There are very few movies that can be sold entirely on one image. While said image can be an honest reflection of the film itself, it can often be highly misleading— the underrated, The Grey, promised Liam Neeson versus a pack of wolves whereas the actual film was a much quieter, more reflective tale of survival. The image of star Idris Elba brawling against the King of the Jungle is something only the most jaded viewer can deny. Thankfully, the last survival/creature feature to hit theaters delivers on the promise of its poster. Not only does Beast do exactly what it says on the box— Idris Elba in full survival mode against the most evil cinematic Lion since Scar — but it does so with plenty of sophistication and inventive filmmaking craft.
After the death of his estranged wife, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) takes his two teenage daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries, TV’s Empire) and Meredith (Lyana Halley, Licorice Pizza), to South Africa, in an attempt to reconnect and heal. Returning to the homeplace of his late wife, he reconnects with old friend, Martin (the ever-reliable Sharlto Copley), who takes the family into a distant safari, one that’s becoming more and more infested by poachers. After discovering a local village has been torn to shreads, the family find themselves trapped by a rogue lion, hunting every human it comes across after poachers have slaughtered its pride. With no way of contact and any possible help being located miles away, Nate must might for survival while ensuring the safety of his family.
Writer Ryan Engle, writer of creature/survival-adjacent films such as Rampage and Breaking In, gets every ounce of backstory and padding out of the way, immediately. The core family dynamic is just compelling enough, relying heavily on the shoulders of Copley and, more specifically, Elba.
Director Baltasar Kormakur has crafted sturdy studio fare for over the past decade, but hasn’t come up with anything particularly noteworthy. Beyond the slight, but moving Shailene Woodley-starring, Adrift, and the entertaining, Contraband, Kormakur’s resumé isn’t much beyond a typical studio gun-for-hire. His big-scale, Everest, which was visually exciting but aggressively hollow in its melodrama, failed to make much of a dent, and the buddy action comedy, 2 Guns, is most notable for its wicked Bill Paxton performance. So it’s a welcoming surprise that Kormakur’s filmmaking is amongst the biggest attractions of Beast.
The filmmaker does a remarkable job at keeping his audience on their toes. Finding more inspiration from the likes of Alfonso Cuaron and Gaspar Noe, there are entire sequences here where the camera feels invisible. Credited to cinematographers Baltasar Breki and Oscar-winner Philippe Rousselot, the camera moves around the frame from a master shot, to a close-up and medium and back out to a wide in a (seemingly) single unbroken take. This allows the audience to feel fully immersed within the environments, which, of course, ratchets up the tension
The ever-tight grasp of framing, almost never seeing the POV of the Lion, keeps you trapped within the terror of the scene, often taking place in real time. This also works in the films favor as the tension makes you buy into the more overtly bone-headed character moments. A nighttime sequence involving the retrieval of car keys is just masterfully crafted.
While less tonally playful as something like Snakes on a Plane, this lines up more consistently with the likes of Jaws 2 and Orca, the Killer Whale. This villainous Lion is a ruthless, cold-blooded machine of vengeance. The animal is intended to feel more like the shark from Jaws, but ends up feeling more like Jason Voorhees. As thrilling as much of Beast is, you will begin to question just how much damage one creature can truly take.
Digital effects are well-placed, with any clear glimpse of the Lion largely kept to the shadows until the final act. When the film does deliver a body count, it’s with a particular ferocity. The carnage left after a major sequence involving an unlucky group of poachers rides the fine line between B-movie satisfaction and sheer terror. Beast delivers quite the spectacular showdown, as well. The finale is a thrilling and bloody ordeal that’s worth the price of admission alone.
Beast is a late-summer surprise that delivers exactly what you want from it. Director Baltasar Kormakur crafts a tense, thrilling creature feature that benefits greatly from strong visual sophistication and skilled direction.