CGI has no business being as scary as it is in the action thriller Beast, wherein a rogue lion is intent on hunting down a family it identifies with those who murdered its own.
Audiences do love an underdog, sometimes even at the expense of their interests. It’s the only way to explain this particular genre, which has evolved from rooting for humans to exterminate the brutes to rooting for the so-called brutes to exterminate the real monsters: MAN.
How did Beast reduce me (and some of my fellow critics) to writhing in fear at the screening? Chalk it up to filmmakers who were just allowed to do their thing. Director Baltasar Kormákur has the kind of action credits that prove he has nothing to prove, while the co-writing powers combined of Ryan Engle and Jaime Primak Sullivan, who are teaming up again after they collaborated on the 2018 thriller Breaking In, uplift Beast to dizzying…well, not heights, but a good lay of the land.
The land in question is South Africa, which conveniently sets up a horrific situation made far worse by taking place in a remote area that provides more than enough danger while dangling all methods of communication tantalizingly out of reach. And there’s not much to offend or even outrage to the degree that’s off-putting enough to take us out of the situation.
Lions may not be endangered, but it’s still pretty repulsive when a bunch of poachers kills off an entire pride of them for profit. A throwaway line shows a hint of reliability, though, after one mentions seeing his friend back at school. I mean student loans, amirite?
However, one lion survives the slaughter and sees that those poachers pay with a vengeance to use the most convenient shorthand. The issue is when nature hits back at those we have no trouble getting invested in: the Samuels family, who have returned to South Africa to reconnect after the death of the matriarch near the small village she was born in, which happens to be adjacent to their new digs at a game reserve.
Fortune especially favored Beast by blessing it with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who brought films such as Interview With the Vampire, Big Fish, and The Nice Guys to shimmering life. And he works magic on the gorgeous setting to such a degree that even the lack of wifi won’t prevent audiences from wishing they could sit out the dangerous parts and hang out at the sumptuous abode decked out by Samuels family friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley).
Since their mother passed, Patriarch Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) has been estranged from his two daughters. However, the older, teenage Meredith (Iyana Halley) mostly has anger to work through than the younger, far more capable Norah (Leah Jeffries). Beast knows where its priorities are, though. Hence, Nate is clear-eyed enough to realize his mistakes early on, leaving the movie free to focus on the scares when the family is left stranded and unable to call for help at a remote location with a bound lion determined to fulfill his bloody vendetta on all humans.
Carefully constructed CGI cannot fully account for a foe that feels so alive, so realistically depicted in its movements and construction, as well as carefully built up enough to highlight the unusual nature of a big cat who so directly and viciously slaughters humans. Kormákur also shrewdly puts his camera amid the action, not bothering to hide the family’s four-legged adversary, instead embedding us with them, so we experience the horror and tumultuous frenzy. Perhaps the difference between a good horror movie and a great one is merely that of distance.
Elba manages to pass for a slightly more competent version of an everyman until the end, when Beast reminds us that this is an actor who literally towers over many of his peers – and his talent is such that he can feasibly pass for Mandela in a time when everyone associated him with the image of a kindly, smiling older man rather than a fiery young radical.
There’s also emerging talent in Elba’s on-screen daughters, who are the kind of performers to ably make their characters’ occasional stupidity believable while holding their own with Elba enough to remain active players who portray a more vulnerable brand of determination. It’s a shame that Halley and Jeffries are robbed of the kind of slow, suspenseful kitchen scene that the first Jurassic Park (which receives an affectionate shout-out) gave us, even when they have the perfect set piece for action to unfold slowly.
Then again, slowing down might be out of sync with the lean, tightly coiled runtime, which is all of 93 minutes and at least shoots down any ideas of big maudlin speeches. If any moments can be referred to as downtime, it’s the slow, blurrily beautiful sequences where Nate attempts to reconcile with his deceased wife in a surreal dreamscape. It doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t been mapped out before, but pulp has rarely been done so thrillingly.