It’s almost perfect how well Beast fits its release date. As the summer winds down, the kiddos are going to school, and the major blockbusters have come and gone, studios dump their low-priority projects to wring one last buck out of susceptible audiences. “Idris Elba fighting a lion” isn’t the worst hook out there. In my teenage years, I would’ve gladly snuck in after seeing another movie. The problem is, Beast is less of a nail-biting creature feature than it is a thread-bare idea.
Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) travels with his daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries) to a reserve in South Africa where he first met his late wife. They’re greeted by an old friend of Nate’s, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who plans to show them the wildlife in the area. Beast contains some of the most grating exposition I have seen in a very long time. The characters speak in facts about their backstory. Bless Halley and Jeffries because they really do try. But when screenwriter Ryan Engle gives them lines like “this is the most you’ve asked about me since mom died!” and the like, one’s eyes instinctively roll into the back of the head.
Not one ounce of this family’s dynamic is communicated through performance. It’s all rattled off in cliches to trick the audience into feeling an emotional connection. The usually dependable Elba absolutely phones in his performance, barely able to hide his native English accent. At least Copley can wring some earnest charm out of his character. Not that it matters when director Baltasar Kormákur stages scene after scene of the characters talking over each other. It’s not some kind of Howard Hawks-inspired overlapping dialogue, it’s just a one-way ticket to a headache.
After what feels like an eternity, the beast finally makes an appearance. This is where Beast really picks up, as a lone lion terrorizes the group of four. There’s a considerable mystery as to why this lion is behaving this way. At one point, my mind was racing with theories anywhere from the lion being some kind of were-lion who would be revealed to be Copley or some kind of extraterrestrial creature. Both silly guesses, I know, but I couldn’t help feeling there had to be something more to this film. Right?
Never underestimate a film like Beast‘s ability to do the bare minimum. The explanation for the lion’s behavior is pretty basic, and a vehicle for a series of man vs nature set pieces. Said set pieces aren’t bad, by any means. The CGI looks good, the lion is appropriately vicious, and Beast engineers quite a few claustrophobic scenarios that get the blood pumping. Cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot gets ambitious, trying out a few faux long takes. Even though the transitions meant to create the illusion of single takes can be rough, the effort is there. Beast is just diverting enough to keep an audience from true boredom. But once you leave the theater, there’s a profound sense of emptiness.
Want a movie where Idris Elba fights a lion? This may be for you. Want any semblance of a gripping narrative on top of that? Watch something like Crawl instead. There are going to be defenders of this film who claim it’s just a silly creature movie. They’re right. However, it’s unfortunate that we have to settle for nothing of substance on top of it. The creature feature/survival genre can be a gateway to some phenomenal stories. Beast isn’t one of them. – James Preston Poole
Beast is now in theaters.