It’s been a minute since we’ve seen a really good animal survival horror film. The last one that truly struck fear into our urban, macchiato-sipping heats was “The Shallows” starring Blake Lively. A surprisingly effective thriller powered by Lively’s ferocious performance and a focused vision by Director Jaume Collet-Serra. The issue with survival horror films featuring wildlife is that the film is already at a disadvantage. Unlike the mystique of the Feral Predator in “Prey” or the demonic Moder in “The Ritual”, we all have a relatively clear idea of the danger of lions. In fact, we’ve been so well acquainted with them that we’ve come to have this romantic, anthropomorphised idea of them. That’s how we initially felt about adorable St. Bernard dogs but boy did “Cujo” change our minds.
So the question can director Baltasar Kormákur’s “Beast” awaken our primal fear of the wild as seen in films like “The Grey” and “Jaws”? Or will this be a feline filler between our next “Anaconda” film marathon? Let’s find out!
The film follows the story of a doctor named Nate Samuels who takes his two daughters to the wild plains of South Africa in an effort to reconnect with them. Ah yes, the classic tactic of putting your children in mortal danger to bond with them through the joys of collective trauma! He’s joined by an old friend with a lot of history. A daredevil wildlife conservationist named Martin Battles played by Sharlto Copley. It’s clear that the family dynamic between Nate and his two daughters are meant to be an emotional core of the film. We came into the film expecting them to serve as the familial trophy that actor Idris Elba’s character must win through bloody, jungle struggle. Turns out, we were wrong.
The film actually affords a good amount of agency to the two daugters: the older, teenager Meredith “Mare” Samuels and the youngest, Norah Samuels. Do they stupidly put themselves in danger sometimes for the sake of tension? Well, yeah sure but they also play essential roles in aiding Nate and Martin in their battle against a rogue lion on the prowl. Compared to the utterly useless brats in “The Purge”, Mare and Norah are model kids in horror films!
That being said, there are moments when they appear a little too calm and composed in a life-threatening situation. Furthermore, screenwriter Ryan Engle’s background from the School of Expository Dialogue and Yelling Our Feelings is rather telling throughout the film. The most grievous offender here has got to be Iyana Halley’s Mare, who takes snarky jabs at her father’s checkered past in the moments that seem rather out of place. Yeah, we don’t think anyone will prioritise moody, teenage angst over not being eaten by a man-eating animal if they were in her place.
Once you get through the initial introductions and all the necessary, if somewhat tedious, emotional stakes are set between Nate and his daughters, the film quickly bears its thriller teeth. It’s relatively well-paced with Nate, Martin and the girls presented with a terrifying dilemma. In the midst of a vengeful lion prowling near their damaged car, do they choose to brave its many attacks within and risk making their refuge their tomb? Or should they take their chances and make a run for it in the lion’s territory? Set to this backdrop, director Baltasar Kormákur and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot unleash bone-breaking, ear-snapping carnage!
Rousselot utilises the tight, claustrophobic spaces of the car to great effect with the camera squeezing into anxiety-inducing spaces where our desperate protagonists fight for their lives. When they finally do leave the vehicle to search for a way out, it becomes a frightening game of hide-and-seek. One thing to note is that while the film delivers some hair-raising thrills, it’s not exactly the action-packed battle between man and nature as the marketing makes it out to be.
In fact, it’s rather grounded in its tone. Even the final showdown between Elba’s Nate against the rogue lion is framed as more of a staggering war of attrition than a kinetic bloodbath. It’s bits of realism like this that helps in selling the terror and struggle this family has had to endure. The film does provide some commentary on the illegal poaching industry in Africa. Throughout the film, the lion acts as a sort of vengeful spirit who takes up a vendetta against humans by actively hunting them. It is a pretty corny idea to have the lion symbolise nature’s wrath but admittedly the beast does make for a terrible presence on screen, displaying malevolent cunning.
For us, Idris Elba can do no wrong. In spite of the film’s less-than-stellar writing, he still manages to inject some gravitas and levity in dialogue whenever it calls for it. It’s not exactly his most stirring performance but he does make for a likeable fish out of water in a deadly jungle. Sharlto Copley’s effortless charisma as the anti-poacher, safari guide Martin Battles is definitely one of the highlights of the film. The actor has played a man turning into an alien cockroach in “District 9” and a sadistic, hilarious mercenary in “Elysium” but who knew he had cool uncle energy too!
Leah Jeffries and Iyana Halley mostly manage to avoid the annoying child-trope in horror films. Perhaps if the film afforded more time for them to bond with dear old dad, we would have taken to them sooner. For now, we’ll say that we’re glad their not lion chow.
“Beast” offers some good family-friendly thrills starring Idris Elba as a dedicated father caught in an all too real life-or-death situation. While it lacks inspiration in its narrative and premise, Director Baltasar Kormákur makes up for it with a heart-pounding hunt with dynamic use of space and brisk pacing. If you’re looking to take the kids to the zoo but are reluctant to weather through the heat, “Beast” is a great compromise. You can now catch “Beast” in theaters today!
Universal Picture's "Beast" Review
"Beast" offers some good family-friendly thrills starring Idris Elba as a dedicated father caught in an all too real life-or-death situation. While it lacks inspiration in its narrative and premise, Director Baltasar Kormákur makes up for it with a heart-pounding hunt with dynamic use of space and brisk pacing. If you're looking to take the kids to the zoo but are reluctant to weather through the heat, "Beast" is a great compromise.
Universal Picture's "Beast" Review