Beast Review: A Film As Straightforward As It Is Ridiculous

There is an almost elegant, simplistic beauty in the existence of the new film "Beast," which is about as close to peak late-summer-movie as you're going to find in the year 2022. Here is something that gives you exactly what you would expect when you hear that it is a movie in which Idris Elba fights a lion with his bare hands. If that premise sounds inherently ridiculous, that's because it is inherently ridiculous. No matter the context for why Elba fights a lion or what the outcome is, you can only take a movie so seriously when its climactic moments feature such a cartoonish battle. "Beast," to its credit, does not have grander aims in mind, with its mild ambitions as straightforward as possible. "Beast" is not a great film, but it is exactly as silly as the logline implies, or as much as you might hope.

Elba plays Dr. Nate Samuels, a single father of two girls, Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Nora (Leah Jeffries). In the wake of a rough year, during which Nate separated from their mother and then their mother died from cancer, he's taking Meredith and Nora to the South African village where their mom grew up. Accompanied by family friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), who also works to protect animals in the local wildlife reserve, Nate and his daughters explore the African veldt with a makeshift safari. That is, until a rogue lion who's lashing back against the scourge of poachers starts attacking any humans in its path, including this friendly quartet. Nate, like his daughters, is woefully out of his depth in navigating the African landscapes, especially after Martin is wounded. But of course, he's got to do whatever he can to fight for and protect his family.

That is essentially the entirety of "Beast," which runs a mercifully lean 93 minutes including its closing credits. Though the film takes some inspiration — both deliberate and perhaps unintentional — from the Steven Spielberg classics "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park," another (better) film that comes to mind is the 2013 sci-fi adventure "Gravity." That film leans on a very small cast, a very tightly focused story, and most important in the comparison, a constantly roving camera. Here, director Baltasar Kormákur and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot go out of their way to create a series of lengthy, extended one-take shots, almost all of which are aided by some fairly noticeable computer effects — from the early going as Nate and his kids explore Martin's house to when they're trapped in an otherwise unusable truck and the lion is pounding on the windows like the rabid dog Cujo to that aforementioned man vs. lion hand-to-paw battle.

A film that does not go beyond the basics

It's hard to know for sure if Kormákur and Rousselot play around with the camera as more than a way to keep themselves engaged in such straightforward material. Nate's relationship with his daughters, as sketched out broadly from the script by Ryan Engle (based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan), is largely a functional way to create tension without ever feeling like a true attempt to create multi-dimensional characterization. Elba is, of course, magnetic and fiercely charming as usual, but he can only do so much to make Nate's struggle to connect with his daughters seem realistic. The very fact that "Beast" is less invested in Nate and his daughters as characters, as opposed to archetypes, makes the back-and-forth bickering sometimes a bit exhausting. 

And let's be honest: the reason why "Beast" is not invested in the character development of Nate or his family is because it's vastly more interested in pitting man vs. nature in the most violent way possible. It's easy enough to suspend your disbelief regarding the fact that many of the animals in this film are CGI (coming a month after another Universal Pictures release, "Nope," it would be extraordinarily disturbing if any of the lions here were ... y'know, real). Whatever issues crop up regarding the lion that refuses to leave Nate or his kids alone is that the little we do learn about lion behavior, courtesy of the kindly Martin, reveals these kings and queens of the jungle don't typically attack humans, and if they do, they typically eat said humans instead of mauling them and leaving them for dead. By the end of "Beast," though the script requires the lion to keep on bloodily keeping on, it does so at the expense of turning the large feline into a jungle version of Michael Myers. 

It's easy — especially in the third-act setpieces — to quibble with the modicum of internal logic "Beast" utilizes. But at its heart, "Beast" is not a movie that can be quibbled with. For good or ill, this is a film from the "Deep Blue Sea" school of summertime fare. It's a movie where animals fight back against humans (in this case, just the one animal, to be fair), and logic need not enter into the equation. "Beast" is no great shakes, but it's also a rare enough summer movie, in that it knows its limits, it delivers on its specific promises, and it doesn't belabor the point. In some ways, though the back half of summer 2022 has felt light on new releases, "Beast" seems like it would be more at home as something you catch while folding laundry on a slow Sunday as opposed to paying to see it in theaters. It's dumb and silly, yes ... and that is, whether you like it or not, the entire point.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10