Visual flair. Persuasive subtext. Good effects. A human-versus-lion movie need not tick all three boxes to work, as evidenced by the dodgy CGI that did little to diminish 2020’s Rogue. Neither should such films toil too mightily outside those boxes. Indeed, Beast strikes a simple contract: A stalk-and-siege story on an African savanna that escalates to a punchy-kicky scrap between Idris Elba and a pissed-off lion. Wisely, Beast never diverges from that dotted line.
Frankly, studios could stand to support more such unapologetically undemanding films. Setting aside the drippy romance of Adrift, this fare has been the Americanized bread and butter of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur — from B-movie run-and-gunning with Mark Wahlberg in Contraband and 2 Guns to people humbled by nature as in the star-studded Everest and the comparatively scaled-back Beast. Kormákur often tends to put the “pro” back in “programmer.”
Aided here by Oscar-winning cinematography legend Philippe Rousselot, Kormákur unleashes Beast in a series of largely long, “unbroken” takes (certainly stitched together in spots, however seamlessly, by editor Jay Rabinowitz). The predator-prey symbolism is obvious: Separated from its pride by poachers, a rogue lion wreaks havoc upon Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) and his daughters, Mere (Iyana Hailey) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries), as they visit Africa to see their family friend and “reserve enforcer” Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley).
Beast’s approach gets its hooks in you with confident blocking and immersive spatial awareness. The risk is shattering the illusion with subpar realism in rendering its rogue lion. Kormákur and Rousselot’s style demands sturdy visual effects on which their colleagues deliver, led by Enrik Pavdeja in his effects-supervisor debut after work on plenty of Star Wars and MCU material. Indeed, the closing credits offer more insight into on-set COVID protocols than the line between real and digital animals, if there’s even one at all. (Alternately raffish and craggy, Copley’s visage remains its own vigorous visual effect years after his breakout in District 9, and Beast thankfully finds a way to make Copley’s role more than just food with a familiar face.)
Neither is Beast betrayed by its back-story about why the Samuels family is in Africa. It’s the homeland of their matriarch, recently felled by cancer. Nate wants to connect their daughters to an ancestral past … only because he hasn’t the slightest idea of what to do with their future. Nate and his wife were estranged at the time of her death. But not even his insistence that it was a mutual split can mitigate this doctor’s guilt over an inability to detect death at the door.
You might say Nate is a male who failed to protect his pride. And while his imposing physique might leave an impressive impression of certitude and calm in a big-city ER, Elba cuts Nate’s figure in the wild with a slumped, desperate and performatively paternal energy. When the lion attacks, Nate has no idea what to do. He says as much, wearily. And then he says it again. It’s tremendously refreshing, and Elba’s inspired template here is the work of Kurt Russell, who hasn’t (yet) fought a lion onscreen but who has wrestled with similar notions of social notions on male strength in stressful family situations. Even costume designer Moira Anne Meyer dresses Elba in the same sort of drab, off-rack business-casual gear Russell often wears.
Working off a story from Jamie Primak Sullivan, screenwriter Ryan Engle (Rampage) heightens the Samuels’ endangerment through grounded emotions. Mere blames Nate for bailing on the family and creating unreasonable expectations of cancer’s outcome for younger Norah, but he never chastises either child for the anger that permeates their collective grief. Given the content of Nate’s nightly dreams, we suspect he and his wife built this family to cover an irreconcilable gap between their backgrounds — two people foolishly over-romanticizing the place from which the other came.
There’s a strong undercurrent in Beast about recognizing the complexities (and dangers) of a culture and place rather than ooh-ing and aah-ing at its sun-dappled marvels. But there are also, you know, really fun scenes of animal attacks and plenty of opportunities to expend, with chuckling exhalations, all that nervous energy Kormákur and company generate. What more could you want from such a capably told, mercifully short and generically titled creature feature?