Beast is a propulsive man versus nature movie. It’s not overflowing with thematic depth but it is a lean stalk and chase movie. The characters are basically thin sketches, but the two main leads played by solid actors make them more likable than most. The threat and plausibility of being eaten by a lion gets progressively more outlandish as the lion isn’t behaving in a natural way after a while. It gets close to later-era Jaws territory where the shark follows people for revenge. But the movie keeps the jumps coming and is a nice piece of survivalist cinema. Even has some lion punching too!
Nate (Idris Elba) is taking a trip to Africa with his two girls, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) after their mother has passed away. There is consternation with the girls as Nate was on the outs with their mother when she died but he hopes returning to nature will make things better. They meet up with Nate’s buddy, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who works with lions. But things turn bad when a rogue lion attacks them, wrecking Martin’s leg, and taking out entire villages of innocent people. Martin theorizes that the lion has taken revenge against poachers for separating and wiping out his pack, but Nate just wants to get his kids out. Now they must rescue Martin from the prowling bloodthirsty lion and dodge poachers while trying to escape the constant threat of becoming lion lunch.
The movie favours many long single takes. It gives the film a sense of being hunted by the deadly lion, giving the viewer “you are there” immediacy. Sometimes when a movie does an entire single take it comes off as a gimmick but the film changes things up with some rapid cutting action to break up the long takes. The single takes work well to reveal horror, like when Nate and Martin find a village that has been seemingly slaughtered by the lion as the camera slowly reveals more and more carnage.
The lions are all CGI VFX and unlike something like Call of the Wild where the dog looked like a cartoon, the lions here seem surprisingly realistic. The elaborate single-take camera shots would never have worked with real animals. There’s a moment where Martin is lovingly hugged by several lions he has raised from birth which may have been rather unrealistic to pull off if it was a real lion. Also, that moment recalls all those videos on the Internet where some animal lover meets up with the lion they raised and is accepted in an embrace. Not the most original twist as there’s dozens of YouTube videos like this but it does click.
Beast has a solid progression as things keep going wrong to sustain tension. The lion has gone wild because poachers have taken away its pride and invaded its land. There’s a sustained supply of disposable, hateable extras who can regularly get munched while the main characters barely escape. The movie even opens with several poachers getting torn apart so it delivers the lion mauling chaos right away. In one tense bit Nate and his family run into the poachers thinking it’ll be salvation and then it gets messy quickly. The notion that the lion wants revenge is kind of dopey, and even one time when it’s using Martin as bait Nate says rather rightly, “That’s not natural”. There could have been a supernatural aspect to the lion taking people out, but the script never bothers to elaborate. It’s just a really ticked off lion.
Elba’s Nate is a doctor so that means lots of survivalist scenes, probably the best one is when Martin is bleeding out and Nate talks him through cauterizing the wound with only a lighter and a knife. There are a few flashback dreams to his childhood and him also remembering his wife which supposedly adds character depth but comes off as trite. Elba is supposed to be playing an everyman but he’s also literally punching a lion so it kind of wobbles in between believability. Sometimes he’s a wimp who doesn’t know how to operate a gun and other times he can brawl with lions and poachers alike.
Halley and Jefferies as the kids get snippy about him abandoning their mother and then scream loudly when the lion attacks. One of the daughters is so smart she knows how to assemble a rifle because she watched someone else do it making her a standard genius kid. Copley plays the buddy who is steadfast and true and then gets completely wrecked by the lion, so they have to find inventive ways to keep him alive. Copley does wounded really well, like when he’s on the walkie talking about how he’s about to pass out and he sounds exhausted and terrified. Also, his final exit from the movie is memorable.
Man versus nature stories have been around for awhile and this is a solid entry into that genre. Ultimately, Beast is a successive sequence of jump scares with a CGI lion but the film does an admirable job of sustaining tension throughout. While the lion’s “motivations” don’t make realistic sense, it makes for an aggressively nasty and unrelenting villain.
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Starring: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries and Sharlto Copley