Who knew running two podcasts and a social media film club could be so much work? Suffice it to say, I am a little behind on getting through my backlog of reviews. As often as I go to the movies, I was subjected to the ad for this one quite a lot. And the more I saw the trailer, the less I wanted to see the movie. That said, the bar was significantly lowered. There’s more to Beast than I expected and it’s more interesting than the predictability of the lion encounter, but it gets a little lost trying to find its path between ideas.
A dad takes his daughters to see the African village their mother was from and to spend some time with an old friend. Unbeknownst to them, poachers in the area have killed the majority of a pride of lions, but the lone surviving male sets out for revenge.
If you have read my work before, you’ll know that I talk about self-awareness in reference to filmmaking and that’s something that’s missing here. When you think about it in its simplest terms, a lion seeking and plotting revenge is pretty dumb. Lions don’t behave that way and the script even has the resident expert in the film expressly say that on camera. That sets the whole premise up to fail because it raises a question that never has a satisfactory answer and, even if it did, it still misunderstands the complexion of the simplest form of the idea.
Being stuck/trapped in a foreign environment with a hungry, territorial lion hunting you is already plenty scary enough. That’s the movie in a nutshell. There is more than enough space for it to be an effective piece of adventure-horror, but this is a movie that wants to be way deeper than it actually is and, in heading that direction, strays too far from the basic idea.
There is no need to explain the lion’s motivations. People aren’t coming to watch this because they want to understand ‘why’ it’s killing people. Think about Jaws, for example. The behavior of the shark is never in question. It just does and the characters are forced to deal with it. When it comes time in this movie, the explanation we do get for the predator’s behavior isn’t even worthwhile. So, it becomes clear that it’s really just a catalyst for the characters to work out their family drama under stress, similar to the function of the zombies in The Walking Dead, but that only further highlights how pointless the explanation about the big cat actually is.
This idea hinges on Idris Elba’s appeal as a leading man and the promise of a lion hunting him. So, making this a heavy, emotional family drama does a disservice to that notion. Even though the foundational character dynamics are actually quite good. It’s, honestly, much more interesting than the predatory cat, but that’s not what this movie is at its core and those two competing ideologies clash awkwardly.
Elba has shown himself to be a skilled and compelling actor many times over the years and that’s still true of him in this role. He is naturally charismatic and giving him protective paternal instincts in this situation makes for a more heroic effort on his part, but it felt somewhat inauthentic at the same time.
His motivations are clear but as he tries to rekindle a relationship with his two daughters his daughters (played by Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) we see that they two are being used as a catalyst for the lion’s action. Sadly, it’s the eldest daughter Meridith “just call me Mer” (played by Halley) who repeatedly puts herself and her family in extra danger by doing the dumbest thing imaginable in that situation: getting out of the car.
It is especially dumb at the point in the movie where they are already under attack from a killer African cat, and she’s supposed to be looking out for her 12-year-old sister. Even more so when you are 5’4″ and there’s a 400lb killer lion lurking around. And surely don’t do it time and time again.
On the one hand, you have the lion being used to expedite some family grief counseling. On the other hand, you have the characters making repeated dumb decisions to spark unnecessary tension. That’s what I mean about competing ideologies and it just never quite found its groove as a result.
I was happy to see Sharlto Copley in this film and he’s got an interesting backstory that connects his character to the others, but the supporting role just doesn’t do him justice here. It is not a detriment to the film, but his trajectory is fairly predictable and even revisits some beats we have seen in other, similar movies.
There was some excellent camera work by Director of Photography Baltasar Breki Samper and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot in both the action scenes and the broader landscape shots. It was important to shoot this in Africa and capturing that was one of the things this movie did best. The movie had a number of strong filmmaking elements elsewhere too.
The CGI of the lion itself was surprisingly strong and it had to be or else it would have felt even cheaper in those key moments. However, I’m always a big fan of good practical effects and the makeup team that did the prosthetic stuff for the animal attacks did some gruesome work! It matters the most in horror films and having excellent, tangible wounds to show was a big benefit to the storytelling. Another thing that helped out that narrative building was Steven Price’s excellent original music. It has a lot of the hallmarks of typical cinematic action scores but it also incorporates a lot of background vocal chants and percussion to help punch up those action sequences to make them as harrowing as possible.
Despite its pitfalls, I was able to have a perfectly enjoyable time in the theater even though the primary theme and the advertising are incongruent with the presentation.
Recommendation: If you are a big fan of Idris Elba or a horror junkie, this one is probably worth checking out for those reasons. However, if the idea of killer lions is what tickles your fancy, I’d suggest The Ghost in the Darkness instead.
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