Things are slowly returning to normal at the box office. Maybe it’s not completely ‘back to business’. But the current movie release schedule certainly look like mid- to late-August. If you need some proof look no further than Universal Pictures’ latest release, the Idris Elba-starring survival thriller, Beast. It’s another late summer round of ‘when animals attack‘ with a killer lion in place of sharks and crocodiles. We haven’t had a good ‘big cat’ movie since Burning Bright or The Ghost and the Darkness. While it doesn’t look genre-bending, Elba is always good and critics seem pleasantly surprised with the results.
Following his estranged wife’s death, Dr. Nate Samuels tries to reconnect with his teen daughters on an African safari trip. But a rogue killer lion cuts the tour short, stranding the family miles from help.
Beast a Surprisingly Straightforward Survival Thriller With Modest Tension
Don’t expect much else from Beast outside of what’s detailed above. Based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, Beast is a surprisingly straightforward take on the ‘when animals attack’ strain of survival thrillers. Following brief introductions and what passes for a character arc, director Baltasar Kormákur wastes little time getting to what you came to see. Unlike Jaws, Beast doesn’t spend much time teasing the threat lurking the safari plains. Outside of some PG-13 friendly shots of the carnage left behind at a deserted village, the titular lion makes a pretty quick appearance. Maybe it’s because the CGI lion looks good enough to put right out on the sundrenched screen. Regardless the lion should be convincing enough for most viewers.
Yet one can’t help but feel like Kormákur doesn’t quite wring out as much suspense as the premise promises.
And Kormákur makes good use of his killer lion and lean premise. By and large, Beast moves along at a quick enough pace to not leave the audience too many opportunities to ask questions. That’s a good thing considering this survival thriller becomes increasingly implausible. Specifically, the finale really tests the ability of viewers to suspend their disbelief. On one hand, Beast delivers enough consistent tension and a handful of jump scares to keep you on the edge of your seat. Yet one can’t help but feel like Kormákur doesn’t quite wring out as much suspense as the premise promises. If you’re watching Beast in a dark movie theater, it should be diverting enough. You just might not remember much after you leave.
Beast Includes Good Performances From Its Human Cast in Cardboard Cutout Roles
In the absence of relentless suspense, Beast needs something to fill the gaps. Cue screenwriter Ryan Engle’s (Rampage, Non-Stop) generic family drama that’s recycled from any thriller in recent memory. There’s friction and mistrust between Idris Elba’s absentee father, Dr. Nate Samuels, and eldest daughter Meredith, played by Iyana Halley. Engle includes stuff about broken promises in the past and guilt for perceived failures as a parent. All of this emotional baggage is supposed to elevate Beast from standard genre fare. While it doesn’t work, Elba is always compelling regarding of the material. Both his performance and great supporting work from Halley and the young Leah Jeffries make it at least palpable.
Cue screenwriter Ryan Engle’s generic family drama that’s recycled from any thriller in recent memory.
In addition to Engle’s family drama, Beast makes sure to include familiar eco-horror themes. After all, it wouldn’t be a true ‘when animals attack’ thriller without references to humanity’s interference with nature. In this case, Beast includes secondary villains in the form of nasty poachers. However, little amounts from this subplot other than an increased PG-13 body count – the poachers are also the inadvertent cause of the lion’s rampage. Poor Sharlto Copley (District 9) rounds out the cast in a thankless supporting role. A gifted and underutilized actor, Copley’s main function here is to provide the occasional exposition dump about lions and poachers.
Beast a Surprisingly Middle-of-the-Road Rendition of ‘When Animals Attack’
If you keep expectations fairly low, Beast is a mostly lean, entertaining survival horror movie. Kormákur keeps things clipping along at a decent enough pace. And while the family drama plays out as formulaic, Elba and his younger castmates make it work enough to ensure the scenes don’t drag the movie to a halt. Arguably, the biggest problem with Beast is that it feels like it left some possible jumps on the table. When you leave the theater there’s a good chance you won’t remember much about it. Nevertheless, Beast is harmless and mindless popcorn entertainment befitting late August.