Wonderfully executed and engaging, Beast is an example of the creature feature flick done right. There were a few gasps from my sparse opening night showing back in August but I feel that it’s my duty as a critic to do my part in rectifying the lack of attention and say this is a film worth seeing in the theater. It’s more fun than it has any right to be and is a throwback to the golden age of movies about vicious animals without feeling too much like a carbon copy.
Following the death of his ex wife, Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) decides to take his two daughters to Africa to visit their mother’s homeland and learn more about her from a wildlife preservationist named Martin (Sharlto Copley). The normal boxes are ticked with the girls being informed that cell service is a gamble at best and a peaceful day of photographing wildlife turns into a nightmare when they run across a village riddled with bodies. A lion of considerable size is prowling nearby, killing everything it sees and as one of the daughters sports a Jurassic Park T-shirt, we aren’t surprised when their vehicle is disabled.
Director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns) quickly establishes that he knows what he’s doing behind the camera along with his DPs. There’s many one-shots of overlapping dialogue and instances of fright when the lion appears that feel logical. The geography for different scenes is established and then utilized with the characters often choosing between the claustrophobia of a car or the threat of getting caught in the open. I can already hear the videos analyzing the lion for legit CGI or not but honestly, I couldn’t find much to fault with it. It doesn’t operate much different from other animal antagonists that seem to withstand pain or avoid bullets it doesn’t even know to dodge but nevermind that.
I’ve heard that Idris Elba’s own daughter wasn’t cast due to onscreen chemistry but honestly Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries are engaging as sisters with different personalities and levels of trust with their father. Elba doesn’t shrug off his responsibilities as the leading man and is fully committed with another great performance, inexperienced in the environment, but focused under pressure. I also appreciate that Copley is given time to breathe as a secondary character in a genre where good-natured guides are often quickly dispatched.His affection and respect for the animals is touching and fans of nature will appreciate this movie's approach.
When Jaws came out, there were some that thought all sharks needed to be hunted down so they could feel safer in the water. Not only is this foolish and wrong, but using a thriller as justification for extermination is ridiculous, especially when the film establishes that most sharks aren’t waiting to eat humans over seals or fish off the coast of Amity. Beast shares this thought and adds to it as a group of poachers are on the menu and we are shown other lions throughout the film that sit peacefully on the rocks of their territory with nary a care in the world. The fact is that nature can be terrifying, and the vicious lion at the center of this film is used to create powerful moments of tension.
I’ll admit, the opening scene doesn’t have the sort of power I’d like out of a horror picture and the story beats aren’t really new, but that’s fine with me as they are used well with respect and shot with a keen eye. Characters make dumb decisions and no doubt a few older audience members will roll their eyes. But hey, those same grouchy types consider Jurassic Park to be the gold standard and you can’t tell me that characters in that movie didn’t make dumb decisions. That’s part of the fun. And I’ll say this, Beast is a fun ride with committed performances.
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