We've seen a sweaty, terrified Idris Elba fighting computer-animated lions and are not entirely dissatisfied.
The fact that a film like Beast is being made in 2022 is a bit odd. Especially with a reputable director and two big-name leads. Now of course Idris Elba and Sharlto Copley aren't in the same league as, say Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt but we're still talking about a multiple Emmy-nominated actor and a gentleman who is still being praised for his District 9 performance thirteen years later. It's not a trio that normally shows up in outdated monster movies, because that's exactly what Beast is. It may make use of modern technology, but it's basically another one of those monster movies that were so popular in the 80s and 90s, with Jaws leading the way, of course.
After that, we've certainly been drowned in cheesy knock-offs with badly animated antagonists, but then, as I said, it's been with more or less unknown or retired actors and some director making his debut after a long career in commercials or music videos that helm them. Sometimes it's been pure commissioned work from Asia, where a huge amount of money has been offered to a single selected well-known action actor to attract audiences. The Meg is a prime example of this and it's also usually sharks that have been cast as predators in these kinds of monster movies, sometimes alligators, as in 2019's Crawl. But if we're talking lions, it's sparse and if we're to find a film similar to Beast we have to go all the way back to 1996 when Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer chased a pair of lions that had run amok in The Ghost and the Darkness and it's clear that this is the very film director Baltasar Kormákur and the screenwriters have been looking at. There is, however, one marked difference. Where Douglas and Kilmer's characters were trained hunters, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) has no experience whatsoever in hunting and survival, well, except that he's a doctor, of course. However, that's not going to stop the good doctor going forward because when it comes to fighting for his family, it's not just the lion that's a beast.
Nate travels to his recently deceased wife's home village in South Africa. With him are the couple's two daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries), and the idea is that they will grieve together and grow closer as a family. They settle in with friend Martin (Sharlto Copley) and don't even have time to unpack before the first disaster strikes; there's no mobile coverage or Wi-Fi out in the bush. Once the shock of this discovery has worn off, it's time to dine and drink, talk memories and contemplate. In vino veritas, as we all know, in the wine is the truth and it will soon become apparent that Nate is carrying a bottomless debt. He wasn't there when his wife died of cancer and his daughters are quick to point this out. He hasn't put himself in their lives either and knows nothing of their grief or loss, nor how they have chosen to try to move on, through interests and dreams of the future. The mood is now really bad but tomorrow is another day and when the rooster crows it is time for safari and there is nothing that bonds a family in grief like a day trip among wild animals.
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In a film that is only 90 minutes long, there is no time for any in-depth introduction of the main antagonist but it has to be handled in some way, and it's not too long before the quartet reach a village where the population is now zero. Massacred bodies lie rotting in the hot desert sun and it doesn't take an ethologist to work out that these poor wretches have been the victims of an animal attack. The culprit is still nearby and now it's better to run than to fight and fail. At least at first, because the longer the film goes on, the harder it becomes for Nate and his incredibly rambunctious kids to stay in the car, as if they can put themselves in danger they will. During an attack, the window of the car is barely closed as the rampaging male lion does everything he can to crush the car, and if that sounds like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park but with a lion instead of a T-Rex, it's spot on.
The Doctor, as mentioned, spends most of his time in the area outside, on or under the car and is thus attacked frequently and as he is usually armed with only his fists. For better or worse. Other than the bonus question of finding out why the lion is suddenly killing people, there are no deeper mysteries, no ancient prophecies, curses or goals other than survival. It's all about Nate's relationship with his daughters and how together they will escape the clutches of a very angry lion. It may seem thin, but that's also the film's strength. It's short, intense and effective. Where many films drag on by throwing in side stories and deeper meaning, Kormákur ignores that and focuses on the basics.
Kormákur, true to his habit of letting nature speak for itself, does not disappoint. The director behind The Deep and Everest is a master at using the environment to build up a sense of a small person against the powerful forces of nature and so it is here, despite the fact that it is an animal and not the environment itself that poses the danger and with long seamless takes I really get the feeling of being hunted. Now of course this is a computer animated lion, which means that that genuine sense of dread doesn't really set in as a digital animal can withstand far more than a live specimen. This is also the film's biggest weakness, as the beast can take more of a beating than a Sherman tank, but it's not alone in that either as Doctor Nate is no worse. In the end it actually gets laughable and while monster movies often looked like this even at their most popular, they were rarely as grave as Beast. Aside from an early Uber joke, there are few outlets for all the seriousness. Here, emotionally, they've gone all-in on realism even though the script says otherwise with super lion vs. super doctor.
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Beast offers a couple of jump scares and a few flesh wounds but otherwise it's not a film that will scare the hell out of anyone. It's an okay pastime that entertains for the moment and in its genre it actually stands out, due to solid acting from Idris Elba and Sharlto Copley, extremely good looking direction by Kormákur, sharp special effects and a reasonable running time.