Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Stars: Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Jeffries
Man vs nature movies used to be big business, especially in the post-Jaws boom of the late ’70s, when all sorts of beasties would come padding/clawing/slithering out of the undergrowth to chow down on some hapless victims. The likes of Grizzly and Alligator for instance, all trying to carve out some prime rib from Spieberg’s cash cow. Now that we’ve mastered ‘photo realistic’ CG as evidenced in ‘live action’ versions of The Jungle Book and The Lion King, it stands to reason that a new slew of creature features might emerge in light of the more flexible (albeit expensive) possibilities.
Thus we’re treated to Beast or, as it’s already more commonly known from the trailer, “that one where Idris Elba punches a lion”. Effectively Cujo in the South African bush, Beast does indeed pit Elba – here playing absentee father and doctor Nate Samuels – against an aggressive big cat, trapping him and his fearful daughters Mere (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) in a broken down Jeep while out on sneaky safari with their cat-whispering Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley).
Beast is brought to us by Baltasar Kormákur who – with films like Everest and Adrift under his belt – has past form shepherding audiences through knife-edge survival stories. Aware that this kind of high-concept scenario can only be played for so long, Kormákur and his cadre of editors keep things nice and trim (the film clips in at just over 90 minutes including credits), but even this manages to make room for some excess baggage.
As expected and with blunt force, Beast swings for some real-world commentary on the havoc caused by poaching, but otherwise there are half-hearted attempts to add meat to the bone here. The tension between the Samuels clan stems from the recent death of the family’s matriarch; material that feels like a first-draft swing at emotional connectivity and has become increasingly over-used and ineffective (this is the second new release I’ve seen in 24 hours which has played this card). The ensuing fights and heart-to-hearts are rendered rather pedestrian. Token attempts at character depth that, if anything, distract from the bare-knuckled thrills that Beast is striving for.
On that score it’s a mixed report. Kormákur favours long takes, as well as sequences stitched together with ‘invisible’ edits. These keep us in the moment and co-directors of photography Philippe Rousselot and Baltasar Breki do a good job of establishing and maintaining a sense of geographical understanding as they encircle the actors. Scenes which pit man vs animal therefore carry a breathless tension of sorts as they play without disorienting cuts.
On the other hand, as impressive as ‘photo-realistic’ CG has become, it still reads as a trick to the eye. Try as one might to give over to it, the truth of what’s presented is always there in the back of the mind, irrevocably dampening the sense of reality that said VFX tries to instill. There’s some remarkable work done here and, in combination with some nifty camera choreography, it can fool you. But only briefly. It still feels like watching state-of-the-art computer technology and not a massively pissed off lion.
This I can’t begrudge the filmmakers. Of course it’s better to do this than put an actual lion through the rigors of shooting (a point that the film itself is making about our exploitation of animals), but the battle to fool an audience with such broad daylight trickery still hasn’t been won.
There’s fun to be had in the expected foolishness of these characters (Uncle Martin’s experienced insistence that nobody leaves the safety of the vehicle is routinely ignored, of course) and the final set-to between Elba’s Nate and the big CGI lion is almost as silly and improbable as one might expect. But once all’s said and done this is one nightmare safari that won’t linger long in the memory. One character here wears – for a short time at least – a Jurassic Park t-shirt. Another unflattering Spielberg comparison and an unfortunate reminder of how ingenious these movies can be… and how often this one falls short.