‘Beast’: Revenge-minded lion hunts Idris Elba in a gorgeous but goofy horror safari
The big cat shows astonishing tracking and survival instincts as he preys on a tourist, his two daughters and his friend
Some movies require more explanation than others. In the case of the intermittently exciting but also quite dumb and ridiculous “Beast,” we can sum up the premise in any number of short bursts:
- Idris Elba fights a lion!
- It’s “Jaws” in South Africa!
- Think “Jurassic Park,” but with lions instead of dinosaurs!
- It’s “Prey,” but set in modern times and with an enormous lion!
You get the idea. Clocking in at just 93 minutes and yet still feeling a bit stretched out, “Beast” features a wonderful cast and some gorgeous location photography in South Africa, but the screenplay requires everyone in this story to behave like the dopiest characters in the schlockiest of horror B-movies. Everyone time someone says something like, “Stay in the car!” or “I’ll be back in 10 minutes!”—well. You know the drill.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Baltasar Kormákur and written by Ryan Engle. Rated R (for violent content, bloody images and some language). Running time: 93 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.
Elba lends his usual screen-commanding presence and ladles on the sincerity in a valiant but vain attempt to create a fully dimensional character in one Dr. Nate Daniels, a recently widowed husband and father of two who returns to South Africa, where he met his wife all those years ago. Reluctantly accompanying Nate are his two daughters: 18-year-old Meredith, or “Mere” (Iyana Halley), and 13-year-old Norah (Leah Sava Jeffries). They’ll be staying at the remote home of Nate’s best friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist who manages a game reserve, and this is the first indication Nate’s parenting skills might not quite be up to speed.
To be sure, Uncle Martin is so good with the lions on the reserve that he’s given them names and a couple of them greet him with hugs and nuzzles, but there are ruthless, gun-toting poachers roaming the land, and besides, there’s not even any cell phone service or wi-fi, and you can imagine how well that goes over with teenagers.
The Daniels family has barely unpacked when we learn Nate and his wife were separated and he wasn’t always there when she was dying of cancer. (We get multiple, obligatory dream sequences featuring the Beatific Dead Wife. There are far more Dead Wives who appear in dreams and flashbacks in the movies than Dead Dads.) Mere (rocking a “Jurassic Park” T-shirt to foreshadow events ahead) in particular resents her father, who is hoping this trip will bring them all closer. I’m thinking some group therapy in the comfort of home might have been a better first step than this dangerous outing.
Director Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest,” “2 Guns”) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot deliver some stunning visuals of the South African Bushveld in sweeping overhead shots, alternating with horror-movie camerawork where we’re often close behind the main characters, or we see evil lurking on the horizon before they do.
On the first day of their safari, Nate and Uncle Martin and the girls find a local man in the road who has been sliced up by a lion, and when they drive to the closest village seeking help, they discover the entire population has been mauled to death, presumably by the same beast. As Uncle Martin theorizes it, the poachers must have killed every lion in a pride but one—and this lone survivor just happens to be an enormous, exceedingly clever beast who is hunting down any and all humans in its territory. He’s like Michael Myers with a mane or the shark from “Jaws,” only even more revenge-minded!
Let the jump-scares commence. After the lion attacks their vehicle, smashing windows and jumping onto the roof and using its paws like we use our arms, the group is stranded and is unable to drive away or find help. Over the course of the next 24 hours or so, the lion stalks the group with unrelenting determination and has an uncanny ability to track them down, as if he has stuck a GPS in Nate’s pocket. We get some pretty intense bloodshed that earns the film an R rating, as the lion shakes off a tranquilizer shot, stab wounds, several ridiculously ineffective kicks and punches to the face, and even a fiery explosion—and just keeps on coming.
Even if Nate and Uncle Martin and the girls survive this ordeal, they’re going to be dealing with lots of scars, physically and emotionally. (Imagine Mere and Norah back in the States, still reeling from the loss of their mother and now traumatized by the fact their often-absentee father took them on THE WORST SAFARI EVER.)
It’s no big spoiler to reveal we eventually do get to see Idris Elba v. The Lion, and it kinda reminded me of the final scene in “Rocky II,” when neither Rocky nor Apollo wanted to stay on the canvas. Just like Rocky, our hero Dr. Nate might be overmatched—but would you bet against him?