Idris Elba is a desperate father protecting his children from a killer lion in Beast, the latest survival thriller from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur.
Widower Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) and his teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) have travelled to South Africa following the death of their mother. Back in her homeland, Nate and the girls reunite with long-time family friend Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), a wildlife biologist who manages a game reserve. Out for a scenic drive through the reserve, the group encounters a ferocious killer lion who aims to devour anyone in its path. Hunted by the massive rogue lion in the middle of the park, a tense and terrifying fight for survival begins for the family.
Killer animal movies are nothing new and with a quick glance at the film’s synopsis, audiences may wonder why someone who possesses Elba’s acting talent would appear in a movie that screams direct-to-VOD schlock. However, it is precisely his casting that signals there is something more to this story than meets the eye.
Elba’s performance gives gravitas to the story, giving the actor – pardon the pun – something to sink his teeth into. This is a believable family unit dealing with grief. Elba’s Nate isn’t a super dad, but one who has made mistakes, especially in his daughters’ eyes. Put to the ultimate test, he must become the man that they and he didn’t believe he could be. While it may seem like the inevitable trajectory for a story like this, Kormákur and Elba make that journey something that seems fresh.
Halley and Jeffries shine as the two teenagers pulled out of their comfort zone, while South African star Copley (District 9) excels in his supporting role. This miniscule cast seem to play effortlessly off one another to delivery moments of some much needed lightness and humour before things take a grisly turn.
But the real star of the movie may just be a rogue CGI lion, whose on-screen appearances bring some real scares to the screen.
By keeping the majority of the action and the lion at a distance, the viewer gets transported into the action alongside the characters. Easily building up tension and fear of the big cat who lurks in the tall grasses and stealthily hunts its prey, Beast’s lion encounters prove that the less seen the better. Had the movie chosen to focus directly on the lion or offer more than the few close-ups it has, the terror spell most certainly would have been broken. While the production didn’t resort to real-life lions like the poorly-conceived 1981 cult classic Roar, when the CGI cat does have up-close attacks with the characters it is as quick and scary as it needs to be, looking very much part of a real lion in a natural environment.
Kormákur, who made his name for himself with the Icelandic hit Reykjavik 101 in 2000, has carved a niche for himself as a “survival” movie director when it comes to his English-language features. His two most-recent efforts were the star-studded ensemble film Everest that tackled the true story of the 1996 ill-fated summit of Mt. Everest and Adrift, which charted the survival of a young couple at sea. While he most definitely draws from the survival genre again in Beast, Kormákur also heavily leans on the storytelling skills he so excellently constructed in the Icelandic-language series Katla, Trapped, and the feature The Oath. He has a knack for bringing complicated people to life and, even in a short amount of time, is able to craft full realized characters that make viewers care about beyond whether they are just a snack for a lion.
Beast may not defy the killer animal genre, but there is no denying this is one fun summer survival movie.