Perhaps a better title for Beast would be Prey, but that one’s already taken this year. When a group of African poachers kills off a lion’s pride for their pelts, the one remaining survivor goes after the rest of the humans in the area.
When a doctor, his two children, and the local game warden get stuck in the nearby jungle, they must fight for their lives from the vengeful lion, more poachers, and the harsh environment.
Pretty simple premise, so whether or not Beast succeeds is all in the execution. We’ve seen this when-animals-attack riff many times before, so you can predict each plot turn off a stopwatch. But Beast has several things going for it, and first and foremost is a compelling, strong lead performance.
Idris Elba plays Nate Samuels, a doctor who lost his estranged wife to cancer several months before and is trying to repair the damage with his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) by taking them to Africa, where Nate met their mother with the help of lifelong friend and local warden Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley).
Elba doesn’t play Nate as brave, or even capable – he knows right away when things go badly that he is out of his element. All he knows how to do is first aid, which comes in handy once the lion attacks. Martin knows lions, and he’s never seen a lion do what this one does. Martin goes after poachers himself, so he recognizes the lion’s motives.
Director Baltasar Kormákur and screenwriter Ryan Engle (with story by Jaime Primak Sullivan) keep the film focused on the Samuels family, and Kormákur ratchets up the urgency with long, sanguine takes without very much editing. The result is a movie that flows very well with the building tension, and Kormákur conducts the film with crescendos and valleys. The cinematography and sound design help with the intensity – we can never be sure when or where the lion is coming.
Elba is very watchable, and Nate Samuels is a character we like despite his shortcomings. He regrets not being there for his children when they needed him while their mother was ill, and Elba gives Nate a kindness and a sorrow while also trying his best to overcome his fears.
Sharlto Copley’s performance may be the best we’ve seen from him since District 9. He and Elba have a nice chemistry together – it’s easy to believe they are lifelong friends. Copley’s experience with working with CGI creatures also pays off well here. When everything goes south for Martin and the Samuels family, both Nate and Martin have to use all their knowledge to help save Meredith and Norah.
Both Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries do strong work as well – they could have easily been reduced to a couple of screaming kids in the backseat but Halley and Jeffries give these characters agency and independence, and we want to root for them.
Meredith is the older one, angry at Nate for abandoning them, but she also still cares for him through her anger. Norah, the younger, is headstrong and self-reliant, but also compassionate and brave.
A word about the special effects, which at times are very good, and at times not so much. The filmmakers wisely decided to use computer-generated animation in place of real animals for much of the action sequences. You can’t exactly train wild animals to do a performance like this, and you do not want to risk the health and safety of the actors and the crew.
There’s a film made a few decades back called Roar that used live lions, and resulted in a few injuries, including Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith and cinematographer Jan De Bont. These are dangerous animals and should be treated with respect. I’ll happily trade realism for safety, and if that means we don’t get the verisimilitude of the world I’m fine with it. I know the monsters in a Ray Harryhausen film aren’t real either, but I can roll with it. Audiences wanting to see real animals can always go to the zoo or watch videos on YouTube. When it comes to the actors and crew, their safety should be the ultimate concern.
Even though there are several plot points that are predictable, Beast mostly works, due to the strength of the performances and the skills of the director. There are some nail-biting moments, but more importantly, we like the Samuels family, and we want to see the best for them.
This movie is a tight 90+ minutes, and Beast doesn’t have much fat on it. It respects the African environment and preserving the wildlife there while still being a compelling, thrilling movie. There will always be riffs on Jaws — it’s one of the most successful films of all time — and some will be decent, others not so much. Beast is a decent Jaws riff, with characters to enjoy and tension to savor. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
BEAST REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
Universal‘s Beast, opening in theaters on Thursday, August 18, is rated R for violent content, bloody images and some language.