In the arena of spectacle, Idris Elba squaring off against a lion gone “rogue” is the exact type of popcorn entertainment that one hopes for in the final days of summer. However, unlike films such as Crawl and The Meg, which confidently embrace the outlandishness of their mankind versus animal conflict to maximum effect, Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast seems conflicted about what it really wants to be.
Playing like two separate ideas stitched together with the thinnest of threads, the film wants to be both a tense creature feature and a touching family drama. Using the latter as the film’s jumping off point, Beast follows the recently widowed Dr. Nate Samuels (Elba) as he and his daughters, Nora (Leah Jeffries) and Meredith (Iyana Halley), take a trip to his wife’s birthplace in a remote part of Africa. Staying at the home of his long-time friend Martin (Sharlto Copley), an anti-poacher enforcer for a safari, it does not take long for the festering feelings of grief and resentment to surface.
Struggling to navigate a minefield of emotions, Nora and Meredith still carry a lot of anger over the fact that their mother’s cancer diagnosis surfaced shortly after their parents separated. Even Martin, who knew Nate’s wife since he was a child, makes a point to call out the doctor for burying his wife in America rather than bringing her back to her homeland. The family’s plans to use the trip to heal emotional wounds quickly gets derailed the following morning when they, while on a safari tour led by Martin, discover there is a dangerous lion on the loose.
Stopping to tend to an injured man in the road, the foursome find themselves stranded once the lion viciously makes its presence known. With Martin wounded and their water supply running out, Nate must do everything he can to keep his family together.
While the predator and prey dynamic offer a few thrilling moments, it is difficult to fully buy into the world Kormákur’s film creates. Part of the problem is that Beast tells more than it shows. Rather than letting the film simmer in the pot of tension it is brewing, characters feel the need to pour out every thought they have. It is not enough to see that a group of poachers have killed the rest of the lions’ pride, they need to verbalize that the lion who escaped will be seeking revenge.
Giving the lion a backstory inadvertently changes how one views the animal over the course of the film. One cannot help but feel empathy for the lion who is simply angry at the species that took its family away. Making several references to the evils of poaching and its impact on the environment, it is clear in Kormákur’s film that mankind is the most dangerous creature of all. The scariest sequence in Beast does not involve the lion, but rather Nate’s encounter with the poachers.
Unfortunately, these brief moments of genuine terror are routinely defused by characters making nonsensical decisions that only serve to setup the next encounter with the lion. Since so much of the film is verbally telegraphed, one is acutely aware when characters enter a building and conveniently leave the back door wide open, or when they wander off on their own despite being told to stay in the safety of the car.
When not setting up the next obvious set piece, the film awkwardly pivots to the dramatic beats. The frustrating thing about this is that Kormákur displays glimpses of what could have been a rather intriguing family drama. The strained bond that Nate has with his daughters is nicely juxtaposed with the warmth that Martin provides the girls when talking about their mother. There are also the recurring dreams that Nate has involving his family’s ancestors which Kormákur never seems interested in fully exploring.
Like the lion circling the vehicle that Nate and his family are stuck in, Beast struggles to effectively penetrate either the action beats or the familial beats. The film’s ferocious roar lacks the bite to back it up. By the time one gets to the climatic mano a mano showdown between Nate and the CGI lion that has been hunting him, one cannot help but root for the lion to put everyone out of their misery. Despite displaying glimpses of potential, the claws on Kormákur’s Beast are rather dull.