There’s nothing wrong with taking simple pleasures away from movies. Beast is a survival thriller with no real aspirations other than to entertain with its straightforward premise involving a rogue lion versus Idris Elba and his family. Sure, the work is done to set up some characters and the context, but the advertisements were right to focus on some key pieces of imagery – innocent people trapped inside a vehicle as a ferocious lion terrorizes them, and Elba eventually reaching a point where he has to punch the lion in the face. While some summer movies work to have audiences keep up with how they expand on their ongoing franchise, a film like this satisfies just as well by having man go a couple of rounds against nature.
Elba stars as Dr. Nate Samuels, a recently widowed father, who has traveled to South Africa on a trip with his two young daughters, Nora (Leah Sava Jeffries) and Meredith (Iyana Halley). Meeting up with their old family friend and wildlife biologist, Martin (Sharlto Copley, appropriately underplaying it), the group takes a trip into a game reserve, only to get attacked by a wild lion. With some suffering injuries and the truck no longer functioning, Nate will need to figure out a plan to keep his girls safe.
There are a lot of movies that pit humans against beasts of some kind. Some put in the effort to establish why this is taking place, while others leave it more ambiguous. Beast chooses the former, though it’s not a stretch as to why a lion would behave this way. A cold open to the film makes it clear that this lion’s pride was murdered by a group of poachers. Now the animal sees red everywhere it goes, attacking any human it comes across.
Beast does go a step further by making the lion smart and relentless. It’s not attacking people to eat them; it’s after revenge. It’s not killing all that cross its path, as some are merely wounded to serve as bait. I won’t even get into how unstoppable this thing is, but suffice it to say that falling off cliffs, gunshots, and exposure to fire made me wonder if this lion was built by Cyberdyne Systems.
With that in mind, heightening how this lion functions only serves as a reminder that Beast is just a movie. Even while proper justification is given for audiences to be sympathetic, this is not the film to look to for a proper understanding of how all lions act. Writer Ryan Engle seems to understand this. With credits including Rampage, The Commuter, and Non-Stop under his belt, it’s clear that he’s all about pushing high concepts to their limits for the sake of entertainment.
Fortunately, director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest, 2 Guns), in turn, understands just how to best harness what’s given with the premise and make entertainment equate to constant thrills. Working with DP Philippe Rousselot, it’s quickly established that Beast will feature frequent scenes conceived of as long takes. The combination of real-time tension, tight holds on the characters, and thought-out camera placement increases the level of suspense and terror when the time is right. As a survival thriller, this unique choice is a real win for the film. It allows for numerous memorable set pieces relying on a focus that keeps the stakes and the characters in mind. Also not hurting – the visual effects used to create the lions look pretty solid.
As the lead, Elba fittingly holds his own. Playing a regular human, just enough is given to round out where he’s coming from and what he can believably accomplish in the situation presented. Also effective are Halley and Jeffries as the daughters. It’s less about providing standout moments with them and more about how the film keeps them in play, letting them bicker, freak out, or simply feel active in the story, as opposed to “things” Elba must be aware of. Additionally, without the film needing to call it out, the fact that this is another Will Packer production that places a black family into this scenario allows the familiar idea of man vs. animal to be seen in a new light by changing up the norm when it comes to who the humans in question are.
With any movie like this, some viewers like to call out “dumb decisions,” as they want to feel more intelligent than the movie. Whether or not that’s fair, Beast earns enough credit from me for feeling as though those aspects were considered throughout. Elba‘s Nate does increasingly ridiculous yet reasonable things, given the scenario, a lack of perfect hindsight, and his primary goal of protecting his daughters. The film is also varied enough to keep things interesting. Characters move through multiple locations without ever getting comfortable, and the movie can proceed in interesting ways.
That’s not to say this script is perfect or air-tight. Some forced bits here or there can sometimes be chalked up to one of the daughters behaving like a teenager, but other moments feel more like plot necessity. It ultimately matters little, as the wisest choice in the screenplay is making it all very economical. At 90 minutes, Beast gets in and out without wasting much time. We know who to root for, why things are happening a certain way, and what the goal of any given scene is. Best of all, it’s consistently fun.
Sure, there’s a white-knuckle level of tension, but that’s what the viewers should be hoping for. Beast gets to its point quickly and rarely lets up. Elba is as reliable as one would expect here, and his various confrontations with the lion deliver the goods. Great looking film as well, between the elaborate camera work and the reliance on a CG lion to convincingly rip people apart. While some summer films can come off as tame, here’s a beast of a feature ready to let a little carnage take over, and it does plenty to satisfy.