In 2012, Liam Neeson made cinematic history by punching wolves in the face in The Grey. A decade later, in Beast, Idris Elba tells Neeson to hold his beer while he cold-cocks a lion. Such is the world in which we live today; everyone’s a showoff.
Elba plays Nate Samuels, a doctor who flies his teen daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith AKA ”Mare” (Iyana Halley), from New York to South Africa to visit their late mother’s village in the bush. Upon arrival, it’s established, per the 21st Century Horror Rulebook, that there’s no wi-fi or cell phone service, so you know some shit’s about to go down.
But first, the touchy-feely stuff: Nate’s wife died of cancer, and he’s deep in his feelings about how they grew apart and separated shortly before her diagnosis. There’s a rift between him and older daughter Mare in particular, as she feels he abandoned her mother in her time of need. If only there was a traumatic, live-threatening event to pull them closer together…
CUE THE SERIAL KILLING LION. So, there’s a lion roaming the reserve where their guide/longtime friend Martin (Sharlto Copley) works that’s straight-up murdering humans for fun — not even eating them. It turns out that its rampage was triggered by poachers who killed its pride, and now it’s going through a Rambo-like psychotic break. Of course, Nate and his family are caught in its crosshairs and find themselves trapped in the bush with Martin wounded and their truck disabled.
Beast walks that fine line between solidly entertaining and solidly ignorable. The basic, predictable plot makes it easy to look away and, say, cook a three-course meal without feeling lost. It’s hard to imagine a star of Elba’s stature committing to the film based on the script alone; I have to think the prospect of shooting on location in the South African wilderness was a major draw. The film does manage to present a nice reversal of typical racial roles for a “wilds of Africa” adventure, though. This time around, the American heroes who come to this “lawless” land are black, while their “dead man walking” local guide is white. Otherwise, there’s little novel about the story. There have been scores of films about foreigners stuck in the untamed African wilds, including Safari and the similarly plotted Bridget Moynahan-and-kids-trapped-in-a-jeep-surrounded-by-lions Prey, both from South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt, who’s directed everything from Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country to…Dracula 3000.
The cast helps solidify the story. Halley and Jeffries add some youthful enthusiasm and manage to overcome the tendency of horror movies to make kids a magnet for peril that requires them to be in constant need of saving. They even do their part in the fight against the “beast” — at least until it comes time to punch the lion in the face. Elba is likable as usual, but his flat character isn’t given much opportunity for charisma. The climactic lion-punching scene isn’t as rousing nor as campy as you’d expect; it epitomizes the middle-of-the-road quality of the movie as a whole.
The CGI is very good for this level of film, but it’s still noticeably CGI and thus diminishes the sense of danger. As such, the action scenes don’t generate the requisite thrills, although the circumstances are still harrowing enough to keep your eyes on the screen. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur appears to be a fan of man-versus-nature survival thrillers, having helmed the mountain-based Everest and the ocean-based Adrift and The Deep. He also appears to be a fan of extended, single-shot scenes, with the camera focused on the actors for several minutes on end with no discernible cuts. This style provides an intimate aesthetic but can also feel a bit gimmicky after a while and leads to some awkward interactions between the characters.
Underneath it all, Beast has an admirable ecological message about the impact of man on wildlife, a bit like the fact-based killer lion movie The Ghost and the Darkness, which added a layer of colonialism to boot. I suppose you can also give Beast credit for trying to present some level of zoological accuracy, as Martin explains at one point that this particular lion is not exhibiting typical behavior. You would certainly hope not, given that it acts like the Terminator of lions, surviving being dropped off a cliff and engulfed in flames. During the final scene, set in a hospital, I halfway expected a doctor to remove his surgical mask and reveal himself to be the lion in disguise. Maybe in Beast 2: Simba Punches Back.