Review: BEAST, Idris Elba Battles A CGI Lion For the Interspecies Heavyweight Title
In the reel world, there's no life lesson no more important than an estranged family, a natural or unnatural disaster, and the existential need for that family to set aside divisive differences, come and/or work together for the collective good, and survive whatever mortal (or immortal) danger the family faces.
For the survivors, at least, reconciliation generally follows. It's a simple, universally recognizable concept that's served as the thematic and narrative foundation for countless entries in the disaster genre.
That idea also applies to the “when animals attack” sub-genre (aka, eco-horror), first popularized by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws almost 50 years ago, countless imitators and iterations, and most recently, the generically titled Beast, a stripped-down, tautly told, suspense-filled action-horror entry centered on Idris Elba’s medical doctor, his two daughters, and a vengeance-fueled, CGI lion of wavering verisimilitude and plausibility.
When Elba winds down his time as a prolific screen star in three or four decades, Beast isn’t likely to appear as a standalone highlight in a career-long retrospective, but as always, Elba delivers his level-best as an actor. Elba elevates an otherwise underwritten role as Nate Samuels (Idris Elba), a surgeon vacationing in Africa with his two teenaged daughters, Norah (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith (Iyana Halley), into an empathetic, root-worthy hero.
Elba’s resourceful Samuels attempts to save himself and his family (not necessarily in that order) from the “beast” of the title, a rogue lion indiscriminately seeking revenge on the bipedal primates (initially poachers and then everyone else) who hunted and killed his pride in the film’s tone- and scene-setting opening moments.
Working from a screenplay credited to Ryan Engle from Jaime Primak Sullivan’s story, Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, The Deep, Contraband) directs with a welcome economical efficiency, keeping the prologue short before introducing Nate, Norah, and Meredith as they arrive via plane in South Africa, the home of Nate's now deceased wife, who was the biological mother of his daughters. There’s obvious strain in the relationship between Nate and his daughters due to unresolved issues related to the behavior of Nate and their mother, behavior they continue to perceive as selfish, uncaring, and dismissive. Paradoxically, their shared pain makes them incapable of the necessary empathy to overcome their estrangement to find common emotional ground.
The rogue, man-eating lion, though, doesn’t appear in their lives right away. First up, they settle down for an evening with an old family friend, Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley).
A wildlife biologist, conservationist, and anti-poacher, Battles lives on the outskirts of a small village, a seemingly perfect environment for the Samuels trio to set aside their differences and re-bond as a family. Offering a private tour of the park the next day, Battle takes the Samuels deeper into the savannah, where Battles introduces them to a pride, getting up close and personal with two male lions he helped raise.
It’s not long, however, before those seemingly safe, if not-quite idyllic, family-time moments give way to the survival horror portion of the film. After stopping to help a bloodied, injured man on the side of the road, Battles realizes that something’s wrong, specifically that a rogue lion has left the injured man alive as bait for Battles and the Samuels family.
Almost as quickly, Battles and Nate swap narrative positions, forcing Nate into an unfamiliar, uncomfortable role as lead survivor and eventually, one-half of a man vs. lion steel-cage death match. It’s to Eagle, Kormákur, and Elba’s credit that they make Nate's film-long arc a fully persuasive, credible one. Making Nate a medical doctor adds to the believability factor.
Echoing the recently released Prey, a sci-fi/horror film that pitted a Native-American woman against an alien hunter, Beast takes a methodical, step-by-step approach to Nate's transformation. Samuels’ medical expertise helps not just in treating injuries or wounds, but in using his intellect, insight, and observation to draw inferences and conclusions from both the general environment and more importantly, the multiple confrontations with the lion. Nate gleans hard-won knowledge through those encounters, making the seemingly impossible (defeating the lion) possible.
Beast opens today (Friday, August 19) in movie theaters everywhere.
- Nelson Dilipkumar
- Nelson Dilipkumar
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