Beast is a B-movie, built on the chassis of a much better and more ambitious production. It’s got hunky Idris Elba punching a lion right in the jaw. It’s got Sharlto Copley, that great actor from District 9, looking like he’s ready to hunt velociraptors. Listen to the dialogue a little too carefully, and you might even find a message about man’s hubris in the face of nature. Throw in impressive cinematography and solid direction, and the filmmakers have all the tools to distract you from what Beast really is: A forgettable little thriller, designed for cheap scares and little else. Just keep that in mind, and you’ll have a better time with it.
The story is achingly simple. Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba), reeling from the death of his wife, takes his teenage daughters deep into the South African bush. They bring a truckload of emotional baggage with them: Nate harbors immense guilt for both his marital troubles and his wife’s subsequent cancer. Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) struggle with deep resentment toward their father. For everyone, this trip represents a retreat to happier times. As the movie begins, the family arrives at the home of Martin (Copley). He’s an anti-poaching activist who introduced Nate to his late wife. Pictures of her adorn his walls. The girls call him “Uncle Martin.” Maybe the jungle can help the Samuels family start over?
Not so fast, y’all! We got a horror movie to get cranking. Turns out, a rogue lion has been killing local villagers by the dozen. As Martin, Nate, and the girls venture into the bush in an old Land Rover, well…you can probably guess where it goes from here. One contrived mishap after another puts the group into the path of a raging lion. The radio quits working. The car breaks down. Nate takes a cat-whoopin’. Not since Gilligan’s Island has a group been so cursed in one fateful trip.
Most of Beast feels like it was built out of a screenwriting kit. Moments of visceral suspense alternate with quiet tidbits of drama with mechanical regularity. And don’t get me wrong: The lion attacks will get your pulse going. As for the family troubles, much of this dialogue feels shoehorned, as if the writers felt obligated to include at least a little emotional oomph. The only problem? They bog an otherwise breakneck movie down in the muck. I almost never say this, but Beast might’ve been better if it had been even leaner.
For all its creaky storytelling, Beast gets a good lift from the actors. Elba is always rock-solid, and he gives the film more star power than it deserves. That goes ditto for Copley, who gets saddled with an undernourished character. Halley and Jeffries are naturals, and we empathize with their grief and root hard for them when the suspense kicks in.
Also a strength: Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur and Oscar-winning cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot ensure the film looks absolutely jaw-dropping. The South African jungle gets captured in a series of beautiful, sweeping wide shots. Don’t be surprised to see this flick snag a few nominations for its camerawork.
With that said, Beast still falls a little short. For a film that combines Jaws and Jurassic Park with The Ghost and the Darkness, this is a pretty forgettable experience. In the old days of cinema, something like this could have been on a double bill with another B-movie. In exchange for a few bucks, you get a few jolts and that nice shot of Elba throwing a haymaker in a lion’s face. The problem is that this movie wants to be weighty and important, with a message about how puny we are in the scheme of things. If it could’ve stripped away its undercurrent of self-seriousness and embraced true mediocrity, Beast might’ve been something special.
93 minutes. R. In theaters and on demand.