Beast opens in the dead of night as a group of poachers slaughter a pride of lions for their teeth and skins, save for one. The big one. The group is unceremoniously picked off one at a time in the darkness of the tall reeds; it’s a tense and stylish opening, but the film saves the onscreen arrival of the titular Beast for a later scene… and so the theatre waited (probably wondering if the CG-lion would be up to snuff). And when he did make his first full-fledged attack (lunging towards camera of course), there was a familiar jerk of cinemagoers jumping in fright up and down the aisle. That was reassuring. It’s a moment that will probably have next to no impact when viewed from the safety of your couch, with its cushy 6-foot minimum distance from that small bright square you associate with cooking tutorials and ‘skip credits’ buttons.
You’ve probably gathered from that opening that this lion is on a Jaws-sequel-esque rampage of revenge against any and all humans in his domain. Tough break for the recently widowed Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba), who’s arrived to spend time in the bush, and reconnect with his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava), whilst they have a chance to take in the beautiful country where their mother and father met, long before their somewhat acrimonious separation. The family, hosted by old friend and experienced ranger Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley) clearly has much to work through, though its not long before more pressing matters are at hand (hint: the game drive doesn’t go smoothly).
It’s a flimsy basis for a feature-length movie, and exactly the sort that’s made thousands of easy-going movie nights possible in the past. Coming in at a tight 93 minutes, Beast is kept lean and quick on its feet by director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, 2 Guns), who smartly underplays the ‘revenge’ angle of the lion’s motivations. There is an inherent terror to knowing that this is an animal that could take you out on a whim, making the lion vindictive is a bit of a hat on a hat, and the action sequences keep the creature more dead-eyed than “clever-girl”. Kormákur has not done much in the vein of Beast before (though he clearly has a taste for survival scenarios), but he seems to be a filmmaker with a taste for popular man vs beast films (not only because of the loving Easter eggs and homages to films like Jurassic Park made throughout), but also because as a real-life creature feature, Beast clearly has its priorities in order.
Kormákur’s choice to compose the film largely with long take sequences might be a practical decision (cutting bush-set sequences into quick shots may have rendered the geography of action scenes into a yellow brown mush), but it is an inspired choice. These drawn-out shots build tension as narrow escapes and impending disaster unfold before our eyes in real, unsculpted time, whilst Kormákur uses his bushveld locations to excellent effect. We’re tethered to the characters, allowing the camera to subtly drift from composition to composition, often settling with the beast in the distance for us to spot in time with its targets. After all, the unbearable suspense in being charged by an animal is in seeing their unbroken bolt aimed directly towards you. It’s far away, but it’s getting closer very, very quickly.
These are simple thrills, and if the single setting, stakes-amplifying death-defying won’t win you over, its unlikely that much else will. Beast falls flat in its writing, though its cast admirably manages to fulfill the script’s empty promise of a damaged family repaired under a stressful environment (a disappointing family man proving himself in a high-stakes and decidedly un-talky way is an action-movie staple that flirts dangerously with cliché when left underdeveloped).
Everyone involved (including the local cast in the film’s periphery) sells the danger, and the young girls fair impressively well during these extended takes, even outside of their use as incapable but brave props in need of rescue – unlike most kids in these sorts of films – the sisters are unlikely to annoy audiences. Idris, in a scene where he’s had one too many and expresses his genuine regret over keeping his distance, a problem he seems to be repeating with his daughters, hits the mark nicely, allowing the thinly developed relationships to coast somewhat. Fundamentally, the script is vastly disinterested in the inner lives and histories of the family it feels compelled to incorporate, or how these things ought to play into the story (an indifference never more obvious than in the film’s strikingly truncated conclusion).
That may be because writer Ryan Engle knows what film he’s serving up here. These things tend to be cursory at best in a lot of ‘animals run amok’ movies, but it is nonetheless the low point of the film. There will be much to discuss regarding its “have your cake and eat it too” approach to respecting the sovereignty of nature, and the gentlest of passes with which it attempts to narratively integrate its African setting beyond dirt and things with teeth. Set ups are signposted and collected artlessly (if a gun is placed down, a door is left open, a window is shattered, a location is introduced, trust that these developments will resolve exactly as you expect them to). The dream sequences are weak devices and there are a few lines, delivered seemingly without the knowingness that might have allowed them to slip by, that are serious clunkers (“It’s staring right at me”). Sloppiest of all is the distance between the film’s plot and its themes of familial reconnection and resolve.
But, in this case, how important is that really? Unfortunate, but in no way a deal-breaker. Beast is not a great film, but it is a lot of fun, and crucially doesn’t fall prey to the cold calculations that put us at a distance to many modern Hollywood blockbusters. It is, with all affection, the sort of schlockbuster that seemed to be going extinct in recent years, polished by a surehanded director and excellent cast. The sort of movie you willingly power your brain down to indulge in, rather than the sort that leaves you feeling obliged to do so under threat of idiocy-induced hemorrhage.