I would be lying if I said I was super intrigued by the concept of Beast. It seemed to be a movie about Idris Elba fighting a big CGI lion, and “Idris Elba fights a CGI lion” doesn’t exactly scream “cinema.” But by the same token, Jaws is a movie about Roy Scheider fighting a mechanical shark and Jaws is arguably the first modern blockbuster. So maybe there was reason to give Beast, directed by Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, Adrift), the benefit of the doubt.
I briefly had my hopes up when Idris Elba, as American Dr. Nate Samuels, stepped off a small plane onto the South African veldt with his two daughters in tow. At the very least, rural South Africa makes for a picturesque setting. At a basic level, isn’t a change of scenery all we really want out of any movie?
“Where are we?” Dr. Samuels’ older daughter “Mir” (Iyana Halley) asks. “We’re the bush!” exults a smiling Samuels.
Meanwhile, his younger daughter, Norah (Leah Jeffries) complains about the heat. “My head is hot. My hair is hot. My spleen is hot,” Norah riffs.
When she says this, Norah is wearing long pants and at least three layers of clothing, including a turtleneck topped by a jean jacket (her sister has a black hoodie with the hood up). Now, every thriller walks a fine line between the characters acting stupid enough to imperil themselves enough to keep the movie going, and characters acting so stupid that it feels manipulative, so stupid that you can’t put up with any more of their bullshit. It certainly feels like a harbinger of the latter when a thriller opens with a character complaining about the heat while wearing a turtleneck and jean jacket and not one other character in the scene thinks to suggest “Hey, maybe take off your jacket.”
Perhaps it’s overly nitpicky to focus on this one throwaway scene. Fine. Speaking more generally, the thing that Jaws has that Beast lacks (beyond fully-fleshed characters and compelling dialogue) is style. I can accept that the movie is about Idris Elba fighting a lion. If I try a little harder, I can even accept that Beast‘s characters aren’t smart enough to take off their jackets when it’s hot. But I can’t accept that the whole thing just looks kind of drab, cramped, and ugly.
Kormákur shoots most of the action following his subjects with a steadicam focused tightly on the backs of their necks. I don’t know if this was meant to create tension, but mostly it just induces boredom. Virtually every action sequence in Beast, which involves a “rogue lion” taking revenge on all humanity after his pride is murdered by poachers, lacks any real sense of spatial awareness. Action occurring within a recognizable space is what actually creates tension and makes the action compelling — that sense of anticipation, of potential energy building and then releasing. Most of Beast‘s action consists of characters shot in closeup while a lion attacks their land rover while our perspective shakes and tumbles like we’re inside a washing machine. There’s no movie magic, just the kind of “trick” that communicates nothing beyond “I’M DOING A TRICK!” The space between trailer and movie has been annihilated. We’re now merely meant to watch a series of advertisements for feelings.
Dr. Samuels and his daughters have come to South Africa, where he first met his now-dead wife (what would thrillers and Nicholas Sparks movies be without dead moms??) to meet up with his old friend, a game warden played by Sharlto Copley. There is some brief family drama, with Samuels’ older daughter blaming him for abandoning their mom while she was sick, but none of it really connects to the trip to Africa. They’ve apparently come for your basic safari, like any other tourists. The interpersonal dynamics add nothing to the drama and even Copley’s South Africanness feels watered down.
The only character with an intriguing perspective is the lion. He wants to decimate humanity because poachers murdered his family? I would like to subscribe to his newsletter. But Beast mostly treats him like your standard CGI baddie. One of the locals calls the lion “the devil,” and Beast is weighed down by this inability to decide whether the lion is rational or supernatural. Idris Elba’s eventual battle strategy has the most tacked-on, thinnest veneer of having to understand the lion’s mindset in order to defeat it, to the point that it feels like an apology.
Judging by a skim of his IMDB page, Kormákur‘s career seems to have a general “one for them, one for us” feel to it, of making one studio schlock picture and following it with something more personal. And who could blame any director for that? But Beast feels slapdash and detached to the point of being disdainful. It offers the barest idea of a movie about Idris Elba fighting a lion and nothing more.