Claws for Alarm

In this age of endless reboots and remakes, it’s heartening to see that a good old-fashioned unoriginal movie can still get made.  To its credit, Beast isn’t a direct rip-off of any particular man-vs.-nature flick, but it has no interest in doing anything new with the genre, and that’s fine by me.

American doctor Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) is taking his two teenage daughters, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries), on a trip to South Africa, the homeland of Nate’s deceased ex-wife.  There they link up with Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), an old family friend and manager of the local wildlife park.  The group’s picturesque safari takes a dark turn when they stumble upon a village whose entire population has been savagely mauled.  Soon enough, the rogue lion responsible attacks their car, leaving them stranded in the wilderness with no means of communication.

From then on, Beast is simplicity itself; a series of nail-biting set pieces as our heroes are put through every ringer imaginable.  Because of the movie’s strong grip on pacing, and director Baltasar Kormákur’s assured hand, the approach pays off.  His signature move is using long takes to build the tension to its breaking point before revealing the lion (and other threats) lurking in the background.

Of course, the real star of any killer animal movie is the creature, and here Beast is tough to beat: its lion is an incredibly convincing piece of CGI, rendered with lifelike movement and meticulous physical detail.  Its tangible heft and deep roars give it terrifying power – one can practically feel the force of its blows when it slams into Martin’s car.  The movie keeps the beast (just) on the side of wild animal rather than horror movie monster, though Kormákur knows how to give it a villainous air when the scene calls for it.

The only drag on Beast is its perfunctory family-drama subplot, a generic bore that yields the only parts of the movie which feel joyless and obligatory; its one redeeming quality is that it gets a bare minimum of screen-time.  Thankfully, Elba and Copley have enough presence to make these scenes bearable, and their committed performances briefly distract from the flatness of both their characters.  They – and the movie – fare much better in survival mode.

With that minor exception, Beast is a movie that seriously, even desperately, wants to avoid wasting its audience’s time.  Excluding credits, it runs less than ninety minutes, and this leanness is among the movie’s strongest assets.  Beast never feels rushed, but it’s keenly aware of its genre obligations, and shrewdly casts everything else aside.

Though coy about the matter at first, Beast eventually provides a delightfully nutty explanation for the lion’s murderous behavior, delivered with Quint-like gravitas by Copley.  This tension between the movie’s fundamental ridiculousness and its sincere execution is the key to its success as a B-Movie.  Beast is unashamed of its artifice, letting us revel in its sheer movie-ness, but never sacrifices its primal thrills.  It’s a notoriously difficult line to walk, but Beast pulls it off thanks to the clear unity of purpose between its cast, script, and direction.  It’s silly and straight-faced in all the right ways; a movie where a character is horrifically mauled in one scene and later has only a limp to show for it.  For another movie, that might be a complaint.


Leave a Reply