Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Iyana Halley, and Leah Jeffries
A father and his two teenage daughters find themselves hunted by a massive rogue lion intent on proving that the Savanna has but one apex predator.
Centering on a family fending for their lives against a rogue lion irritated and turned aggressive by poachers hunting its pride, anyone that has ever seen a movie before realizes that the protagonists of Beast are probably going to make it out okay.
Despite that, director Baltasar Kormákur (a somewhat underappreciated filmmaker that has dabbled in survival pictures before with the more ambitious Everest in comparison to this streamlined and scaled-back thriller and Icelandic gems such as The Oath) conveys an exhilarating sense of danger through visceral brutality (taking advantage of the R rating to portray disgustingly gnarly wounds) and relentless attacks (typically starting from crafty camera angles that build terror through the speed at which the lion rampages across the South African Savanna to take a bite out of his victims). Convincing CGI (especially when shrouded in darkness) helps.
The point is that anytime a film can make viewers forget that they are watching something scripted (in this case, the writer is Ryan Engle, basing his work on a story from Jaime Primak Sullivan), most likely in favor of the protagonists, buying into the peril, a filmmaker has done their job correctly. Formulas and clichés are not inherently bad so long as the execution is charged and eventful to the degree that the characters and stakes feel authentic and meaningful.
Here, Idris Elba is Dr. Nate Samuels, a widowed family man looking to reconnect with his two daughters, Meredith and Norah (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries, respectively), traveling to the village mom was from. She died of cancer, and the teenage Meredith harbors resentment toward dad for being emotionally cold and sucked into his job during this stressful time, saving other lives. In Nate’s words, he thought he had more time. Still distant, Meredith voices frustrations that he hardly takes notice of her interest in photography.
The family meets Nate’s longtime friend Martin (Sharlto Copley playing a normal human being for the first time in what feels like forever, also given one of the most exciting sequences in the movie), who looks after the Savanna and is rumored, according to Norah, to be an anti-poacher (someone that kills them). Both girls are immediately more interested in Martin, with Meredith’s photography hobby acknowledged more than her father has ever done so in a few minutes. Of course, Meredith and Norah groan at the lack of Wi-Fi, but a trip to see some friendly lions out in the wild church them up, as does learning about how Martin introduced mom to dad.
The above may sound like a lot of plot and characterization for a movie about a family struggling to survive against the circle of life, but the pacing is on point without any fat. Sure, it’s hardly original, but it explains why the family is there and presents them as likable (the small ensemble is fine with Idris Elba a highlight as a sincerely regretful man that is determined and resourceful when it comes to stranded survivalist, also warm and jokey with his children), an essential factor that so many survival movies seem to forget. There’s also a brief prologue depicting why there is a rogue lion and condemning poachers, all while demonstrating how ruthlessly violent the titular beast is without its pride.
Beast is a tense watch from the rogue lion’s savage behaviour alone, but there is also plenty of impressive craftsmanship here. Primarily, the characters hide inside the Safari Jeep, hoping and praying the lion doesn’t find them and smashing through the windows, providing appropriately claustrophobic cinematography from Philippe Rousselot. However, scenes where characters wander off and explore are often done as tracking shots, with the camera typically snapped to Idris Elba in the vein of a third-person adventure video game.
By taking this crowded photography right to the characters in the wild, there is palpable dread from trying to pinpoint the direction of the lion’s inevitable attack. Furthermore, the photography also makes use of wide-angle shots with the lion tucked off into a corner on a cliff somewhere, which is already a beautiful shot but transitions into something else suspenseful entirely as the king of the jungle makes a beeline for Nate (who is running towards the camera trying to escape).
Unsurprisingly, the poachers make a second appearance in Beast, but the script wisely doesn’t get too preachy about the obvious. Aside from one or two moments where Meredith continues to verbally attack her father over his behavior when mom was sick, even when the lion could pounce at any second, the family drama is refined to only the crucial beats. This allows Baltasar Kormákur to focus on the peril and clever survivalism scenarios (everything from uniquely administered tranquilizer darts to tree climbing comes into play), conveniently with a doctor on hand to bandage up some nasty injuries that pleasantly double as gruesomely fun imagery.
There are moments to praise both man and beast, effectively showing the balance in characterization and thrills, overcoming the familiarity of the experience. Idris Elba also enters beast mode and punches a lion in the face, which is worth the price of admission itself.