If you look at the masthead of this site, or count the number of posts relating to the 1975 classic, you will know how much I love Spielberg’s “Jaws”. In fact, in a couple of weeks there will be more posts because it is getting a release in IMAX and 3D. That may make it a little unfair to compare today’s film to the beloved shark story, but in many ways it is the same story, simply adapted to a different environment. “Beast” is a nature gone malevolent film where instead of a shark we get a lion. There is an initial attack, and then the slow burn discovery of the continuing danger, followed by an extended sequence where man is pitted against nature in a single vehicle that is crippled. There are plenty more comparisons to come but I’ll save those to first talk about whether the film works.
Idris Elba has been in 30 films in one form or another in the last 10 years. Before that he was in a bucket load more and some essential television shows, so it is not a stretch for him to have to hold the attention of an audience for 90 minutes. The part of Doctor Nate Samuels is low key and calm in the face of overwhelming danger. The Doctor has two children that he has brought to South Africa to visit the home of their deceased mother. The husband and wife were separated at the time of her death and as a doctor, he feels guilt about not being able to do more about the cancer that killed her. It is a cliched trope that a trip like this is designed to repair the estrangement he has with his teen daughters. That the relationships will have to be repaired under the most pressure filled scenario is typical in a movie like this [Bruce Willis and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Live Free or Die Hard is an example of the stress repairing parental bonds trope].
The premise is simple, the family in emotional crisis suddenly finds itself under attack from an outside source. In this case the threat comes from a rogue lion, angry about the slaughter of it’s pride and reeking vengeance on all humans it encounters. In the opening sequence we get a night time attack on the poachers left behind to clean up after the initial destruction of the pride. There are a couple of moments that feel like a mid-night swim and the CGI lion is pretty effective at providing jump scares. When Elba and his friend Martin, played by Sharlto Copley, come across a decimated village, it’s as if Brody and Hooper are finding Ben Gardner’s boat, only this time Brody brought his kids with him. Later, it turns out that Martin is also Quint, intrepid hunter of poachers and the victim of the creatures he tries to protect.
The lion attacks on the vehicle that the doctor and his daughters are trapped in are pretty dramatic and scary. The idea that the lion is using one of our characters as bait is similar to the mysterious behavior of the shark in “Jaws” going under the boat. Animals are inscrutable, but they do follow their nature, and we were given a foreshadowing lecture on lion behavior that tips us to how this is ultimately going to be played out. Of course a couple of characters have to do some stupid things to keep the story going in a few spots and that does undermine the value of the film.
I don’t know of anyone who wants to see animals harmed as a part of the story, but as this tale goes on, you really are rooting for something to happen to this lion. The most brutal violence on an animal is in the openings sequence, so if you get through that you will be OK. We mostly see the aftermath of the mauling that the humans get, but in the climax we are given a pretty graphic depiction of what happened to a variety of characters, and it happens in broad daylight, so night does not cover up what is going on. The locations look beautiful and there is some terrific nature photography early on, but once the peril starts, the plot takes over and most of the shots are about building fear rather than amazing footage.
“Crawl” was a similar story from a couple of years ago. It was much more aware of it’s exploitation roots and leaned into them to make an effective summer entertainment. “Beast” has a little too much sincerity to pull off the entertainment value at an equally high level, but it mostly works. That is due to the two leads and the premise, more than anything else.