their young, and so Nate must defeat the lion in order to… protect his young. Heady stuff. Elba’s natural gravitas does most of the heavy lifting, but there’s no real dimension to be found in his characterization; instead, he’s far more successful when he is simply asked to punch a CGI lion in the face, which is more often than viewers might imagine.
Having made an international splash with 2000’s critically acclaimed 101 Reykjavik, director Kormakur left the confines of his native Iceland and sought Hollywood stardom, which resulted in a number of surprisingly not-bad big-budget action thrillers, including Contraband, 2 Guns, and Everest. Beast continues that unlikely winning streak, as Kormakur gets a solid assist from revered DP Phillippe Rousselot, who mined similar territory — albeit with gentler results — with 1988’s wilderness masterpiece The Bear. In what has become de rigueur for action films of today, Beast predictably contains its fair share of impressive long takes, but what proves most surprising is that they actually serve a purpose, cranking the tension to nerve-shredding heights as the camera meticulously weaves its way through various jungles, villages, and abandoned homes, the threat of danger lurking around every twisted tree trunk, jutting rock face, and unseen corner. There’s a sense of palpable fear that permeates nearly every scene of Beast, the compositions communicating that something sinister is located just out of frame, watching, waiting. Kormakur truly understands that a sense of discovery is necessary to facilitating earned, authentic scares, and he fosters a bracing immediacy here that’s sorely missing from recent works of his bigger-budgeted brethren.
As far as the lion goes, he’s obviously nothing more than a menacing collection of zeroes and ones, but while the CGI never reaches the impressive, photo-realistic heights of 2019’s live-action The Lion King, it’s certainly a step up from the utter shitshows seen on the SyFy Channel on a nightly basis, as well as much of what’s hitting multiplexes. In other words, the effect is more convincing than one might expect given the budget, and certainly works in the hyper-tense moment, but it still isn’t going to fool anyone for the real thing. In fact, that exact description also describes the predator stars of another man vs. beast summer blockbuster that proved far more entertaining than it had any right to be, 2019’S Crawl. Beast would make for a tidy double feature with that improbable crowd-pleaser, as both are the type of feisty late-August surprise that understands the inherent joy in sturdy thrills.